Reprinted with permission from American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide (Jewish Publication Society).
Praising Bernard Malamud as a short story writer is like praising the sun for giving light. He was the greatest, and that’s all there is to it.
Malamud’s novels are nothing to sneeze at, but the stories–absolutely all of which you can find in a single convenient paperback–are masterpieces. One of the pleasures of this collection, in addition to its inclusion of previously unavailable works, is the perspective it provides on Malamud’s incredible range.
Written between 1940 and 1984, his stories manage to deal with everything from the failure of a Brooklyn grocery store to the situation in the Soviet Union to the travails of a talking horse, while remaining steadfastly Malamudian and even, for lack of a better term, heymish. Everyone who has read Malamud’s stories has a personal favorite.
Many choose “The Jewbird,” which is about just what the title says-a Yiddish-speaking black bird named Schwartz who flies into Harry Cohen’s apartment one day. This wacky premise Malamud transforms into an enormously moving tale that can be read as an allegory or as a fable, and it really needs no analysis. “Talking Horse” mines a similar vein, and equally fabulous (in both senses) is “The Angel Levine,” an early piece about an African American angel.
Some prefer Malamud’s detailed miniatures of Jewish immigrant struggles, like “The Loan”; others still would select the Fidelman stories, which treat the experience of a life lived for art (and provide heir protagonist with Malamud’s mother’s maiden name). And then there is “The Magic Barrel,” which takes the ridiculous interactions of a rabbinical student and a marriage broker and transforms them into art.
Part of the author’s genius was his ability to start with the rhythms of Yiddish-inflected English, polish them, and transform them into a prose style that could hit notes of unbridled hilarity and quiet intensity. Malamud’s first collection won the National Book Award in 1959, but more impressive than any prize are the plaudits he received from his peers. The great Flannery O’Connor-herself a master of the form-wrote, in a letter to a friend, that Malamud was “a short story writer who is better than any of them, including myself.”
Cynthia Ozick answered her own question, “Is he an American Master?” with an assured “Of course.” While anyone of his collections, or the Stories of Bernard Malamud (1983), make for exceptional reading, The Complete Stories is a treasure, as worthwhile an investment as one can make in the field of American Jewish letters.
Snippets of Malamud’s life can be found in Talking Horse (1996), which collects many interesting examples from the author’s notes, lectures, and essays. Fans will not be able to resist Malamud’s authorized biography, by Philip Davis (2007) or a memoir by his daughter, Janna Malamud Smith, called My Father Is a Book (2006); there is also Conversations with the author, edited by Lawrence Lasher (1991). His brilliant novels include The Fixer (1966) and The Tenants (1971), both of which are worthy of sustained attention.