Loading...

Jewish American Literature: Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick

Seminar Paper 2007 73 Pages

Didactics - English - History of Literature, Eras

Excerpt

Table of Contents

Introduction

Brief Biography of Bernand Malamud

“The Fixer” by Bernard Malamud

Brief Biography of Cynthia Ozick

“The Messiah of Stockholm” by Cynthia Ozick

Brief Biography of Philip Roth

“The Prague Orgy” by Philip Roth

Conclusion

Introduction

My work will try to deal with three representatives of Jewish American Fiction, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick. The common thread among such authors is the fact that all three novels deal with refugees or their descendants and are all based in Europe, struggling with their Jewishness and living it out in various forms, the Yiddish elements in them and maybe also the implicit criticism or appraisal of each author towards the others (e.g. as a striking example for all “The Messiah of Stockholm” itself is dedicated to Philip Roth). Each of the European countries that constitute the geographical as well as the historical background of the novels offer a different perspective and/or attitude towards Judaism and experience it in a different manner.

The first novel I will examine in my work will be The Fixer by Bernard Malamud, a novel which recreates the story of Mendel Beilis, an ordinary man living in Czarist Russia (1911), who suddenly finds himself accused of the murder of a young Russian boy and so of a ritual murder, according to the age-old lie that Jews kill Christians to use their blood for Passover matzoth1 (or די מצח 2, the unleavened bread the Jews ate when fleeing from Egypt in the thirteenth century B.C. since in their perilous flight they could not wait long enough to wait for the dough to rise 3) . Throughout his work Malamud delivers a portrait of anti-Semitism, imprisonment, degradation, torture, and human integrity.

At the same time The Fixer works as a resemblance of the Holocaust, which Malamud otherwise deals with only indirectly. 4

Also Ozick in her work The Messiah of Stockholm imagines that the manuscript of Bruno Schulz, a Polish Jew gunned down by the SS in 1942, has resurfaced: an obsessive Swedish critic believing himself Schulz’s son announces that <The Messiah has turned up! Here!>. 5

Ozick reviewed Schulz’s book herself and even compares him with Kafka, Babel, Singer and Jerzy Kosinski and mentioned Schulz’s final manuscript, a novel called The Messiah which was lost after his death. The Messiah of Stockholm is a phantasmagoric tale that goes some way toward alleviating her sense of literature as blind devotion. 1

Judaism and Jewishness is the theme that permeates Philip Roth’s work and determines his identity, too. Nathan Zuckerman, the main character of his trilogy, is Roth’s “impersonation” of himself, very closely modeled on Malamud’s example. Nathan is an American writer, who travels to Prague in the mid-70’s, which means when it was occupied by the Soviets. The nation was under siege of totalitarianism, where oppressed writers developed a bizarre way of reacting to it. The Prague Orgy is the epilogue of Zuckerman Bound1: in it a considerably mellower Zuckerman has come to terms with his fame and fortune, but must now meet the challenge of Prague. From his privileged position Zuckerman observes the deprivation and depravity of those who live under a repressive political regime “where the literary culture is held hostage”. 3

Culture is another key factor that is shared by all three authors: this feature is experienced in their books either as a spell or as a gift. Having taken all of this into consideration, I will proceed with the detailed analysis of each book in order to conclude by proving my thesis.

Brief biography of Bernard Malamud :

Born in New York in 1914 (where he also died in 1986) the son of Jewish-Russian immigrants, owner of a small shop in Brooklyn, in his youth Malamud assimilated Yiddish moods and rhythms. He studied at City College and then at Columbia University. He taught in Oregon and Vermont, and traveled through Europe with sojourns in Italy. He lived a sort of clandestine life, as a keen contemplator of human events. Malamud transposed Yiddish wit into the countless leaps and inflexions of his narrative language. 4

Malamud`s urban world made up of gloomy scenarios with openings into mystery is tied to his youth impressions and is inhabited by petty-bourgeois, rabbis, proletarians, outcasts. He began his career with the novel The Natural (1952), at that time almost ignored, but later on the object of a false movie adaptation. Of baseball, the most typical North American sport, Malamud reveals not only its most hidden squalor and sweating bottoms, but also its mythical space, wherein ancient rituals are renewed. The Assistant (1959) presents on a background constituted by the Great Depression Years, the Jewish themes like searching for redemption in the events in the life of Morris Bober, the Jewish grocer, prisoner of his own shop, his failure and poverty and of Frank Alpine, a youngster of Italian origins, who first robs him and then shares his fate, in the end becoming a Jew himself.

Malamud’s rather varied work places itself between such opposite poles as tragic and miraculous. In A New Life (1961) the impossible quest for perfection dominates. The Tenants (1971) is constructed on the tension between a Jewish and a Black writer, who live in the very same abandoned and tumbledown building in old New York. God’s Grace (1982) is an apocalyptic tale. He shows himself to be a concise writer who likes to use parables as in The Magic Barrel (1958) and in other short stories. Malamud is the interpreter of a double tradition: on one side the North American lines of Hemingway and others; and on the other side the Jewish-Yiddish line of Kafka, Sholem Aleichem, and Chaplin’s cinema. In his narrative the Jew, vulnerable historical subject and depositary of an unrealizable law, sets himself up as the character of the existential experience of contemporary man (figura dell´esperienza esistenziale dell´uomo contemporaneo).

