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Bernard Malamud: A Writer's Experience

By Celia B. Betsky

IN A LITERARY WORLD that loves to pin labels on its writers, Bernard Malamud has often been called the America-Jewish writer par excellence, a "celebrator of the Jew in America," a man who "universalizes" Jews and the Jewish way of life. Malamud, although conceding these traits in much of his work, does not see the Sixties as some bygone era of American-Jewish writing, nor does he regard that supposedly ethnic Spirit as now dead. For Malamud, "there is no such thing as a particularly Jewish sensibility in literature," and he dislikes the chronological and ethnic limitations critics try to apply to the literary scene. 'There are many Jewish writers, but they have varying sensibilities," he says. "They have a lot in common, but nor necessarily psychologically. Writers like Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer and I share some subject matter, and for one reason or another we're inspired to use it. And subject matter is something so delicate, so vulnerable, that every writer would give his eye-teeth to find the perfect materials to respond to creatively, not with a stereotyped ethnic sensibility, but in a highly individual way."

Malamud's own response has always been personal--"the Jewish experience compelled me to look to my own past." What moved him initially was not Jewish theology or philosophy, although over the years he would study Jewish civilization and history and acquaint himself with many facets of Jewish culture. "It was the people I knew from the time I was a small kid;" neighborhood store keepers like Malamud's own father, who may have served as models for Morris Bober in The Assistant, the old and young of the urban population in New York City, who appear in some of his short stores. Then, during the forties, Malamud was confronted with the "devastating Jewish experience of the Second World War. The concentration camps, the refugees--when I understood the depth of that terrible experience--awoke in not a large sense of compassion." In 1945, Malamud married Ann de Chiara, a Gentile. "Because my father was opposed to the marriage. I had to take stock of what it meant to me to be a Jew and to come to terms with any sense of guilt or doubts I had." Because of these memories, this compassion and need for self-knowledge, "I became a writer who could use the Jewish experience for my fiction. What about The Natural, you will ask me: was my first book about the Jewish experience? No, and that proves my point about sensibility: a good writer can write about anything that inspires his imagination."

THE JEWISH COMMUNITY accepts the works of its different writers "with varying degrees of approval or disapproval. Many people tell me I should write about Israel, but that's absurd; I don't know the country, I haven't been there enough." Inspiration last led him to the clash between black and white experience in The Tenants, the study of two young writers (one black, the other white) living in New York, who have to contend not only with professional jealousies, but also with latent racial animosity in their friendship.

Despite critical interpretations, Malamud would prefer not to see his book as a symbol of a contest in the literary world, or a failure of nerve on the part of the white writer in America today. He sees contrasts on the current scene between generations, not between races, a shift in shared experiences, rather than the triumph of wholly new subject-matter. "It's setting up false categories to say that 'Jewish writing' has had its day, and that 'black writing' or something else is taking over. History moves on. The dominant place of American-Jewish writing has abated. People with new experiences are appearing. Literature doesn't change in some mystical way. And Jewish writers are still productive. Many people claim that the Jewish experience is worn out. But what those writers write about apparently still means something."

Despite Malamud's careful portrayal of the young black writer, Willie Spearmint, and his intuition for the kind of stories Willie would invent and the plots he would pick, most blacks would probably still say that only a black writer could describe this experience. Malamud disagrees. "Anyone with imagination and a strong sense of involvement with the black experience can write about some aspect of it which in fiction will speak the truth about that experience. The key to all writing is imagination. All writers write about what they know. Even a revolutionary black writer, if he's good writer, can write about white experience."

It is Malamud's imagination, his creative talent, that lets him penetrate his material, but it becomes obvious that he is describing a situation he could never have experienced himself. When challenged on this point, he responds, "Where did I find certain details--the scenes in Harlem, young people, parties? It's all experience, again. When I was a kid. I lived right on the edge of a black neighborhood. Later (1948-49), I taught evening classes in Harlem. I was the only white in the classroom; at night I walked through Harlem alone. I have black friends, I read black fiction. As for the parties, the human confrontations? Out of experience. I teach on a college campus (Bennington). I have two children of my own. I watch television and to to movies. During the past five years we've divided our time between Bennington and New York City. So I live in the city, I see what's going on."

