Why do we tell stories and write them down? I have just spent several months reading some of the best stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Edgar Allan Poe. While the themes varied and they were stylistically distinct the stories of all three writers shared a precision in their prose, focused attention on human psychology, and most importantly they were distinctly American in their approach to telling stories. Of course you say, these were three of the leading founders of a new tradition of American literature. Their stories and, in the case of Hawthorne and Melville, novels have become touchstones for subsequent literary greats.
Bernard Malamud is a twentieth century member of the same club of American literary greatness. Using his ability to conceive of literature as a mode of truth-telling, blending his "Jewishness" with an earnest approach to literature he shares tales that are universal in their message about humanity. His characters, from Leo Finkle in the extraordinary story "The Magic Barrel" to Frank Alpine in The Assistant, demonstrate both what it means to suffer and what it means to be human. His stories, like others, are touchstones for our humanity. Bernard Malamud was born in Brooklyn on this day in 1914.
by Bernard Malamud
“She had recently come to think that in such unhappy times-when the odds were so high against personal happiness-to find love was miraculous, and to fulfill it as best as two people could was what really mattered. Was it more important to insist a man's religious beliefs be exactly hers, or that the two of them have in common ideals, a desire to keep love in their lives, and to preserve in every possible way what was best in themselves? The less difference among people, the better; thus she settled it for herself yet was dissatisfied for those for whom she hadn't settled it,” ― Bernard Malamud, The Assistant
I first read this novel as part of a course on the novel and business more than a decade ago. While Malamud was a writer who always had one eye fixed on the eternal and one on the here and now, the here and now in this case was represented by a small business. The eternal was the realm of moral quandaries. It was his genius to show the two constantly intersecting. In this book, his masterpiece, Morris Bober is a neighborhood grocer whose modest store is failing and whose luck actually takes a turn for the worse when he is held up by masked hoodlums. Or is it worse? When a stranger (Frank Alpine) appears and offers to work without pay, "for the experience", it doesn't take long for the reader to realize that the stranger is one of the men who robbed Bober. But just what are his motives in returning? He seems to be seeking atonement, but he soon begins simultaneously robbing the till and also falling in love with Bober's daughter, theft of a different kind.
Certainly there is the question of suffering present when Morris and Frank engage in the following interchange:
""If you live, you suffer. Some people suffer more, but not because they want. But I think if a Jew don't suffer for the Law he will suffer for nothing."
"What do you suffer for, Morris?" Frank said.
"I suffer for you," Morris said calmly.
Frank laid his knife down on the table. His mouth ached. "What do you mean?"
"I mean you suffer for me."
The clerk let it go at that."
Malamud sees suffering as the fate of the whole of mankind, with responsibility taken for each other as the way to mitigate this. It is reminiscent of Dostoevsky's idea of universal brotherhood and mutual responsibility, but without Dimitri Karamazov's notion that we are all monsters. Alpine is able to engage in a symbolic death and rebirth in Malamud's devastating meditation upon suffering, penance and forgiveness. It is a story about the ways in which the weight of the world can be lifted, just a little, by determined acts of grace. And it is a story which makes you think about these important issues and that is always a good thing.
The Assistant by Bernard Malamud. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003 (1957).