Bernard Malamud died in New York yesterday. Heart surgery a few years ago left him weak at times but, bless the man, he was just about finished with another novel before his gentle voice and tough spirit gave out at the age of 71.
When a writer as fine and mysterious as Malamud dies after a long and productive life, his readers lose almost nothing, really. What is lasting about the man remains. Still, if you loved a writer -- and Malamud was the sort of writer you could love, not just admire -- you feel almost angry at his passing.
The work is complete, sealed. Death put a lid on the magic barrel. What was in that last novel? We'll wonder a few days, then return to the old gifts that still provide and provide.
Malamud gave a magnificent, singular voice to all that is strange and magical in his characters' lives. Those lives, of course, were mainly Jewish lives. For some odd critical and journalistic reasons, he was lumped together with a more comic spirit (Philip Roth) and a more cerebral one (Saul Bellow). All three produced a Jewish-American literature, but they never comprised a literary yeshiva. Malamud's stories -- and he was best in shorter work -- are little miracles that cannot be jammed into any critical duffel bags. They are elusive; so simple at first, then as dark and awesome as genuine spiritual experience. Full of humanity, even sentimentality at times, but full of strangeness and concrete wonder, too. Malamud believed deeply that "art tends toward morality":
"It values life. Even when it doesn't, it tends to. My former colleague Stanley Edgar Hyman used to say that even the act of creating a form is a moral act. That leaves out something, but I understand and like what he was driving at. It's close to Frost's definition of a poem as 'a momentary stay against confusion.' Morality begins with the awareness of the sanctity of one's life, hence the lives of others -- even Hitlers, to begin with -- the sheer privilege of being, in this miraculous cosmos, and trying to figure out why. Art, in essence, celebrates life and gives us our measure."
Malamud's best work -- the stories in "The Magic Barrel" and "Rembrandt's Hat" as well as "The Assistant" and the better parts of "The Natural" and "The Fixer" -- will always delight and stun because of the way they both portray and transcend a particular character and world: a shopkeeper and spiritual crisis, an aging ballplayer and his secret.
As surely as his Roy Hobbs was a natural home run hitter, Malamud was a natural storyteller, and to an interviewer from The Paris Review, he made a little narrative of his own life. It is worth listening to:
"My father was a grocer; my mother, who helped him, died after a long illness, died young. I had a younger brother who lived a hard and lonely life and died in his fifties.
"My mother and father were gentle, honest, kindly people, and who they were and their affection for me to some degree made up for the cultural deprivation I felt as a child. They weren't educated but their values were stable. Though my father always managed to make a living, they were comparatively poor, especially in the Depression, and yet I never heard a word in praise of the buck. On the other hand there were no books that I remember in the house, no records, music, pictures on the wall. On Sundays I listened to somebody's piano through the window. At 9 I caught pneumonia, and when I was convalescing my father bought me the Book of Knowledge, 20 volumes where there had been none. That was, considering the circumstances, an act of great generosity.
"When I was in high school he bought a radio. As a kid, for entertainment I turned to the movies and dime novels. Maybe 'The Natural' derives from Frank Merriwell as well as the adventures of the Brooklyn Dodgers in Ebbets Field.
"Anyway my parents stayed close to the store. Once in a while, on Jewish holidays, we went visiting, or saw a Jewish play -- Sholom Aleichem, Peretz and others. My mother's brother, Charles Fidelman, and their cousin, Isadore Cashier, were in the Yiddish theater.
"Around the neighborhood the kids played chase the white horse, ringolevio, buck-buck, punchball and one o'cat. Occasionally we stole tomatoes from the Italian dirt farmers, gypped the el to ride to Coney Island, smoked in cellars and played blackjack. I wore sneakers every summer. My education at home derived mostly from the presence and example of good, feelingful, hard-working people. They were worriers, with other faults I wasn't much conscious of until I recognized them in myself. I learned from books, in the public schools.
"I took to literature early and wanted to be a writer. At eight or nine I was writing little stories in school and feeling the glow."
Though Malamud's sensibility was clearly shaped by his experience as a Jew, his stories seemed to derive as much from Chekhov, Hawthorne and other non-Jewish masters of the short story.
"I'm an American, I'm a Jew, and I write for all men. A novelist has to, or he's built himself a cage. I write about Jews, when I write about Jews, because they set my imagination going. I know something about their history, the quality of experience and belief, and of their literature, though not as much as I would like."
Think of those stories and you think of a figure in a painting by Chagall, a man with his feet on the dusty sidewalks and his head in heaven. If that makes Bernard Malamud a kind of giant, so be it.