Critics like Robert Alter in Commentary have recently levelled accusations of racial paranoia at The Tenants and the works of other Jewish writers. Malamud thinks them ridiculous. "Really, there's no new mood of competition. Jews were never racist per se. I would call it a confrontation, a regrettable lack of understanding. There might be some feeling that black writers have pre-empted the field, among some white writers." He grows emphatic. "But it's a broader question. American blacks have been cheated: society owes them recognition, owes it to them to ameliorate conditions, enlarge their opportunities for fulfillment on personal and social levels. It's wrong to let this became a parochial question, limited to literature. We must strive to make the world decent, You can't live for yourself and produce a healthy society."

Another "minority group" with a currently vocal presence--in both literature and society--is women. Malamud also wants to avoid categories, definitions of feminine sensibility, or women's literature. "Women are going to write differently about women, but from now on so will men. That will be the only real change. It's no revolution in fiction itself; the literary scene changes as society changes, and I'm glad it's happening. It's time for a new American heroine--the days of Daisy Miller are over. She'll have all the prerogatives of man, but her life will be less dependent on a man, less passive; she'll be a dominant person. Whether or not to have children will still be an important question, but the man she has them by may or may not be her husband. That won't matter anymore."

An important consideration, and one that is typical for Malamud, is how the new heroine will rear these children to be fulfilled people, "It's wrong to look at things, at problems in a limiting fashion. You must set things broadly. Both society and the self change. As on old Chinese saying goes: 'a man never bathes in the same water twice.' What you have learned and experienced should give you a larger vision."

THIS LARGER VISION has benefited Malamud in his roles of writer and teacher. A constant seeking for self-awareness helps him fit these roles. In The Tenants, the writer "has to write to find peace." When asked, Malamud gives more practical reasons for why he became a writer. "What keeps me going is the fact that I have talent which I must true. I became writer because I knew I could write. It does, of course, have its psychological fringe benefits. Re-living experience helps you to achieve order in your day and in your life."

Most writers have a methodology for ordering their past and present, but Malamud also possessed a scheme for working out and expressing his ideas fully. No writer's block or mysterious personal crisis accounts for the five years that passed between the publication of his last two novels. "That's just the way I work. After a novel, I write half a book of short stories, in which I explore new ideas, experience and subject-matter. Generally this leads to a new novel: I write short stories to see where a novel may lie. All together that adds up to four or five years of work." Many of the places, people and situations he studied for The Tenants also provided material for his next volume of short stories. Rembrandt's Hat, which will come out this spring. Many cities consider him a better short story writer than a novelist. "I prefer short stories, because it's up to me to determine where I'm at," he comments.

Labels as diverse as fantasist, caricaturist, romantic and symbolist have been applied to Malamud, but he laughs at these terms and suggests: "tragico-comico, realistico-fabulistico; the more the merrier!" As for the themes often singled out in his stories--defeated love and failed ambition, imprisoned souls and claustrophobic lives, spiritual rebirth and redemptive suffering--he asserts that these are universal, and are there for anyone who wants to find them. "Not everything I put in consciously is noted, and people find things in my work I never knew were there. I try not to interpret my works to others. I don't want my readings to become dominant. That's a problem I have in reading the M.A. and PH.D. theses people send me, who write and ask me to explain. It's not my business to explain. 'Include me out,' as the saying goes."

Faulty interpretations can create much disappointment, as in the movie version of his novel The Fixer, "Horrible. That thing went to five different writers. Edward Albee was one of them but he would only do it if he had full say over it. Dalton Trumbo finally wrote the screen play and he's a hack. The film should have been done as a sort of fable, in black and white. Instead, it was all galloping Cossacks and dancing girls: an overdone fake. And that sickens a writer--to see his book faked."

The writer runs the risk of making mistakes himself sometimes, of hurting others by using them in his fiction. "Yes, I agree. All writers worry about that. Up to now, I've tended to avoid the biographical donne. I need only a drop of biography to inspire me, to set my imagination to work. This is different from writers like Updike or Bellow, who seem to need a whole enlarged lived experience. Some people--Thomas Wolfe, for instance--seem to live their lives prior to writing about them, then they break off the pieces they want to use. My news short stories come to life usually because an idea suddenly strikes, and from then on it's come what may."

Malamud has lived on both the east and west coasts of the United States (in New York, Oregon and Vermont) and he has also spent time abroad, especially in Italy. Geographical settings inspire ideas for much of his work: particular places in Europe hold a special fascination for him. "Italy awakened the imaginative streak in me. Another country that draws me is England, although I only lived there for a short time, and it hasn't quite talked to me in the language I need to understand to be able to put it into my fiction."

