Saying too Much, Or Not Enough: The Schlemiel, Speech, and Bad Timing in Malamud’s “The Assistant”

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More often than not, schlemiels miss opportunities. They are often too late or too early; they either speak too much or too little. Schlemiels do things that make them the odd one’s out. Andy Warhol, an unlikely candidate for the schlemiel, finds a good idiom to express this endless bungling when he points out how, “Whenever I’m interested in something, I know that timing’s off, because I’m always interested in the right thing at the wrong time.” Although it may seem as if Warhol is the odd one out, he is saying something many Americans can identify with. Although many of us don’t like to admit it, because its embarrassing or unprofessional, our timing is often off.   To be sure, relating to the other or to time itself, we often misjudge what to say and what to do. Oftentimes, this has to do with the fact that when we act we often act at the wrong time and take risks in relation to norms that are often not so clear. To be sure, failure is endemic to being human but in the schlemiel it is caricatured to an even greater extent so as to point out what we often choose not to admit about who we are and the meaning of what we actually do.   We tend to overestimate ourselves and others and the schlemiel flies in the face of this misrecognition. But for all it’s failures, the schlemiel is, as I have argued, a deeply moral and even saintly character. But this saintliness – unlike the saintliness of saints in this or that religion – is tainted with missed opportunities, bad timing, and failure.

At the end of Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant, a book schlemiel theory has blogged on a lot, Frank lives in the wake of Morris Bober’s death. As I pointed out before, he takes on the legacy of the schlemiel. This is emblematized in the moment when, during the funeral, he falls into Bober’s grave. He falls in because he was distracted.   But this doesn’t detract from the fact that Frank wants to do good and make amends for things he has done wrong. Now that Bober is dead, it is a lot more difficult for him to get forgiveness; since Bober didn’t fully forgive him for what he did, Frank has to make appeals to Helen and Ida, who survive Bober.

While Ida and Helen are sitting shiva (mourning), Frank gets to work and helps out:

He had used their week of mourning, when mother and daughter were confined upstairs, to get the store going. Staying open kept it breathing, but beyond that things were rocky. (233)

Lest we not forget, Helen is not on good terms with Frank because of his untimely sexual encounter with her. Ida is on the fence with him. Neither of them know that he was one of the people who robbed Bober. Regardless, Frank works diligently to gain back their trust. He cooks food, makes sandwiches, and works while they are in mourning and, later, away from the store.

Even though Helen stays away from Frank, he keeps on working until, one day, he decides that he wants to tell her that he wants to pay for her education. But the time that leads up to this is awkward since he is unsure of his timing:

He was nearing the library when he glanced up and saw her.   She was about half a block away and walking toward him. He stood there not knowing which way to go, dreading to be met by her as lovely as she looked, standing like a crippled dog as she passed him. He thought of running back the way he had come, but she saw him, turned and went in haste the other way. (238)

Since the timing is off, the situation alters her timing too. And then he “blurts” out what he wants to say: “They shivered. Giving her no time to focus her contempt, he blurted out what he had so long saved to say but could not now stand to hear himself speak”(238).

Frank knows he has, like a schlemiel, said the wrong thing at the wrong time. But Helen is moved by this awkwardness.   Even though his timing is off, she is startled by his tenacity:

Considering the conditions of his existence, she was startled by his continued abilty to surprise her, make God-knows-what-next-move. His staying power mystified and frightened her, because she felt in herself…a waning of outrage. (239)

However, she says the opposite thing of what she wanted to say. She refuses him and says she doesn’t want his help.   However, she is curious. Querying into his “virtue,” she asks him why he is so persistent.   And at this point, Frank puts his foot into his mouth by saying that everything he is doing is because “I owe something to Morris.”   When she asks “for what?” Frank goes into schlemiel consciousness and battles with himself as to whether or not he should tell the truth. And this turns into a question about timing. Is now the right time to speak?

What more could he say? To his misery, what he had done to her father rose in his mind. He had often imagined he would someday tell her, but not now.   Yet the wish to say it overwhelmed him. He tried wildly to escape it. His throat hurt, his stomach heaved. He clamped his teeth tight but the words came up in blobs, in a repulsive stream. (240)

The narrator’s nauseating metaphor for Frank’s speech as “blobs, in a repulsive stream” indicates that Frank says the very things that will lead to him being despised. When Helen learns that Frank was in on the robbery of Bober, which the book began with, she “screams” at him, calls him a criminal, and leaves. Frank’s last words to Helen are, “I confessed it to him.” But this confession doesn’t make a difference. His timing was off. But then again he spoke the truth and in telling her he suffers it.

In the wake of this, Helen realizes that Frank did change into “somebody else” and was “no longer what he had been”(243). And in realizing this she feels that “since he has changed in his heart he owes me nothing”(243). And, in effect, she releases him from his debt to Morris. She does this actively by, for the first time, thanking him and declaring his debt over (243).   He feels that now it is the right time to start all over. However, his timing is off. She refuses. But he learns to let go.

Following this event, Frank goes back to a form of timing he knows well. He becomes, like Bober, bound to the store. In the midst of his first day, after confession, he dreams of Helen and sees himself, in a moment of day dreaming, as St. Francis. He gives Helen, a “little sister” a rose.   He is a saint, but in reality he doesn’t have Helen.

And in the last paragraph of the novel, we learn that he “one day” decided to have himself circumcised. And, following it, his time is filled with the pain of circumcision and the inspiration that he is a Jew. This time, in contrast to the bad timing in the end of the novel, is not, as Warhol would say, the right thing at the wrong time. On the contrary, Malamud seems to be telling us that Jewish time – now marked on his body – will always be a mixture of pain and inspiration.   But this time may always seem wrong and may always seem off. Perhaps that is the virtue of the schlemiel: to show us how time is always right and wrong – how time may be off when it is on and vice versa – or as Hamlet would say “out of joint.”  But that can be funny sometimes…while at other times it can be really painful.

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