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Reviewed by:
  • The Magic Worlds of Bernard Malamud
  • Hannah Berliner Fischthal
The Magic Worlds of Bernard Malamud, edited by Evelyn Avery. Albany: SUNY, 2001. 219 pp. $20.95.

Evelyn Avery has assembled an extraordinary collection of critical articles, reactions, and personal recollections dealing with the life and works of Bernard Malamud. The accumulated articles separate Malamud from the commonly designated triumvirate of Jewish-American writers (Bellow, Malamud, Philip Roth) who share not much more than ethnicity and talent. Instead, Avery and the contributing writers place Malamud as a forerunner of inter-racial, multi-ethnic, magical realist, humanist, universal fiction.

Author of Rebels and Victims: The Fiction of Richard Wright and Bernard Malamud, founder of the Bernard Malamud Society, and co-editor of the Malamud Newsletter, Evelyn Avery is an expert in the field. In addition, she had a long-standing friendship with the great writer. Her admiration and affection for Malamud are evident in the care with which she has edited and organized this important text. Part I, The Author, includes wonderful reminiscences by son Paul Malamud, Daniel Stern, Nicholas Delbanco, Alan Cheuse, Chester Garrison, and Warren Hovland; a presentation of the correspondence between Rosemarie Beck and Malamud by Joel Salzberg; and a touching eulogy by Cynthia Ozick. Part II, dealing with individual works, features readings on A New Life by Sanford Pinsker, Dubin’s Lives by Walter Shear, The Assistant by Evelyn Avery, “The Last Mohican” by Karen Polster, and God’s Grace by David Mesher. In the third section, “Thematic Threads: Patterns in Malamud’s Fiction,” S. Lillian Kremer deals with Yiddish archetypes in Malamud’s fiction; Eileen H. Watts speaks of the Holocaust legacy; Avery compares the “kindred neshamas” of Malamud and Ozick; Dan Walden asserts that Malamud was both a universal and an ethical writer; and Victoria Aarons studies Malamud’s syntactical use of chiasmus. An annotated bibliography follows. [End Page 180]

Although diverse, the essays in this text converge on a few common points: Bernard Malamud, one of our greatest Jewish-American writers, was also a universal literary artist dealing with the important themes of evil, suffering, atonement, spiritual transformation, and hopeful forgiveness. Whether writing about the shtetl or the American university, the baseball field or antisemitism in Russia, humans or animals, Malamud struggles with the yeytser hore [evil inclination] in his characters, who, almost always, end up embracing the yeytser tov, the force for good. His variegated characters, though differing in education, class, gender, age, sensibilities, and environment, are “touched by the author’s magic, offered a ‘new life’ in the guise of the old, and transformed emotionally or spiritually into different, usually better people,” Avery explains.

Dan Walden, editor of Studies inAmerican Jewish Literature, particularly stresses Malamud’s employment of “common folk elevated by decency and morality.” Walden focuses on The Natural, TheAssistant, and The Fixer. The baseball player, the grocer, his Italian assistant, and the shtetl handyman are seemingly insignificant kleyne mentshelekh [small people] in the tradition of Mendele and other Yiddish writers. Yet each strives to be a mentsh amid the corrupted and corruption. These small heroic figures, Walden convincingly points out, “observe and honor their moral obligations.”

Cynthia Ozick agrees and eloquently reminds us that Malamud “introduced the idea of blessing—a virtue as insight, virtue as crucible—into the literature of a generation mainly sunk in aestheticism or nihilism or solipsism.” In contrast, she asserts, Malamud was a “Maestro of humanity,” a Jewish writer, of course, in spite of his protests to the contrary, but not simply a parochial ethnic writer. Indeed, Jewish writers, according to Ozick, deal with morality and mercy and mentshlekhkayt. Bernard Malamud, she argues, “wrote about suffering Jews, about poor Jews, about grocers and fixers and birds and horses and angels in Harlem and matchmakers and salesmen and rabbis and landlords and tenants and egg chandlers and writers and chimpanzees; he wrote about the plentitude and unity of the world.”

Nicholas Delbanco, in analyzing “The Magic Barrel,” calls Malamud “a high priest of aesthetics.” According to Delbanco, co-editor with Alan Cheuse of Talking Horse:BernardMalamud on Life and Work, the National Book Award winner would compose as many as 18 drafts; he filled notebooks...

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