Bernard Malamud’s Patient Jewish Shopkeepers

February 27, 2024 | Vivian Gornick
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Next month, the Library of America will publish the third and final volume of the collected works of the Brooklyn-born Jewish author Bernard Malamud (1914–1986). Vivian Gornick considers Malamud’s oeuvre, and compares it to that of the two figures whose names are often uttered in the same breath as his: Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.

Whereas Bellow and Roth took as their subjects the lives of educated Jews emerging into full assimilation, Malamud took for his the homegrown shtetl Jews living in Brooklyn and the Bronx, those paralyzed by poverty and ignorance, and touched them with a kind of literary magic that sent the metaphor diving into depths hitherto unreached. As Bellow said of Malamud after his death, he was an “original of the first rank” in whose work one always heard the “accent of a hard-won . . . emotional truth.”

But if ever a set of characters embodied the patience of the oppressed, it is surely his shopkeeper Jews, for whom Brooklyn or the Bronx is forever Poland, 1932. These are people who are perpetually rolling a rock up a hill: the rock of sheer survival. They neither prosper nor perish; they simply do not die. Their strength and their punishment is knowing how to cling to life under circumstances so extreme that they often seem allegorical. If you asked what they mean by “survive,” they would, in all likelihood, tell you: “Just to make a living.” If you then asked, “What kind of living?,” they might, like Morris Bober in Malamud’s early novel The Assistant, reply, “What kind of living?—a living; you lived.”

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