Living out West in Oregon for ten years (1949-61) gave Malamud a sense of home, however temporary. "It was where my wife had a feeling of roots: our daughter was born there. We still have a great deal of fondness for the area and spent a few weeks there last summer." He traces his own roots back to Brooklyn, where he was born, then turns pensive, even wistful "But I've been an many places: I think my roots are rather in Western culture. I find it hard to be nosfalgle, that's one of my problems. What I mean is writing creates a detachment towards experience, experience one wishes could be continued, could remain meaningful. Such as? Well, love of place diminishes, and you wish if hadn't. He sounds like Roy Hobbs, the wandering baseball hero of The Natural who had lost the feeling of a particular place. Yesterday he had come from somewhere. . .but today it had thinned away. . .and he felt he would never see it again." Malamud himself still finds that "I seem to go from one place to another with a way of looking that could be described as detached but appreciative."

THE WRITER is often doomed to remain a detached observer, but Malamud holds a firm stake in life through his teaching activities. "The more I think about it, the more I realize that if I had had talent in the sciences, I would have wanted to be a physician. My family says I would have make a good psychiatrist." One of the character in The Tenants sees much of her world through her psychoanalyst's eyes, and Malamud thinks that "at present, psychoanalysis and the spiritual life of the United States are closely linked. Piaget said lately that it's all mythic and will disappear shortly. That may be, but what Fread taught will never be forgotten. I think shift all those who need psychoanalysis should have it, but for many people it isn't really necessary. I would like to see more people use life creatively, fight through life and grow in the process-life is an existential struggle and we shouldn't have to run to a psychiatrist to escape it. A psychological crists is different, of course. And we will never out-do our need for self-knowledge, but there are other ways to attain it besides psychiatry.

Malamud senses that in youth culture, the youth movement and the literature coming out of the younger generation indicate continuity and broadness in cultural trends. I wouldn't call all of this literature new, but innovative. I'm aware of the changes, through my own children, and teaching I sense changes through what I see and read, and through personal contact. I sense a quieting mood, more reflective soul-searching. Related to this are religious activities, whether based on Zen or Jesus Christ. Young people in college are still up against the problem of what to do once they get out into the real world, and how to do it. They're thinking about how to conduct their lives in what is a difficult society, a difficult world. How to use the self to make a better world, a practicality I think betokens a good idealism."

Malamud's idealism emerges as he talks about politics. "I would like people to have a larger sense of human excellence, and to use this excellence in politics. I guess that seems like a contradiction in terms these days, doesn't it? What I wish for is a society in which a person like Nixon could be outlawed--no, that's not the word...well, thrust aside, because of all that he lacks. One of the most disappointing things about the electorate is that it's blind to excellence. All I see is self-interest. The greatest evil, the cause of this situation, is the enormous American affluence, and the devotion of people to preserving it. I would like to see larger-spirited, more generous people in the electorate and in power. People who are willing to make changes that would make it easier for people who now have too little. I'm for giving up as much material wealth as possible. I'd like more people to have more. We need a larger service-oriented population, also politicians who are not afraid to battle for real ideas. McGovern, for whom I voted is not necessarily a stronger man, but in some ways he had a larger vision. He was willing to be innovative." Suddenly he says thoughtfully, "I'm being foolish. I can afford to be idealistic, I suppose."

MALAMUD TRIES to live up to his own standards. "No, one is ever totally satisfied with the way he lives his life. You live it as best you can, in a way that is 'giving' to others. Can I do that through teaching? Yes, teaching is a small giving. There are many different kinds, I think: such as writing in its own right."

"That is not enough, though; to improve society there must be certain basic changes. Perhaps these can be politically arrived at. Civil rights, a larger division of affluence among people in need. A brighter sense of America's past and promise. If you stop dreaming, there's no dream.... I want practical things to happen, through education, through the university system.

"Many necessary changes have been made within that system. There's a better distribution of power reached through student activism, a larger awareness of the student role. This questioning of traditional education is worthwhile. Now there's a larger sense of freedom about what should be done in the future. This does not mean throwing out the past. To throw away the past is like annihilating the self."

Malamud laughs at the labels which contemporary critics have pinned on him. "Tragico-comico, realistico-fabulistico; the more the merrier!"

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