Malamud’s historical backgrounds consists of a transformation of the United States into a global trans-continental power, where the literary production is becoming internationalized: intellectual characters are emerging, who are no longer only belong to the Wasp community, i.e. the white Anglo Saxon Protestant community, until then the predominant sociological elite. Jewish and Afro-American writers stand out among contemporaries not as minority writers, but as representatives of North America to all intents. 1

“The Fixer” by Bernard Malamud

The novel takes place in a superstitious and racist Russia of 1911, which tries to find in anti-Semitic persecution a diversion to the social tensions preceding the October Revolution. The main character, Yakov Bok, is a mild and slightly weak man, abandoned by his wife and unemployed he is seeking his fortune in the city, in Kiev. One night he happens to save the life of a drunken small-scale manufacturer, who, grateful, assigns him a job as a supervisor of his factory. This job causes him many problems and when the bleeding corpse of a child is discovered, he is accused of ritual murder. While the police and magistrates falsify evidence, the ‘Bok case’ becomes an occasion/excuse for political speculation. But it is just within the merciless mechanism of persecution that Yacov will find himself. 1

Just as Bernard Malamud makes the main character of The Tenants (1971) say: <<I write black because I am black>> we can say that Malamud writes Jewish, since he is a Jew. He himself, interviewed by Joseph Wershba on behalf of the New York Post, already explained in 1958 in the following words his reason for his predilection for Jewish characters: <<Because I know them. But more important, I write about them because Jews are absolutely the very stuff of drama>>. He has direct knowledge of the subject on which he abundantly draws. In fact, during the very same interview he stated: 2

‘’The suffering of the Jews is a distinct thing for me. I believe that not enough

has been made of the tragedy of the destruction of six million Jews. I felt the same in 1936 when the Yellow River flooded and six to ten million Chinese were drowned. Not enough has been made of such tragedies.

Somebody has to cry- even if it’s just a writer, twenty years later. ‘’3

Thus Bernard Malamud’s work fits naturally into the wide literary context which has been defined the American Jewish Renaissance: for the first time in North American literature the Jewish American writer emerges from minor writer status, usually expressing and addressing a particular social class, into a major national literary representative. By recalling Malamud´s words “The Jews are absolutely the very stuff of drama”: the traditional condition of the Jew, as an exile, isolated in a hostile society, victim of absurd hatred, they embody the situation of the contemporary man, living in a desolate land, waiting for Godot. That’s why Malamud affirms: “All men are Jews”. If Malamud gets his main inspiration from the close Jewish American reality, giving it a wider, even universal dimension, his artistic excellence consists basically in his creation of unequivocally Jewish characters within unequivocal Jewish ambiences. But Malamud also continues the above-mentioned quotation with “although few men know it”. According to a review edited by Milton R. Stern titled “All men are Jews” “Malamud’s compelling force as one of our major talents comes from his ability to evoke the sense of helplessness, anonymity and dislocation that beset the modern psyche. It is precisely in this sense that he identifies his Jews as modern everyman. “

A main subject of the Jewish-American author remains the conflict between a closed and traditional society of the ghetto or of the shtetl 2(or שטעט די, 3 a term of special importance in the history of the Jews, which evokes special meaning and memories. In a shtetl of Galicia, Poland, Lithuania, the Ukraine, Rumania, Hungary, Bessarabia in Moldavia, Bohemia, most of the inhabitants were Jews and certain 4

Jewish traditions and values were preserved and embellished until they achieved a distinct character of their own., 1 which is dominated by strict religious orthodoxy.

“One cannot change one’s grandparents”: Bernard Malamud’s parents, Max Malamud and Bertha Fidelman, immigrated to the United States from Czarist Russia. His father’s family name clearly indicates the ancestry: it derives from melamed2 (לערער דער or better מלמד 3) a teacher, but specifically a teacher of elementary Hebrew for young boys, someone who teaches by sheer repetition, so that he is often considered a humble man, a Jew who had no way of making a living or who had failed in what he had undertaken, a deeply pious man, dedicated to teaching but his teaching could not help becoming repetitious and boring. 4 Malamud mentions a melamed in The Fixer: when his wife Raisl goes to see him in prison and begs him to accept her natural son as his own. Yakow uses this expression: <<Never mind God. Have you got a piece of paper, I’ll write something down. Show it to the rabbi’s father, the old melamed >>.5

.Malamud chooses the character of his characters with care. He never thinks of these occupations as jobs, but as professions or vocations in the literal sense of the word. A profession is a statement of one’s principles, and a vocation is a calling. Usually these occupations characterize their practitioners. Often a character is tested to see if he is worthy of the profession or business to which he belongs: within this category there are many critics and teachers. Malamud sees them as a beginning without full commitment to their specialty. 6

The hero of this and several of his novels takes on the characteristics of a figure from Jewish folktales, the schlemiehl, (שלעמיהם a foolish, clumsy person or even a social misfit, a term said to derive from the name Schlumiel, the son of a leader of a tribe of Simeon [Numbers 2]: whereas the other generals of Zion often triumphed on the field of war, poor Schlumiel always lost) 7 The latter can be seen most readily in the stories of I.B. Singer. The schlemiehl is a moral innocent in a world of shady operators. 8

Such operators take advantage of him - steal his money, sleep with his wife, trade him a broken down mule for his good cow - and yet in the end, we discover that the fool is stronger than the wise men of this world who mislead him.

Although Malamud’s characters are usually not Zionist, Shmuel, Yakow Bok´s father-in-law, a humble and very poor peddler, who has a deep faith in divine providence, is one exception. Some of his quotations might enlighten us1: <<He who gave us teeth will give us bread>>2 or <<When prayers go up, blessings descend>> 3. Schmuel tries in vain to dissuade his restless son-in-law Yakow from leaving the Sthetl for Kiev, the holy city for the Orthodox Church: “The Jerusalem for Russia”4, or as he defines it: “a dangerous city full of churches and anti-Semites”.5 where Yakow will in fact meet with all his troubles and redirect him to Palestine.

