Friday, April 11, 2014

Idiots First

Bernard Malamud (1914–1986)
From Bernard Malamud: Novels and Stories of the 1960s

Special note: The centennial of Bernard Malamud’s birth is this month, on April 26.

In 1961 Brooklyn native Bernard Malamud, after living and teaching for over a decade in Corvallis, Oregon, returned East to assume a new position at Bennington College, a progressive liberal arts school for women in Vermont. (Bennington did not begin admitting men until 1969.) The summer prior to moving his family to Vermont, Malamud conducted a writing workshop at Harvard for ten lucky students. Clark Blaise, a Canadian native who was a senior at a Denison University in Ohio and a fan of Malamud’s writing, applied for the course by mail and then hitchhiked to Harvard.

Unbeknownst to Blaise, there had been seventy-five applicants for the workshop—but only ten spots, and Harvard administrators had already filled them. When he arrived and discovered he hadn’t been chosen for the class, Blaise worked up the courage to appeal to Malamud himself, who eventually relented and allowed him to take the class. Malamud biographer Philip Davis concludes, “That is how Clark Blaise, the novelist, became one of the writers who were the sons of Bern’—the extended literary family whom Malamud, as father and mentor, was often able to help more than he could his own children.”

Beyond the Harvard workshop and the move to Vermont, Malamud found the time to finish and publish a new short story, “Idiots First”—his first in over two years. Describing a dying man’s frantic attempt to insure security for his disabled son, it remains one of the most revered of Malamud stories. The story displays Malamud’s ability to be both a realist and a fantasist
“at his best the line between the two was obliterated,” writes New Republic critic Richard Gilman.

Blaise describes the tale as illustrating his former teacher’s religious view “that it is man’s struggle that makes God take pity.”

It is when God—or something like God—looks into man’s eyes and sees his own fury reflected in its effect on the human condition, his own cold reflection in man, that he then lets go. That’s the writing act too. The novelist looking on the characters he has created, and wanting to have those characters look out from the page with that kind of need for salvation that redeems the novelist himself. [Quoted in Philip Davis, Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life (2007)]
Literary scholar Victoria Aaron offers another take, arguing that Malamud’s story evokes the Binding of Isaac—except that Mendel, the Abraham figure, “refuses to sacrifice that which he loves most. Like his biblical predecessor, Mendel is called forth to do the inconceivable. But unlike Abraham, Mendel . . . will not acquiesce to the commanding voice of the law.”

Note: Gut yuntif (page 731) is a Yiddish expression meaning “Good (religious) holiday.”

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The thick ticking of the tin clock stopped. Mendel, dozing in the dark, awoke in fright. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!