Malamud’s head-down focus on work didn’t diminish his standing during his lifetime—it did, after all, allow him to produce the books and stories. But it did little to elevate his standing. When Bellow won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976, Malamud scribbled in his notebook: “Bellow gets Nobel Prize, I win $24.25 in poker.” The most likely culprit for Malamud’s relative lack of esteem with readers today, however, is the sui generis nature of his stories, a canny blend of religiosity and realism.
One contemporary writer whose work bears the clear influence of Malamud is Steve Stern, who since 1983 has been publishing novels and stories that mix folklore and realism in a Memphis Jewish enclave called the Pinch. The “extraordinary dimension” of Malamud’s work, Stern says, made him a kind of heir to America’s earliest fiction writers.
“Sometimes I think that he, in a way, is a kind of quintessentially American writer despite the Yiddish influences,” Stern says. “You can go back to somebody like Hawthorne, who was writing so-called romances—they’re tales, with recognizable settings and characters that have a credible psychology, but at the same time there’s a way in which the stories are open to the intrusion of the extraordinary. It’s something that I haven’t seen much of in American fiction since the beginning, with progenitors like Hawthorne and Poe.”
To put it another way: What Malamud wrote about was magic. Not in the sense of magical realism or the postmodern absurdities that marked much of the fiction that arrived with the next generation. Rather it was magic as an acknowledgment of an abiding religious presence. The Fixer tracks the years-long agony of a Russian Jew wrongly imprisoned for murder. As a study of persistent anti-Semitism, it’s harrowing and racked with sorrow, yet Malamud finds a way to clear room for the possibility of grace.
As the novel’s long-suffering fixer, Yakov, puts it, “If you understand that a man’s mind is part of God, then you understand it as well as I. In that way you’re free, if you’re in the mind of God…. It’s as though a man flies over his own head on the wings of reason, or some such thing. You join the universe and forget your worries.” Malamud was careful not to give this moment too much sentiment. A Russian official then asks, “Do you believe that one can be free that way?” But all Yakov says is, “Up to a point.”
Yakov is not rescued from the indignities of prison or a final unfair punishment. But for Malamud it was essential to acknowledge the division between an authentically spiritual existence and a real one that was thick with false charges and other deceptions. “Behind the world lies another world,” Yakov says, even as he laments that his integrity offers little balm against mistreatment in this world.
Invoking the spiritual was Malamud’s preferred strategy for highlighting man’s foibles. In “The Jewbird,” the strange speaking bird becomes a litmus test for a man’s anti-Semitism. The bird’s pleas for respect and shelter are more and more violently rebuffed by the head of a family, who thrusts the creature out of the home; in the process, Malamud exposes how readily frustration and anger expose prejudice. In “The Silver Crown,” a man’s willingness to trust a rabbi proffering the healing headpiece unlocks questions of how much the man loves God. The theme of tested faith persisted in Malamud’s fiction to the end of his life. In his final novel, God’s Grace (1982), he spun a postapocalyptic tale about the last human survivor of a global nuclear war, and this man’s attempt to create a new society among the primates on a remote island. Are his modest successes proof of God’s generosity, or was the larger cataclysm proof of His contempt? The question was a riddle with no answer, but for Malamud it demanded to be asked.
The poet Howard Nemerov, a friend of Malamud, said he deserved the Nobel Prize for God’s Grace alone. But the critical confusion that Malamud experienced with his first novel became part of his final one as well. The critic John Leonard, who is well-known for his harsh judgments, wrote in the New York Times that God’s Grace “groans under the weight of its many meanings, as if it were a rehearsal of the speech Mr. Malamud intends to make in Stockholm on being Nobel prized.” Again, Malamud seemed too enmeshed in his philosophizing to be relevant to the contemporary scene.
His death from a heart attack in 1986 did little to soften the blows. In 1974, Philip Roth wrote an essay called “Imagining Jews” for the New York Review of Books in which he critiqued what he perceived as tired Jewish stereotypes in works like The Assistant. A few months after Malamud’s death, he wrote a remembrance for the New York Times describing a dour final meeting with Malamud; the celebrated author, who had suffered a stroke in 1982, was reduced to working on incoherent scraps of writing. Even Roth’s lavish praise for Malamud in his heyday seemed to characterize him as a literary moment that passed: “[H]e remained true to what seemed old and homely, matter-of-factly emitting the most touchingly unadorned poetry to make things even sadder than they already were,” Roth wrote.
When Malamud emerged from his stroke in 1982, he identified himself as William, the protagonist of his 1979 novel, Dubin’s Lives. This anecdote highlights just how much the man and his work were woven together, perhaps even to an unhealthy degree. Major authors—even such hermits as Pynchon and DeLillo—are supposed to be part of the real world all of us live in, not the ones they have imagined. For Malamud, the Jewish grocery of his youth, the brutal landscape of the premodern Russian Pale, a small island on a planet blasted to bits—all of this was out of this world, and it was enough. “His entire sense of the world was powerfully antithetical to the cultural ethos of the times,” the critic Cheryl Miller wrote in Commentary.
Let’s be clear, though: Malamud hasn’t disappeared. All of his books remain in print, and writers like Cheuse and Stern continue to teach them. So does Joyce Carol Oates, who is a particular fan of his 1968 story “My Son the Murderer,” which she selected for The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. The story, which smoothly alternates between the perspectives of a wayward college graduate and his anxious father, is “a brilliant story of the 1960s division between the generations,” she says by email. “Though it is thoroughly of its time and place, contemporary young people sympathize with it immediately. The style, the language, the structure—all are masterful. That there is a ‘shared’ narrative voice to suggest the father-son dilemma makes the story especially powerful.”
You can detect trace elements of Malamud’s sensibility across contemporary American literature: in Steven Millhauser’s more folkloric stories, such as “Flying Carpets,” or in Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander’s visions of New York Jews, or even a novel like Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, where real life and superherodom stand cheek by jowl. Wherever the lower-middle class scrapes by while faith abides, there’s Malamud. Yet unlike many of his heirs, he always emphasized the scraping.
The ending of The Natural finds the mythic slugger collapsing under pressure, striking out and disgraced. The hit 1984 film version of the movie, starring Robert Redford, bowdlerized the story into a tale of easy uplift. The movie deliberately avoided what Malamud always knew to be true: Failure and cruel fate are as much a part of mythology as success.
Stern suggests that, lacking a splashy style, Malamud’s sensibility may simply demand too much of readers. Consider, for instance, the way “The Silver Crown” complicates the son’s emotional connection to his father with a test of faith he didn’t ask for. “You’ve got on the one hand what seems to be the necessary emotional condition for redemption of this character, and on the other hand this impossible miraculous component,” he says. “Malamud can reconcile these two things in a story. But it might be harder for a contemporary reader to connect. You really do have to suspend disbelief in the way that you do with a folk tale or a fairy tale. I think there’s a resistance to that.”