Yakow Bok is essentially a free-thinker, as he repeatedly affirms, who prefers to read Spinoza than the Bible (<<What little I know I learned on my own –some history and geography, a little science, arithmetic, and a book or two of Spinoza’s. […]>>). 6

Russian anti-Semitism, evoked within The Fixer, is that promoted by Tsar Nicholas the Second in the year preceding the First World War (the infamous years of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, one of the notorious “classics” of anti-Semite literature, “fabricated” by the Russian secret police at the end of the XIX century, published in an abbreviated version round 1902 and in its entire version in 1905: it’s a self-styled resume of a serial of encounters which were supposed to have taken place in Basel in 1897 during the first Zionist congress and its enslavement to Judaism. The Protocols’ falseness was then denounced and demonstrated in 1921 by Philip Graves, a Times correspondent). Malamud as we all know took inspiration from the vicissitudes of Beiliss 7 (a ritual murder case of 1911, involving a Jew, namely Mendel Beilis, which disgraced Russian justice although the affair dragged on for years until diplomatic 8

pressure alone compelled the eventual release of the victim)1 and from the notorious league of the Black Hundreds, a movement founded in 1904 and which found in Jews the main cause for the military risings at home against Japan and conducted pogroms against such a minority2 (<<They conscripted me for the Russian-Japanese War but it was over before I got in>>)3

Certainly, in Malamud´s work a tragic version of the Jewish condition emerges. <<Since the crucifixion the crime of the Christ-killer is the crime of all Jews>> 4: in this way Yakov Bok, the accused innocent, the scapegoat, as suggested by the family name itself chosen by Malamud (if bok באָק is a goat in Yiddish, from the German bock, Yakow-Jacob suggests the mildness of Isaac’s son: <<A quiet man who stayed in the tents>>[Genesis 25:27] ) is able to observe that <<Being born a Jew meant being vulnerable to history>>5. According to the Dnieper boatman the Russian motherland will solve all its problems and be saved when all Jews have been exterminated (a sort of Endlösung):

Day after day they crap up the Motherland […] and the only way to save ourselves is to wipe them out. I don’t mean kill a Zhid now and then […], but to wipe them all out, which we’ve sometimes tried but never done as it should be done […] because if you spare any they breed like rats and then the job’s to do all over again. 6

What is the reaction of Malamud´s Jews in face of the hostility of the surrounding environment? They bear, endure, they suffer, as also stated by Shylock, a Jewish moneylender in Shakespeare’s Merchant Of Venice: “For suff´rance is the badge of all our tribe”.7 They oppose violence just like Yakov who states: “If I’m anything I’m a peaceful man […] there’s too much violence in the world”. 8

In the novel we can observe a sort of spiritual progress of the main character, brought up in an orphanage, and by destiny

(so Yakov: “I’ve had little in my life”1 ), always in need of an ideal guide, a model and educator at the same time. Yakov finds such an ideal father in Schmuel, his ex-wife’s father9: “He tried to educate me” 10. But if his character is constantly in such spiritual progress, the elder Schmuel is a static figure who has already achieved moral fulfillment. Towards the end of the book Schmuel will die but not without having transmitted his heritage to his “acquired” son. Shmuel tries hard to keep the light of Judaism still burning in the agnostic “fixer”. Schmuel is the creature of mildness, patience, submission, devotion and above all charity. Even with his nag, which Yakov will receive as a present in order to reach Kiev, Schmuel is anxiously human and charitable (<<The horse did mostly as he pleased and Schmuel indulged him. After all, what difference did a short delay make in a mad world?4 >> or as he says afterwards while taking Yakov further along his path to the big city: <<Patience[…] Gidap, beauty-he’s very vain. Whenever you can afford it, Yakov, feed him oats. Too much grass and he’s prone to gas.>>5 ).

Schmuel is the one who at the beginning of the novel reproaches his son-in-law’s untimely selfishness. As a matter of fact Schmuel reminds him: “Charity you were always short of that!” 6 and makes him recall the same when he is able to pay a clandestine visit to the prison where Yakov is being held through the example of Job: <<Job said, ‘Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him’>>7. In the end Yakov will dedicate his suffering to his father-in-law, instead of committing suicide and avoid Shmuel’s death in a pogrom which his end could provoke8:

He [Shmuel] may even die for my death if they work up a pogrom in celebration of it. If so what do I get by dying, outside of release from pain? What have I earned if a single Jew dies because I did? Suffering me can gladly live without, I hate the taste of it, but I must suffer let it be for something. Let it be for Shmuel. 9

Malamud appears by all means much more acquainted with Yiddish tradition than with the American one. It is anyway a bond that he recognizes without implicit affection regretting likewise its melancholic decline. In the pages of his book I.L Peretz, Sholem Aleichem and Sholem Asch, the greatest Yiddish writers are mentioned. Yakov Bok during his imprisonment recalls 1 <<tales by Peretz, and some pieces he had read in the papers by Sholem Aleichem>>2

Although throughout Malamud’s works Yiddish is registered as the tongue of the members of the first generations, in other words as the mama-loshen (מבַ׀מע־לשון), the language of the mothers, since in the Yiddish Ashkenazi world this was the language spoken by the mothers in the home whereas Jewish was “the language of the fathers”, who were taught to read the Holy Scriptures. Yiddish is the language of the poor Jews from Eastern Europe, the idiom of the Ashkenazis, the shtetl vernacular, in other words the mother tongue of the underprivileged, who fill this and others of Malamud’s novels. Malamud´s is indeed and preferably the world of poor people, kleyne menshehle (מענטש קלײן). 3

Such helpless people typical for Malamud are very often creatures offended by life, marked by sufferance, victims of man’s inhumanity towards his fellow men. If the human condition is per se tragic, much more so is the Jewish condition, bound to carry a further burden made up of discrimination and persecution. Malamud unmistakably underlines the universality of human suffering, for instance, in the words of Yakov Bok, who in prison, begs for help in his dreams, <<but the other prisoners [non-Jewish] had their own anguish, their own bad dreams>> or as he makes Kogim , one of Yakov’s warders, say. <<Ah, Yakov Bok, don’t think you’re the only one with troubles. They’re piled on my head like snows on a mountaintop>>. 4

