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

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One of the key features of the schlemiel, one we see brought out in I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” is the fact that the schlemiel – regardless of the situation – doesn’t give up on trusting people. Even if there is reason to judge someone in a negative manner, they overlook or find an excuse to judge it favorably. Although the reader may frown upon the desire to trust the stranger, the fact of the matter is that it is one of the most noteworthy qualities of the schlemiel. And though the schlemiel comically misses the truth of the matter in this or that story, the failure of others to be honest with the schlemiel should trouble us. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” teaches us this lesson. But it does so by drawing on a character who was born in Europe (and who Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi associates with the “virtual ghetto” created by American intellectuals and writers such as Irving Howe, Leslie Feidler, Saul Bellow, and I.B. Singer) . In contrast, and as I have been showing, Malamud’s novel, The Assistant, makes the schlemiel more realistic…and American.   He also shows us how an American schlemiel can be a secular saint, instead of what we often see the schlemiel portrayed as today: as a bro, a dude, a poor loser, or a caricature.

(Indeed, Hollywood does not and should not hold the rights over the meaning and life of the American schlemiel.)

As we have seen over the last three blog entries, Bober trusts Frank. Frank has good intentions but his actions contradict them. He continues to steal although he knows it is wrong. And, to be sure, as the story goes on we learn that he was one of the people who robbed and beat up Bober. For this reason, we can see that he becomes Bober’s “assistant” because he has a conscience. He feels guilty.   And over time, he makes more and more efforts to make things right; but this doesn’t keep him from stealing.

As a schlemiel, Bober doesn’t simply see Frank as a poor stranger in need of a job. He sees him as a person who has turned himself around (in the Hebrew and Yiddish this would be called “teshuva”).   But as I pointed out in the last blog entry, Karp – one of three Jews in Bober’s neighborhood and who also happens to have a business and a daughter he wants to marry off – tells Bober that all of the things he believed about Frank and the success of the store were wrong. Moreover, he deals the crushing blow when he tells Bober that new business owners are taking over a store than will, most likely, run out of business.

Depressed and confused about Frank, Bober goes to bed, has a tormented sleep, but wakes up with many thoughts about Frank. Instead of thinking about how much a fool he was for thinking that Frank was the reason for success, Bober ends up putting Frank in a favorable light. What Malamud has done for us, in this instance, is to provide us with a means of accessing the thoughts of an American schlemiel. But, as I mentioned above, these thoughts are not those of a caricatured schlemiel or a schlemiel who is a poor loser so much as an American schlemiel who is, as Edith Wyschogrod would say, a “sample” of a saint’s “carnal generality.” In these instances, we see Bober rethink what Karp had told him:

As for what he would do with Frank, after long pondering of the situation, thinking how the clerk had acted concerning their increase in business – as if he alone had created their better times – Morris at length decided that Frank had not as he had assumed when Karp told him the news – tried to trick him into believing that he was responsible.   The grocer supposed that the clerk, like himself, was probably ignorant of the true reason of their change of luck. (156)

The narrator tops it off by telling us that “Morris felt” that Frank didn’t know and muses that perhaps he did this “because he wanted to believe that he (Frank) was their benefactor”(156). And “maybe that was why he had been too blind to see what he had seen, too deaf too hear what he had heard. It was possible”(156). In other words, the narrator is trying to figure out, by way of thinking like a schlemiel, why Morris overlooked these things about Frank. And this musing about how this was possible tells us a lot. It tells us that a schlemiel, of Bober’s saintly type and of Gimpel’s type, wants to believe in the others goodness. Moreover, they “feel” before they think; not the other way around. Here, in this moment, we have such a situation where Bober is trying to think about Frank after hearing negative things from Karp; nonetheless, we can see that even though he may see why he is blind, he continues to stay that way be judging Frank favorably.

Nonetheless, Bober is weak and realizes that the store will have to be sold now that there is new competition in the neighborhood. Following this musing, which all happens in the morning, before opening the store, Frank comes down to see that Bober is suffering and confused: “When Frank came down he at once noticed that the grocer was not himself”(157). Frank, to be sure, has his own moral problems. But the narrator tells us that what troubles him most is what Bober’s daughter, Helen, told him; namely, that he must “discipline himself”(157).

While Bober is in the dumps, Frank “makes his mind up,” based on what Helen told him about disciplining himself, that he would “return, bit by bit until all paid up, the hundred and forty-odd bucks he had filched from Morris in the months he had worked for him”(157). Frank wants to tell Bober, for the first time (!), that he stole money from him and that he was going to pay every dime of it back. But when he sees Bober’s suffering face, he “felt it was useless”(157).

Frank, for the first time, contemplates what it would be like to confess the truth to Bober, a Jew. And this troubles him, deeply. An anti-Semitic thought crosses his mind, but this turns into other thoughts that tap into his conscience:

But when he pictured himself confessing, the Jew listening with a fat ear, he could not stand the thought of it Why should he make more trouble for himself than he could now handle, and end by defeating his purpose to fix things up and have a better life? That past was the past and the hell with it. (158)

Taking this as a point of reflection, the narrator, in the most judicious manner, suggests that Frank may have been a “victim” of anti-Semitic thief who cajoled him into doing it while, at the same time, noting that he did rob Bober and must make amends. He did the deed and must pay the price, but the narrator seems to suggest that he can get away with not saying anything while…secretly paying Bober back:

He had unwittingly taken part in a holdup, but he was, like Morris, more of a victim of Ward Minogue. If alone, he wouldn’t have done it. That didn’t excuse him that he did, but at least showed his true feelings. So what was their to confess if the whole things had been sort of an accident? Let bygones be gone. He had no control over his past – could only shine it up here and there and shut up as to the rest. From now on he would keep his mind on tomorrow…He would change and live in a worthwhile way.   (158)

What’s fascinating about this reflection is the fact that, as far as Judaism goes, teshuva (repentance) requires that if a Jew does something wrong they should admit the wrong to the person wronged and ask for forgiveness. Here we see that Frank can’t do that. It is too much for him. He can pay back what he stole, but he can’t face Bober and tell the truth.

Nonetheless, Bober still trusts Frank (or rather, as the narrator suggests, wants to trust Frank) and the door is still open. The schlemiel leaves open the door for teshuva. The question is whether Frank can fully (not partially) follow through.

To be continued……

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