Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Mourners

Bernard Malamud (1914–1986)
From Bernard Malamud: Novels and Stories of the 1940s & 50s

Interior of a tenement apartment, Manhattan’s Lower East Side, May 26, 1939. Image courtesy of the New York City Housing Colloection / LaGuardia and Wagner Archives.
In an essay written four decades after the event, Alfred Kazin recalls when Bernard Malamud won the 1958 National Book Award for his story collection The Magic Barrel: “Not for the first time I was seeing a Malamud story unfold.” Philip Davis describes the evening in his biography:
Malamud refused to pose for newspaper and television cameras vulgarly holding up a copy of his book; forgot his winner’s $1,000 cheque and left it on the podium; and delayed by a reporter in getting to the dinner in his honour, was told by a waiter, looking him up and down, that the table was full and there was no place for him.
Yet, in spite of the evening’s inauspicious moments, Malamud was modestly jubilant. Since the award’s founding a decade earlier, it had only been bestowed on a story collection once before, to William Faulkner. In his acceptance speech, Malamud recognized the rarity of the honor, saying that “a small miracle has come to pass. . . . The short story, as you know, is strong and accomplished in American fiction, and I hope that some of its expert practitioners, especially those who come rarely if ever to the novel, will be recognized by you in the future.”

In an interview two years before he died, Malamud specifically acknowledged Faulkner, along with Henry James, as an American author who had influenced his story-writing “technique.” “Two points are essential,” he argued “First, you have to be a good writer; second, you are influenced by the literature of the past and the present.” Various commentators have noted other antecedents. Davis writes that The Magic Barrel “was like a Jewish Brooklyn version of Joyce’s Dubliners”; another scholar calls “The Mourners,” our current Story of the Week selection, “a twentieth-century Jewish version of Melville’s ‘Bartleby the Scrivener.’”

In his oft-quoted Paris Review interview, however, Malamud cautioned against reading too much into the ethnicity of his characters:
I’m an American, I’m a Jew, and I write for all men. A novelist has to, or he’s built himself a cage. I write about Jews, when I write about Jews, because they set my imagination going. . . . Sometimes I make characters Jewish because I think I will understand them better as people, not because I am out to prove anything. . . . [T]he point I’m making is that I was born in America and respond, in American life, to more than Jewish experience.
Agreeing with this self-assessment, Mark Schechner, in The Columbia Companion to the Twentieth-Century American Short Story, writes: “Malamud was a moralist and an insistent one, though the law in which he bound his characters has little in it of specifically Jewish content. It is the law of simple charity and compassion.” Or, as Malamud himself said, “The notions of hope, of redemption are essential to my work.”

Audio excerpt: Bernard Malamud reads “The Mourners.” This three-minute excerpt from the story begins in the middle of page 540 (“Arriving at the top floor. . .”) and ends at the very top of page 542 (“dispossessed goods.”).

This free excerpt is provided by Calliope Audio Readings, which offers recordings of Malamud, Nelson Algren, James Baldwin, James Jones, Philip Roth, William Styron, and John Updike reading from their own works.

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Kessler, formerly an egg candler, lived alone on social security. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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