Just like all Malamud`s main characters, Yakov does not rebel against the negative fate, which he thinks not to have deserved. The protest directed against those above or his fellow man is similarly present in all Malamud’s works: indeed Yakov implores: 5

<<My dear God, sweetheart, did I deserve that this should happen to me?>> or <<Who invented my life? […] Why don’t they let me alone? What have I truly done to them? >>1. Indeed Yakov as well as most of Malamud`s creatures have truly to complain, since they are all confronted with every type of injustice, whether due to destiny or to society: parents lose their children (like Kogin, Yakov’ warder loses his son Trofim), husbands are left widowers with small children to bring up (Yakov Bok’s father was left a widower just ten minutes after Yakov’s birth), the rich are just heartless, the big devour the small, brutal strength treads innocence underfoot. And no matter how abysmal a human condition could be, there is still someone at a lower level2: Yakov’s bitter reflection illuminates: <<How long can your misery go on? >>3 And noone who seems without problems and sorrows is really so, as Kogin reminds Yakov according to the Gospels, <<But he who endures to the end will be saved>>. 4

The reason why a human being has to suffer plagues. Although Malamud and his characters are unable to find a proper answer, they are still able to recognize in it a way to maturity, elevation and salvation of the individual. 5

Such painful experience may last for a year as it did for Yakov Bok, but at the end of it the individual comes out of it transformed, spiritually refined, noticeably more human. On his wife Riesel’s visit, Yakov states that he had <<learned about tears>>6, or better <<I’ve suffered in this prison and I’m not the same man I once was>>7. In fact, Yakov will not only forgive his adulterous wife but even recognize her illegitimately conceived son.

Yakov’s ordeal starts exactly from his progressive distancing from Jewishness (and to which all persecutions will bring closer again): 8

At the beginning of the novel we find out that even before leaving the shtetl Yakov shaved off his beard << he had been admonished by more than one Jew that he looked like a goy >>2 (גױיִש a Gentile, that is anyone who is not Jew)3. When he left the village after being abandoned by his wife after a childless marriage (<<he was a childless husband – ‘alive but dead’ the Talmud describes such a man>>4) despite his pious father-in-law’s imploring warnings not to abandon his religion (<<Stay a Jew, Yakov, don’t give up your God>>5) he drops into the waters of the Dnepr his bag containing his prayer book, tallet and phylacteries, a symbolic gesture which will culminate with the emblematic river crossing accompanied by the anti-Semitic boatman. In Kiev he eventually presents himself to his future employer, a member of the Black Hundreds, with a false name, <<a Gentile name>> in order to conceal from a <<self-advertised Jew hater>>6 his Jewish identity. But when Yakov is in prison he starts having second thoughts about his Jewish burden (<<His fate nauseated him. Escaping from the Pale he had at once been entrapped in prison. From birth a black horse had followed him, a Jewish nightmare. What was being a Jew but not an everlasting curse? He was sick of their history, destiny and blood guilt.>>7 ), but then whenever his body is considerably weakened by tortures he gradually feels the strength of the spiritual link, which ties him to his people and quite against his will 8(since Yakov remains an agnostic, only <<half a Jew>>, but who nevertheless keeps his Jewish right, i.e.<<in the manner of the Orthodox Jews, wrapped in a prayer shawl, with black phylacteries entwined around his brow and left arm>>9).

According to Malamud sin dissolves in a felix culpa, since sinners emerge from expiation completely redeemed. According to Hasidism (הסידומ) the sinner may redeem himself through a mitzvah (מיצװה), a good deed, since all men are potentially good and redeemable since they all belong to God. The orthodox Shmuel, while thinking about his adulterous daughter1, states: <<Even a sinner belongs to Him>>; even a schnorrer (שנאָרער), a beggar reminds Yakov, who is on his way to leaving the shtetl, that <<Charity saves from death>>. A Jew has to fulfill six hundred and thirteen mizvót (e.g. to assist widows and orphans, to pay promptly for any given service, to fast for Kippur), but even the fulfillment of only one mizvá could save the man as long as it is a deed of pure love. Shmuel can be taken as an example when he implores Yakov: <<do me a favour, don’t close your heart. Nobody is lost to God if his heart is open.>>

The mitzvoth therefore have a key role in Malamud`s works and concur in colouring with optimism a Weltanschauung, which could be interpreted differently. If on one side Malamud`s characters live a hard life full of sorrow and pain, on the other side such sorrows neither make them worse nor debase them, on the contrary they make them better, even let them accept pain, aware of their final validity. Especially Yakov, who has to endure most sufferings and injustices compared with Malamud’s other characters, gives value to his own experience3. <<He […] was paying for learning>>4 he reflects shortly after his arrest and he concludes his narration (although in an imaginary conversation with the Czar he had just stated that <<what suffering has taught me is the uselessness of suffering>>5), by saying that as a humble and apolitical fixer: <<One thing I’ve learned, he thought, there’s no such thing as a non political man, especially a Jew. You can’t be one without the other, that’s clear enough. You can’t sit still and see yourself destroyed.>>6

All the sufferings to which Yakov is exposed thus have a justification in the little Jew hesitating with a wavering faith, fearing to show his true identity but who has turned out as a Son of his People fully aware of his existence rights and ready to act and fight for them. 7

In the face of the precariousness and absurdity of human conditions dominated by violence Malamud’s answer is expressed through one of the many imaginary dialogues which Yakov holds with the Czar: 1 <<Little Father, […] Live and let live […]. It’s a short life when you think of it. >>

The Chosen People, for a scope that still remains concealed from human beings, needs such an experience made up of sin and suffering, in order to repent and to be redeemed, keeping through a purifying expiation the right to be the Chosen one, the one with the privileged alliance with God. Still a mysterious divine architect can be spotted within such a spectacle, thanks to which in a prospect of a final objective, dignity is given to human suffering, from one generation to the other3: Shmuel confirms this divine plan by reassuring: <<God’s justice is for the end of time>>4.

