“The window was open,” the bird sighed; adding after a moment, “I’m running. I’m flying but I’m also running.”
“From whom?” asked Edie with interest.
“Anti-Semites?” they all said. “That’s from who.”
“What kind of anti-Semites bother a bird?”
It is harder than it might look to classify Bernard Malamud. Is he a comic writer? The short story “The Jewbird,” featuring a “skinny bird” named Schwartz with a taste for matjes herring, is, in addition to being one of Malamud’s most beloved works of short fiction, a gem of absurdist humor. And yet, Malamud is possessed, as John Updike has it, of “that touch of traditional religious resignation which converts depression to the cosmic humor.” In novels like The Assistant (1957) and The Fixer (1966), Malamud created classic American fiction on traditionally Jewish themes: sin, redemption, guilt,
and shame. Like Isaac Bashevis Singer, the writer whom he most resembled, Malamud’s nuanced understanding of Jewish culture and history created a world that is part shtetl, part ghetto, part metropolis. Malamud’s world was inescapably Jewish, and yet much of what defined it was its relation with the non-Jewish world at large.
Malamud was born in 1914. His parents were Russian Jewish immigrants, and he was raised in Brooklyn. His father owned a grocery store, much like Morris Bober in The Assistant, and his mother had had a love of the stage before dying when Bernard was 15. After attending City College and Columbia, he spent a number of years as an instructor at Oregon State University while crafting his first literary works. Malamud would go on to serve as a professor of writing at Bennington College in Vermont for decades.
Malamud’s heroes are at the mercy of larger forces that crush both the decent and the evil without compunction. In his first novel, The Natural (1952) (later adapted into a classic film with Robert Redford that changes the novel’s famously downbeat ending), Malamud created one of his most indelible characters: slugger Roy Hobbs, the onetime baseball phenom who receives a belated second chance at glory after a crazed stalker ends his first stint in the major leagues. Even this moment of on-the-field redemption, with Roy becoming the superstar he was always meant to be, is distressingly short-lived, betrayed by the disloyalties of capitalism and the sourness of romance gone bad. What could be more American than baseball, and more Jewish than Malamud’s vision of failure and deliverance?
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