Facing Failure: A Levinasian Reading of Bernard Malamud’s Fiction – Part II

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Writing on Bernard Malamud, Sanford Pinsker argues that with his work we have something fundamentally different from what we find in I.B. Singer. As Pinsker notes, I.B. Singer “had to face the agonizing problem of re-creating a ghetto experience that had been too short lived”(77, The Schlemiel as Metaphor: Studies in Yiddish and American Jewish Fiction).   Singer has this responsibility because he was a Yiddish writer who came to America. For this reason, Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi argues that Singer created a “virtual shtetl” in America. His most popular schlemiel, Gimpel, is a remnant from the world that had died in Europe after the Holocaust.   The real translation of Gimpel into English is not “Gimpel the Fool” so much as “Gimpel the Simpleton.” He is, without a doubt, conveying a Jewish “sample” of the ethical to post-Holocaust American writers.

 

However, Bernard Malamud has a different American context than Singer. According to Pinsker, “Malamud and a host of other postwar American Jewish writers had to discover the boundaries of a heritage that, for them, had hardly lived at all”(77). What emerges out of Malamud’s struggle is a different kind of Jew. Citing Theodore Solotaroff, Pinsker writes that “Jews in his fiction emerged as a ‘type of metaphor…both for the tragic dimension of anyone’s life and for a code of personal morality’”(77).

 

Pinsker builds on this to argue that the morality of Malamud’s fictional Jews can be found in the fact that Malamud’s Jews are “so filled with suffering that one imagines they have just changed clothes after a four thousand year trek across the desert”(78).   And in Malamud’s hands, this morality had a specific target. According to Pinsker, the schlemiel helped Malamud to deal with post-Holocaust anxieties that hadn’t been addressed immediately after WWII: “For American Jewish writers, the figure of the schlemiel became a way of dealing with the more troubling aspects of this condition, a way of talking about moral transcendence rather than economic advancement”(79).

Morris Bober, whose name sounds a lot like the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, is the main character of Malamud’s second novel, The Assistant.  He provides us with an exceptional “sample” of how this “moral transcendence” is communicated through a schlemiel.   To begin with, the main character’s body is an excellent index of what Wyschogrod calls “general carnality.” When we first meet Bober, a man in his sixties who has a failing convenience store and deli, he is dragging “heavy boxes to the door, panting”(31).   We see him in his daily routine which is bleak and weary. His first encounter with another character is, to be sure, an act of charity. When a little girl comes in asking for food for her mother, who has a running bill she can’t pay, he tells the girl “no more trust.” She burst into tears, and Morris – feeling great compassion – gives her food, takes note of the bill and his growing debt, and moves on. This doesn’t bother him. He’s used to losing money and, as the novel shows, puts morality over money. And this, in many ways, makes him a poor schlemiel.

When, a few pages later, the narrator provides a more detailed description of Bober we can see that he is an existential schlemiel of sorts. He seems to be stuck in a store that doesn’t become successful. He is one of three Jews living in a predominantly non-Jewish area in New York City. His other two neighbors have succeeded in making successful businesses, but he has not. Everything seems to be failing around him. The narrator’s description gives us a vantage point to understand his bodily state and “carnal generality.” He is constantly facing failure:

The grocer…had never altered his fortune, unless by degrees of poverty meant altercation, for luck and he were, if not natural enemies, not good friends. He labored long hours, was the soul of honesty, it was bedrock; to cheat would cause an explosion in him, yet he trusted cheaters – coveted nobody’s nothing and always got poorer. The harder he worked – his toil was a form of time devouring time – the less he seemed to have. He was Morris Bober and could be nobody more fortunate. With that name you had no sure sense of property, as if it were in your blood and history not to possess, or if by some miracle to own something, to do so on the verge of loss. (17)

Morris Bober, like Gimpel the Tam (simpleton), trusts everyone. He is the “soul of honesty.” And this marks the foolishness of the secular (schlemiel) saint. He lives in poverty and his happy with his lot and his name (his, so to speak, essence or “generality” is marked by being a “little man” or simpleton).

