Thursday, June 16, 2016

Man, Fate, and Eternity

The AssistantThe Assistant 
by Bernard Malamud

“Morris saw the blow descend and felt sick of himself, of soured expectations, endless frustration, the years gone up in smoke, he could not begin to count how many. He had hoped for much in America and got little. And because of him Helen and Ida had less. He had defrauded them, he and the bloodsucking store.

He fell without a cry. The end fitted the day. It was his luck, others had better.”  (Chapter one)

I first read this novel as part of a course on the novel and business more than two decades ago.  Rereading it today reminds me of Malamud's greatness both as storyteller and one who meditates meaningfully on the relation of man with eternity.  
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 short novel, 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."

Morris's daughter, Helen, finds Frank interesting and tries to help him by sharing some books with him, but this leads to the following question from Frank to Helen in the last chapter:  “Those books you once gave me to read…did you understand them yourself?”

The books Helen gave Frank to read—Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment—are about people who sin and pay the consequences. Reading these great novels should have taught Helen both sympathy for those who make terrible mistakes and the possibility for redemption. However, it is evident from her treatment of Frank that Helen never understood the great literature she attempted to teach to Frank. It is not until the end of the chapter that she finally sees how he has changed and realizes the possibility for redemption is real.

In the end what are we to make of Morris? He is doomed by his poor choices, yet his life is not pre-ordained but dependent upon those choices. 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. The cosmos is present throughout Malamud's story but its effect is continually changing.  

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.

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Brian Joseph said...

Great commentary on this book James.

I particularly appreciate when a book refers to other great works of literature and incorporates them in its theme.

Books about important issues are indeed a good thing. It is one of the primary reasons that many of us read.

James said...


Malamud is a great storyteller as his tales both edify and fascinate at the same time. I especially enjoy learning about a culture that is different than my own while sharing many of the same values.