Another important factor in Malamud´s work is the ambition to get an education: in fact Yakov Bok confides to the public official who is conducting the questioning: <<I hoped, with a bit of luck, to get myself a little education>>, an ambition that finds its roots in the most ancient Judaic tradition. From the Sapient Books (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job) up to the Diaspora era illuminated by a devout study of the Torah and the Talmud the Jew has always had profound respect for culture (<<Don’t look for God in the wrong place, look in the Torah, the law>> suggests Shmuel again to his son-in-law Yakov, since faith itself is the true miracle, <<The true miracle is belief>>). Malamud sees in education the means for the migrant Jew to lift himself spiritually as well as materially to get a better life.

Faith in God and love of one’s fellow men: so will miracles come true: a reliable way to read and interpret Malamud’s work, for it is possible to reflect the anxieties of the contemporary author in it, comforted by a millenary Jewish tradition, using both modern narrative techniques and the typical expressions and forms of Yiddish literary culture.

He is a master in proposing the lesson of Jewish humanism (indeed the shtetl civilization again, Malamud’s own background, was actually founded on the dual concept of Yiddishkeyt (ײִדישכױט) Jewishness knowledge and observance, and menschlikhkeyt (מענטשלעכקײט), respect and compassion for one’s fellow man), he underlines human abilities and possibilities as God’s creature and pours out in his novel not only his intimate anguish but also his grateful certainty. <<Irrational streams of blood are staining earth>>: this quotation from W.B. Yeats, which Malamud places at the very beginning of his narration, enables us to read between the lines a condemnation of human inhumanity towards his fellow men, but also the message of universal brotherhood. Malamud underlines that Jews indeed are bound to a Schicksalsgemeinschaft, but their identity acceptation and recognition does not contrast with a messianic era aspiration, in which all men regardless of their race, religion, and nationality are all plain human.

Summing up all of the main features in Malamud’s novel we are able to state that The Fixer is an examination of freedom and its complement, commitment. Yakov Bok, the main character, spends most of the novel in prison and, paradoxically, the longer he is imprisoned the more true freedom he attains. Malamud starts the novel by giving Yakov a good deal of freedom: his parents are dead, his wife has left him, he has no children, his job requires only his bag of tools, he has no financial obligations, and his religion means nothing to him. Yakov starts his journey free from any commitment and leaves the sthetl for good. The boatman, who resembles Charon, the Ferryman of Hell, carries him across the Dnepr River. When the boatman starts his anti-Semitic speech, Yakov, probably out of fear of being discovered, throws the bag containing his prayer shawl overboard, a gesture which stands for his abandoning of his religion. In the very first part of the novel Bok tries to deny his identity: he has already shaved his beard, he will change his name, refute his religion to live among Christians. But when his unjust imprisonment takes place, Bok will gradually assume his identity as a Jew again. 2

Yakov will happen to be pushed into the Christian sector of Kiev, which is actually forbidden to Jews. He rescues a wealthy drunk who turns out to be a member of the Black Hundred, an anti-Semitic organization. Lebedev, that’s the name of the drunken fellow, will invite him to stay at his home and there all Bok’s misfortunes will start: Lebedev will offer him a job as an overseer and his daughter, Zinaida, will start offering her sexual favors, too. At this point I would like to note that women for the most part are usually minor characters in Malamud, only important for the way they affect the hero and they tend to be of two kinds, either the nurturing mother or the Harpy. In The Fixer Zinaida is indeed the man-devouring woman, who offers the hero sex instead of love and is always involved in getting him to give up his principles. Such a kind of women are in Malamud`s works always marked by some physical handicap, in Zinaida the limp. Bok is ready to surrender to Zinaida and her temptations, until he discovers she is unclean: she is having her period and Bok following the Jewish Law rejects her. His Jewish heritage is again much harder to give up than he believes.

When a Christian boy, who has actually been killed by his mother’s lover, is found murdered, the Russians authorities raise the specter of ritual murder committed by Jews who were supposed to murder Christian children to use their blood for making matzos. Bok finds himself innocently accused of the murder of the Christian boy and is imprisoned. There Bok is systematically deprived of human society and the consequent ability to depend upon it for help, for companionship and for self-definition. Bok has to start to defend himself from the demons of fear, loneliness and even madness. When Bok enters prison, he adopts the tactics of not informing and gains few friends among prisoners. Then he meets a fellow Jew, who is actually an informer, who betrays him to the prison authorities. Bok is then removed from the general prison population and put into solitary confinement. There he places all his hope in Bibikov, an honest man, who is the Investigating Magistrate. 1

