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Reviewed by:
Lawrence Lasher, ed. Conversations with Bernard Malamud. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1991. 156 pp. $29.95.

Bernard Malamud, who died in 1986, won a National Book Award for The Magic Barrel, another National Book Award for The Fixer, as well as a Pulitzer, and many other prizes, yet, as Joseph Wershba said, he was "America's least known writer of the first rank." Known to be reticent and a very private person, he gave more than thirty interviews over his writing career, most of which are reproduced here. Malamud's purpose in life, he once said, was "to keep civilization from destroying itself." Or as he was paraphrased on another occasion, the freedom of all men depends on the freedom of the least of men—every one who was born a loser and knows it.

Malamud was known to most people as a Jewish writer, in the same way that "Bellow, Malamud, and Roth" were known; his way of explaining his approach was to say "I write about Jews because I know something about them and they move me. I don't live a Jewish life in the religious sense, though I have been influenced by their concern with morality." He added at an earlier time, "I try to see the Jew as universal man. Every man is a Jew though he may not know it." That is, he told Helen Benedict in 1983, "All men are Jews, except that they don't know it." I think it's an understandable statement and a metaphoric way of indicating how history, sooner or later, treats all men. Significantly, it was in his last (unfinished?) novel, The People, that Malamud reverses his usual process by which a Christian such as Frank Alpine, in The Assistant, becomes a Jew, by having a Russian Jewish peddler move into the essence of an Indian chief. Why? Evelyn Avery notes that perhaps, says Malamud, Indian life appealed to Yozip, as a member of the lost tribe of Jewish Americans searching for their identity in the new world, a quintessentially American quest.

This is an exceptionally useful book. Obviously Malamud had a difficult time protecting his privacy, as all public figures do. Uneasy with interviews, he stuck to the point in his answers, and then said "Don't take it personally." He disliked explaining his fiction, as he once told the Fields, because by describing the intent he might in effect betray his work. He was definite in asserting that to be a writer one must have talent and discipline. He himself was a noted reviser. What he saw in the writing act was a moral act, in constantly seeking the highest opportunities [End Page 752] to do well: in God's Grace, he told Leah Garchik, he had intended to sound a warning, to prod, to force the reader to come to his own conclusion, surely a moral act.

Many people identify Malamud with suffering, especially suffering Jews. When Ji-moon Koh asked him why he took such a deep interest in suffering, Malamud replied "if you go through an experience, the worst thing that can happen to you is not to understand it, not to react to it, not to feel for it. If the experience is as intense as suffering, then it's wasted on the human being if he doesn't get something out of it that causes him to reflect upon his values and to reflect upon the significance of his life." In short, "once suffering educates them, obviously, they have gained something that they didn't have before."

Near the end of his life, perhaps because of his illnesses, Malamud became testy on occasion when asked if he was a Jewish writer. On the other hand, he often quoted Camus, that "the purpose of the writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself," and he had a vision that still rings loud and clear. As he told Wershba, "My premise is for humanism—and against nihilism. And this is what I try to put in my writings." Indeed, Malamud as moralist, although not as preacher, comes through the body of his work. The daring writer, Lasher writes...

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