In the story that follows, we see that Bober is faced with failure to such an extent that he wonders whether or not it is worth it to keep his store. Karp, his neighbor, ends up selling a storefront to a person who would compete with Bober and, to his mind, would likely run him into deeper poverty and force him to close. Bober’s wife urges him to sell the store, but, like a schlemiel, he argues that he “came to late” and lost his opportunity to sell it when it would have been smart. Now, he would get nothing.

In the midst of this crisis, Karp sees him one morning and tips him off that that there is a strange car in the area and that they may hold-up his store. He suggests that Bober close his store down: “Telephone the police,” cried Karp. “The car is parked across the street.” “What car?” “The holdupniks.”   After Karp leaves and Bober motions to call the police, “the store door opened and he hurried inside”(25). Bober is accosted by two crooks who take his money, call him a “Jew liar” for not telling him where the “money is” (and he really doesn’t have any more; he’s near broke), and then proceed to beat him up.

When the blow descends on Morris, he sees all of his frustration and failure pass before him. He “felt sick of himself, of soured expectations, endless frustration, the years gone up in smoke, he could not begin to count how many. He had hoped for much in American and got little…He fell without a cry….It was his luck, others had better”(27). These last lines are telling because, even though he sees his whole life as a series of failures, he still ends off thinking, like a simpleton, that this was his “luck.” In other words, he accepts suffering, failure, and loss with a shoulder shrug.

Following this event, it seems as if Bober’s life and store are over. He can’t carry on. At this moment, an Italian man named “Frank Alpine” (I will refer to him, as does the novel, as “Frank”) shows up. When we first meet him, we learn that he has been hanging around in the area looking for a job. The narrator calls him “the stranger”(30).   He is unkempt, has a beard, and comes from the West. He seems like a fly-by-night kind of person.  His face, seemingly like his character, is “unbalanced.”

He was young, dark-bearded, wore an old brown stained hat, cracked leather patent shoes and a long black overcoat that looked as if it had been lived in. He was tall and not bad looking, except for his nose that had been broken and badly set, unbalancing his face. (29)

And, following this description, the narrator notes that “he looked bleary, unhappy, his beard hard”(30) when he shows up for the first time in the neighborhood.

Nonetheless, he has something mysterious and even saint-like about him.

Sam, who had a candy store in the neighborhood, speaks with Frank. Before speaking with him, however, he sees that Frank is looking off at a picture of a monk. The narrator describes the picture:

The picture was of a thin-faced, dark-bearded monk in a course brown garment, standing barefooted on a sunny country road. His skinny, hairy arms were raised to a flock of birds that dipped over his head. In the background was a grove of leafy trees; and in the far distance a church in sunlight. (30)

Sam, seeing Frank’s interest in the image, asks him if it is “some kind of priest.” In response, Alpine notes that it is a saint: “No, it’s St. Frances of Assisi. You can tell from the brown robe he’s wearing and all those birds in the air”(30).   Following this, Frank further explains that what made him special was the fact that “gave everything away”:

He gave everything away that he owned, every cent, all the clothes off his back. He enjoyed to be poor. He said poverty was a queen and he loved her like she was a beautiful woman. (31)

To be sure, Franks words about the saint indicate that we has been moved by his hagiography. He has, as Wyshchogrod would say, a “sample” of “ethical transcendence.”

When Frank first meets with Bober, he carries his milk bottles in for him. And Frank “willingly accepted when Morris, who knew a poor man when he saw one, invited him in for coffee”(34). Bober, in many ways, is like St. Francis of Assisi. But Bober is Jewish. Frank and Morris engage in conversation and we see this difference come to the surface when Frank explains how he is Italian. Regardless, Bober puts that to the side as he talks to him in a fatherly manner (36). Frank conveys his story to Bober and the story. Like Bober’s story, it is sad. His father leaves him at young age and Frank is raised in an orphanage.   In response to this story, “the grocer was moved.” And both of them bond on the fact that have both experienced poverty and failure throughout their lives.   They both understand the same things that are the substance of what Wyschogrod would call saintly.   However, as we shall see, the schlemiel, Bober, is the bigger saint. He suffers more than Frank and Frank takes advantage of him. Nonetheless, this changes as the novel progresses.

 

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