Bibikov is the only one who knows that Marta Golov, the mother of the murdered child, and Marfa’s lover are guilty of the child’s murder. For almost half of the novel, Bok waits for Bibikov to find evidence to incriminate Marfa, but for Bok this proves to be a Fata Morgana. One day in an apparent act of carelessness, Bok’s guard leaves his cell open: Bok sneaks out of his cell and gets far enough to see the prisoner in the next cell. There he discovers the corpse of Bibikov, who hanged himself, after being arrested for his interference in the government’s prosecution of Bok. In this novel there is an apparent form of freedom cheating. Bibikov is a weak character who doesn’t understand that it is not always enough to know the truth: one must be committed to it totally. His weakness is already to be seen in Bibikov’s discussion with Bok on Spinoza 1 (it’s Yakov’s main source of inspiration in his first phase of consideration of religion: indeed Spinoza was against all forms of religions, which he regarded as life-denying and which view the present life as a mere preparation for a life to come; rather our primary aim should be joyous living in the here- and -now2 ). Bibikov uses Spinoza to rationalize his political position of serving a regime whose principles scare him. He misunderstands Spinoza’s notion of conditional freedom and uses him as a model of political cooperation. When Bibikov finds he can no longer serve both his government and his conscience he hangs himself. The death of Bibikov will mark a new phase of Bok’s life. He finds himself living in a sort of martyrdom, with his legs becoming gangrenous: he is forced to crawl his way to the infirmary for treatment and his prison mates completely change their scornful feelings towards him, one prisoner risking death to bind Bok’s bleeding wounds. This phase of the novel is presided by the Warden Grizitskoy and his attempts through physical deprivation to make Bok confess: Bok is indeed kept in prison for two years with no indictment. For a while Bok even keeps his cell clean, sweeping it everyday, in order to struggle against the formlessness of his life in prison: Bok is learning to build some resemblance of order out of nothing but his mind. Bok as fixer has no other stock-in-trade but his own skill. 3

He is convinced that he has to shape a life out of the fragments of his memories. Though Bok declines physically throughout the novel, he rapidly earns a moral strength that overwhelms his captors. Grubeshov, the Prosecuting Attorney, in particular as he sees that he is unable to get Bok to confess, begins to decay.

For Malamud, suffering is more than a test or a measure; it is life itself, or better, the Jewish one throughout history. The Russian authorities don’t want Bok to forget his Jewishness: they don’t let him cut his hair and with his already long beard and ear locks he looks like one. In fact, they even throw him a prayer shawl and phylacteries. Bok ends up looking like the old man he pushed out of his life. His strength continues to grow as he realizes that his capacity of suffering both for his own right and for others makes him a better Jew. He even stops fearing the state. To be a Jew is to understand the suffering that God puts into the lives of all men. Such comprehension leads to goodness that must take the form of rachmones (רחמנות), pity for other men, for other Jews, even oneself. Without it, the suffering is meaningless and goodness nonexistent. 1

Malamud has written on this subject that: “My work is all of it, is an idea of dedication to the human. That’s basic in every book. If you don’t respect, you cannot respect my work. I’m in defense of the human.” In much of his writing Malamud has described the man who suffers, who is a victim, but who accepts the conditions of living within the Covenant or agreement (especially according to the Jewish tradition) and the Law. 2

Malamud’s law is one that opens to interpretative possibilities, for possibilities of living in the world among others. It is in defiance of Kafka’s impenetrable law, which for the man from the country like Bok is inaccessible, intractable, not to be shaped by the interpretations of human obligations and need. 3

Malamud’s law is encoded by God and enacted by Moses, who “shall set bounds for the people” (Exodus 19:12), for whom the law, like the people themselves, is designated, bounded but beyond prescribed limits, since as Moses’ assembly is forewarned, “beware of going up the mountain or touching the border of it. Whoever touches the mountain will be put to death” (Exodus 19:13). Yet this authoritative rule, like other biblical orders, is both pronounced and renounced, since, as they always have been, concessions are made (Aaron is, after all, allowed to accompany Moses) and so we have the ambiguity in Malamud’s interpretation of the law, its suitability and accessibility

Indeed if a novel such as Kafka’s The Trial makes the point that K’s crime is nothing more or less than being a modern man caught up in an essentially absurd World, Malamud’s protagonist take a significantly different action progress: 2

He feared the prison would go badly for him and it went badly at once. It’s my luck, he thought bitterly. What are they saying?-‘If I dealt in candles, the sun wouldn’t set’. Instead, I’m Yakov the Fixer and it sets each hour on the stroke. I’m the kind of man who finds it perilous to be alive. One thing I must learn it to say less-much less, or I’ll ruin myself. As it is I’m ruined already. 3

Although Yakov affirms throughout the novel that he is not a “political person”, the novel insists otherwise: for instance by involving him in accusations of ritual murder and then forcing the wait in jail for his trial.

As said, The Fixer is only loosely based on the Beiliss case. As Robert Alter suggests: 4 “One feels in The Fixer that for Malamud 1911 is 1943 in small compass and sharp focus, and 1966 writ very large. The Beiliss case gives him, to begin with, a way of approaching the European holocaust on a scale that is imaginable, susceptible of fictional representation.”5

By an odd and fortunate coincidence, Malamud’s novel appeared in print almost at the same time as Maurice Samuel’s Blood Accusation, an elaborate, painstaking, yet eminently readable account of the complicated details of the Beiliss Case. Malamud has actually modified some basic facts of the case. 6

His main character, Yakov Bok, is like Mendel Beiliss, the overseer in a Kiev brick factory, a simple man, not much of an observant Jew, who one early spring day in 1911 to his great amazement finds himself arrested for the murder of a Christian boy. Bok, like Beiliss, is incarcerated for more than two years while the investigating magistrates, in collusion with the most fanatical forces of reaction, fabricate a case against him for a murder that more or less has been committed by a shamelessly Russian woman (in the novel, the boy’s mother, in fact, the mother of a friend) together with a gang of her habitual criminal partners. The actual trial ended on an appropriate note of muddled ambiguity, the jury at once acquitting Beiliss and concluding that the murder had occurred in the brickworks, not in the apartment of the Cheberyak woman as evidence proved and that the child’s blood had been methodically drained for unknown purposes. Malamud rearranges some details of the Beiliss affair for the sake of simplification or even credibility, exactly like Elfriede Jelinek did in her short novel In den Alpen (2000) using a true story, a fire which took place in a tunnel in Austria in which 155 skiers died: also the Jewish-Austrian writer recreated the whole accident in each detail, pointing out the anti-Semitism which alpinism had at its core when it started. But going back to our main subject, why should the Beiliss case attract a serious contemporary novelist and why in particular should Malamud find it a congenial subject? The first half of the question may be found in Maurice Samuel’s brief Epilogue on this case, which “was crude preview of the possibilities of the twentieth century”, one of the early instances of use by a government of the Big Lie, through which a powerful bureaucracy totally subverts the moral sense of its individual members and as Samuel states “makes its assertion with brazen disregard for what is known… seeks, by immense clamor, by vast rhythmic repetition, to make thinking impossible”. In other words, the Beiliss case is one of the first striking public occasions in this century when Kafka’s fiction of arbitrary indictment, of a reality that is governed by an insane, inscrutably perverse logic, became historical fact.

[...]


1 Pg. 719 Chametzky Jules, Felstiner John, Flanzbaum Hilene, Hellerstein Kathryn, Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology , New York London 2001

2 Weinreich Ulrich Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish English Dictionary מאַדערן ענגניש – ײדיש װערטעבבוך Schocken Books New York 1977-1968

3 Pg. 220 Rosten Leo, The New Joys of Yiddish Three Rivers Press New York 2001

4 Pg. 719 Chametzky Jules, Felstiner John, Flanzbaum Hilene, Hellerstein Kathryn, Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology , New York London 2001

5 Pg. 857 Chametzky Jules, Felstiner John, Flanzbaum Hilene, Hellerstein Kathryn, Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology , New York London 2001

1 Pg. 857 Chametzky Jules, Felstiner John, Flanzbaum Hilene, Hellerstein Kathryn, Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology , New York London 2001

2 Pg. 917 Chametzky Jules, Felstiner John, Flanzbaum Hilene, Hellerstein Kathryn, Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology , New York London 2001

3 Pg. 192 Baumgartner Murray and Gottfried Barbara, Understanding Philip Roth University of South Carolina Press, 1990

4 p.g 841 La Biblioteca del Sapere – Vol. 12 Corriere Della Sera Rizzoli Larousse, Milano 2004

1 pg. 841 La Biblioteca del Sapere – Vol. 12 Corriere Della Sera Rizzoli Larousse, Milano 2004

1 pg. 841 La Biblioteca del Sapere – Vol. 12 Corriere Della Sera Rizzoli Larousse, Milano 2004

2 pg. 142-168 Menashé Ester, Umanesimo Ebraico nell’opera di Malamud in La Rassegna Mensile di Israele Roma 1974 Vol. XL n.4

3 Interview with Malamud by Haskel Frankel, Saturday Review, 10 September 1966, in Menashé Ester, Umanesimo Ebraico nell’opera di Malamud in La Rassegna Mensile di Israele Roma 1974 Vol. XL n.4

2 pg. 142-168 Menashé Ester, Umanesimo Ebraico nell’opera di Malamud in La Rassegna Mensile di Israele Roma 1974 Vol. XL n.4

3 Weinreich Ulrich Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish English Dictionary מאַדערן ענגניש – ײדיש װערטעבבוך Schocken Books New York 1977-1968

4 pg.366 Rosten Leo, The New Joys of Yiddish Three Rivers Press New York 2001

4 pg. 142-168 Menashé Ester, Umanesimo Ebraico nell’opera di Malamud in La Rassegna Mensile di Israele Roma 1974 Vol. XL n.4

1 pg.231 Rosten Leo, The New Joys of Yiddish Three Rivers Press New York 2001

2 pg. 142-168 Menashé Ester, Umanesimo Ebraico nell’opera di Malamud in La Rassegna Mensile di Israele Roma 1974 Vol. XL n.4

3 Weinreich Ulrich Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish English Dictionary מאַדערן ענגניש – ײדיש װערטעבבוך Schocken Books New York 1977-1968

4 pg.231 Rosten Leo, The New Joys of Yiddish Three Rivers Press New York 2001

5 pg . 291 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 1966

6 Weinreich Ulrich Modern English-Yiddish Yiddish English Dictionary מאַדערן ענגניש – ײדיש װערטעבבוך Schocken Books New York 1977-1968

7 pg. 11 Helterman Jeffrey, Understanding Bernard Malamud, University of South Carolina Press, 1985

1 pg. 142-168 Menashé Ester, Umanesimo Ebraico nell’opera di Malamud in La Rassegna Mensile di Israele Roma 1974 Vol. XL n.4

2 pg . 9 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 1966

3 pg . 257 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 1966

4 pg . 12 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 1966

5 pg . 11 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 1966

6 pg . 6-7 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 1966

7 pg. 142-168 Menashé Ester, Umanesimo Ebraico nell’opera di Malamud in La Rassegna Mensile di Israele Roma 1974 Vol. XL n.4

8 pg. 105 Jewish History and Society – Anti-Semitism in Encyclopedia Americana, Volume 16, 1972

1 pg. 105 Jewish History and Society – Anti-Semitism in Encyclopedia Americana, Volume 16, 1972

2 pg. 142-168 Menashé Ester, Umanesimo Ebraico nell’opera di Malamud in La Rassegna Mensile di Israele Roma 1974 Vol. XL n.4

3 pg . 7 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 1966

4 pg . 273 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 1966

5 pg . 155 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 1966

6 pg . 27 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 1966t

7 pg. 232-25 Menashé Ester, Umanesimo Ebraico nell’opera di Malamud in La Rassegna Mensile di Israele Roma 1974 Vol. XL n. 5

8 pg . 88 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 1966

10 pg. 232-25 Menashé Ester, Umanesimo Ebraico nell’opera di Malamud in La Rassegna Mensile di Israele Roma 1974 Vol. XL n.5

1 pg . 80 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 1966

2 pg . 273 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 1966

3 pg. 232-25 Menashé Ester, Umanesimo Ebraico nell’opera di Malamud in La Rassegna Mensile di Israele Roma 1974 Vol. XL n.5

4 pg . 9 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 1966

5 pg . 13 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 1966

6 pg . 6 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 1966

7 pg . 232 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 1966

8 pg. 232-25 Menashé Ester, Umanesimo Ebraico nell’opera di Malamud in La Rassegna Mensile di Israele Roma 1974 Vol. XL n.5

9 pg . 273 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 1966

1 pg. 232-25 Menashé Ester, Umanesimo Ebraico nell’opera di Malamud in La Rassegna Mensile di Israele Roma 1974 Vol. XL n.5

2 pg . 207 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 1966

3 pg. 232-25 Menashé Ester, Umanesimo Ebraico nell’opera di Malamud in La Rassegna Mensile di Israele Roma 1974 Vol. XL n.5

4 pg . 207 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 1966

5 pg. 235-254 Menashé Ester, Umanesimo Ebraico nell’opera di Malamud in La Rassegna Mensile di Israele Roma 1974 Vol. XL n.6

1 pg . 23 & pg. 206 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 1966

2 pg. 235-254 Menashé Ester, Umanesimo Ebraico nell’opera di Malamud in La Rassegna Mensile di Israele Roma 1974 Vol. XL n.6

3 pg . 207 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 1966

4 pg . 244 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 1966

5 pg. 235-254 Menashé Ester, Umanesimo Ebraico nell’opera di Malamud in La Rassegna Mensile di Israele Roma 1974 Vol. XL n.6

6 pg . 258 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 1966

7 pg . 298 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 1966

8 pg. 235-254 Menashé Ester, Umanesimo Ebraico nell’opera di Malamud in La Rassegna Mensile di Israele Roma 1974 Vol. XL n.6

1 pg. 235-254 Menashé Ester, Umanesimo Ebraico nell’opera di Malamud in La Rassegna Mensile di Israele Roma 1974 Vol. XL n.6

2 pg . 12 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York,

3 pg. 131 Rosten Leo, The New Joys of Yiddish Three Rivers Press New York 2001

4 pg . 21 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York,

5 pg . 19 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York,

6 pg . 79 & pg. 36 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York,

7 pg . 206 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York,

8 pg. 235-254 Menashé Ester, Umanesimo Ebraico nell’opera di Malamud in La Rassegna Mensile di Israele Roma 1974 Vol. XL n.6

9 pg . 266 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York,

1 pg. 235-254 Menashé Ester, Umanesimo Ebraico nell’opera di Malamud in La Rassegna Mensile di Israele Roma 1974 Vol. XL n.6

2 pg .11 & pg. 16 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York,

3 pg. 235-254 Menashé Ester, Umanesimo Ebraico nell’opera di Malamud in La Rassegna Mensile di Israele Roma 1974 Vol. XL n.6

4 pg .68 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York,

5 pg .225 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York,

6 pg 298 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York,

7 pg. 235-254 Menashé Ester, Umanesimo Ebraico nell’opera di Malamud in La Rassegna Mensile di Israele Roma 1974 Vol. XL n.6

1 pg. 235-254 Menashé Ester, Umanesimo Ebraico nell’opera di Malamud in La Rassegna Mensile di Israele Roma 1974 Vol. XL n.6

2 pg 225 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York,

3 pg. 235-254 Menashé Ester, Umanesimo Ebraico nell’opera di Malamud in La Rassegna Mensile di Israele Roma 1974 Vol. XL n.6

4 pg 232 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York,

5 pg 70 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York,

6 pg- 15 & pg. 232 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York,

1 pg. 235-254 Menashé Ester, Umanesimo Ebraico nell’opera di Malamud in La Rassegna Mensile di Israele Roma 1974 Vol. XL n.6

2 pg. 67 Helterman Jeffrey, Understanding Bernard Malamud, University of South Carolina Press, 1985

1 pg.70 Helterman Jeffrey, Understanding Bernard Malamud, University of South Carolina Press, 1985

1 pg.70 Helterman Jeffrey, Understanding Bernard Malamud, University of South Carolina Press, 1985

2 pg.848 Honderich Ted, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford University Press, New York London 1995

3 pg.71 Helterman Jeffrey, Understanding Bernard Malamud, University of South Carolina Press, 1985

1 pg.79 Helterman Jeffrey, Understanding Bernard Malamud, University of South Carolina Press, 1985

2 pg. 54-5Walden David Malamud’s Dilemma in The Jewish Quarterly London 1979 n.2-3 (100-101)

3 Aarons Victoria, Malamud Gatekeepers: The “Law” and Moral Reckoning in Studies in American Jewish Literature University Park 1999 Vol. 18 pg. 5-10

1 pg. 5-10 Aarons Victoria, Malamud Gatekeepers: The “Law” and Moral Reckoning in Studies in American Jewish Literature University Park 1999 Vol. 18

2 pg. 28-38Pinsker Sanford, Cityscape as Moral Fable: the Place of Jewish History and American Social Realism in Bernard Malamud’s Imagination in Studies in American Jewish Literature University Park 1995 Vol. 14

3 pg143 Malamud Bernard, The Fixer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York,

4 pg. 28-38Pinsker Sanford, Cityscape as Moral Fable: the Place of Jewish History and American Social Realism in Bernard Malamud’s Imagination in Studies in American Jewish Literature University Park 1995 Vol. 14

5 pg. 74 Alter Robert, After the Tradition, Dutton Paperback New York 1971

6 pg. 124 Alter Robert, After the Tradition, Dutton Paperback New York 1971

Details

Pages
73
Year
2007
ISBN (eBook)
9783640768332
ISBN (Book)
9783640768738
File size
842 KB
Language
English
Catalog Number
v162893
Institution / College
University of Freiburg – Amerikanistik
Tags
Jewish American Literature

Author

Previous

Title: Jewish American Literature: Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick