CULTURE & THE ARTS:
The Works of Bernard Malamud--On Stage, in Films, in Music, and at the Bookstore
AUFBAU 62:18 Aug. 30, 1996 p15
[original title: Bernard Malamud
On Stage, On Film, and at the Bookstore] August 21, 1996
Copyright by Leonard Lehrman & AUFBAU
(3 1/3 pp., 1838 words)
Boris Thomashefsky (grandfather of conductor Michael Tilson Thomas), Jacob Adler, Maurice Schwartz: These are the great names invoked in frustration by the retired Yiddish actor Maurice Feuer in Bernard Malamud's "Scene of a Play," Suppose A Wedding: "All were better than me." Malamud can be heard here as himself railing against the greatness of tradition that any modern artist inevitably runs up against, finds himself compared with, and is expected to measure up to. In Malamud's case, there were always Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and I.B. Singer, preceded by Sholom Aleichem, I.L. Peretz and S. Ansky. (In the play, Malamud even borrows, unacknowledged, a parable from Ansky's The Dybbuk; in my opera based on Suppose A Wedding, which will be premiered at the International Jewish Arts Festival of Long Island in Commack September 2, the debt is acknowledged.)
And yet, like the author himself, "a Malamud character," the author told Israel Shenker of The New York Times in 1971, "is someone who fears his fate, is caught up in it, yet manages to outrun it. He's the subject and object of laughter and pity"--sort of a synthesis of Aristotelian "catharsis through pity and terror" and Chekhovian "laughter through tears," or the Yiddish theater's "Leid macht auch lachen." (Malamud's mother's brother, Charles Fidelman, and their cousin, Isidore Cashier, were in the Yiddish theater.)
All of the characters in Suppose A Wedding are caught up in a struggle that is both comic and tragic. Feuer's wife Florence favors the young sporting goods salesman, Leon Singer, the fianc of their daughter, Adele. Feuer favors the young writer upstairs, Ben Glickman: "Maybe he won't be rich, but he'll have a rich life.... He knows what life means, and he knows what's real." The emotional deck is stacked in favor of the idealist vs. the materialist. To Feuer, and to Malamud, "a writer writes tragedy so people don't forget that they are human." And yet, like Lefty or Godot, Ben Glickman does not appear - until the very end. A balance is thus achieved as we see the less favorably portrayed Leon flailing against the unshown ideal, and end up admiring the salesman's humanity in spite of ourselves.
In the opera based on the play, each of the four main characters is musically portrayed as having a different internal rhythm: four-square for Leon; a romantic waltz for Adele; an asymmetrical but determined quintuple meter for Feuer; and a septuple frenzy for Florence, beside herself as she watches Feuer subtly and not so subtly working to break up the engagement between Adele and Leon. When Ben finally does enter, he is the not unsympathetic jumble of emotions that have already been expressed by all the other characters' views of him.
"He doesn't tell me what he's suffered, but I can see it in his eyes," Feuer tells us. In the opera, hopefully, we can hear it and feel it too. Although literarily this may be seen as a weakness, the fact is that the work leaves room for the music.
Though not known as a dramatist, in fact Bernard Malamud (1914-1986) is one of America's greatest writers of all time. His novels and short stories, so many of which touch on Jewish themes, have often been called modern Midrashim. (It may be no coincidence that "malamud" is one of the possible transliterations of the Hebrew word for "teacher.") Among the seven (and a half) novels, The Natural (1952) and The Fixer (1966) won numerous awards and were made into films, starring Robert Redford and Alan Bates, respectively. A screenplay also exists for what many feel is his finest work, The Assistant (1957).
Malamud's own response to the Redford film is recorded in Talking Horse: Bernard Malamud on Life and Work, edited by his colleagues Alan Cheuse and Nicholas Delbanco (with whom he taught on the Bennington College faculty in the 1960s and '70s), and published last May by Columbia University Press: "feh, feh.... Well, this may or may not be a good picture but it isn't what I wrote. It certainly isn't my book." "There's a quasi-comic irony," comments Delbanco, "in the commercial fact that his name has been kept largely alive since his death--for the reading public at large--by paperback sales of The Natural. " (pp.161-2)
The new collection of notes, lectures and interviews also sheds interesting light on the origins of The Fixer: his own early short story "The German Refugee," and the desire to write about social justice, prompted by the civil rights movement in America. Researching a possible novel on Sacco and Vanzetti (an interest shared with composer Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964), whom Ned Rorem called, posthumously, Malamud's "ideal collaborator"), he decided, unfortunately, that "the legend was beyond further invention. And simply retelling their lives and history didn't interest me." (p.88) Eventually he came to the story of Mendel Beilis and the blood-libel in early 20th century Russia, which he recalled hearing in his childhood from his father. That character he fictionalized as Yakov Bok, the reluctant hero of The Fixer.
In particular, he was interested in "the relation of personal morality to social morality.... What is the source of morality, and how is it discovered, of those few Germans who hid a handful of Jews away from the ovens of the concentration camps?" (p.193) "I did not live the [Jewish] experience in day-to-day terror as some of you here did," he told an audience in 1977, while accepting the Jewish Heritage Award, "but in imagination was affected by it, how deeply, and how imaginatively, and by what other experiences, Jewish or not Jewish, is apparent in my writing.... I came to knowledge of Jewish life mostly through people, not formal education.... There are many ways to be a Jew." (pp.182-3)
The short story "Angel Levine" (1955) also became a film with Harry Belafonte and Zero Mostel [(which Mrs. Malamud told this writer May 13, 1996 that neither she nor her husband could ever bear to watch all the way through, thus confirming the author's statement in his last conversation with this writer - in 1978 - to the effect that he preferred operatic to film treatments of his work because they "opened them up" less)], as well as a 1985 opera by Elie Siegmeister [(produced at the 92nd Street Y and published by Carl Fischer)] and a musical play by Phyllis K. Robinson [(produced by the Jewish Repertory Theater, the subject of this writer's first review for this newspaper, 15 months ago, which concluded: "Malamud and the company deserve better")].
The 1961 title story in the collection Idiots First was made into an opera by Marc Blitzstein (a visiting Bennington faculty member) in 1962-63 and completed by this writer in 1973. [(I first met Malamud and his wife at Bennington in 1970.)] In 1978 it won the first Off-Broadway Opera Award for "most important event of the season." [(The title has to be one of the most frequently misspelled and misstated in literature. The editors of Talking Horse inserted an apostrophe where there should be none; and many a speaker has miscalled it "Idiot's Delight" after the work by Robert Sherwood--I even heard Malamud himself make that mistake once!)]
"Idiots First" is a magnificent parable combining the essence of Abraham and Isaac with the story of Everyman, pursued by an evil presence called Ginzberg, with whom the protagonist climactically pleads: "Don't you understand what it means--human!?" "I try to represent in my fiction the Jew as universal man," Malamud asserted in one of his [(frustratingly)] undated talks, published in Talking Horse. And even in the works not specifically Jewish, "if you must hunt for an element of Jewish subject matter (this is all that concerns some critics, even non-Jews) it's there, though indirectly." (pp.137-8)
Blitzstein also sketched a libretto and one song for the 1954 title story in Malamud's collection The Magic Barrel[; the story has also been staged as a play]. In a college lecture, published for the first time in Talking Horse, Malamud reveals the sources of this wonderful tale of Salzman, the shadchan and Leo Finkle, the rabbinical student who falls in love with a picture of his daughter[: marriage broker vignettes among Yiddish stories in the collection Royte Pomerantzen which Irving Howe had invited him to translate for inclusion in an anthology; his own experience receiving a form letter from a matrimonial agency when he graduated from CCNY in 1936, advertising potential matches as "wellAmericanized," "owns Dodge car," and "father is a dentist"; incidents in Dostoevsky's Idiot and the life of Mark Twain, who fell in love with a picture of the woman he would marry; Marc Chagall, except that "now almost anything I write is [viewed as] Chagallean, something I hope to live down before too very long" (p.85); and finally the question of whether one could really love God if one had trouble loving other people, prompted both by discussions with his wife and a critical review he read of Whittaker Chambers' Witness. The sketches also reveal his original predilection to use more Yiddish expressions than he finally did. (Betty Magnani of Florence, Italy recently completed an M.A. thesis on the use of Yiddish in his fiction.)]
Valuable as it is to have this new collection of Malamud jottings, the editors readily admit that "much work remains to be done." (p.xxiv) One is tempted to quote Malamud himself on "how badly some books are edited these days" (p.34) when one reads (on p.70): "Late Saturday afternoon, ...Leo Finkle waked [instead of "walked"] with Lily Hirschorn along Riverside Drive"; phrases like "being Jew" (p.141) and "every time we fight anew war" (p.204), or a mention in the middle of a lecture (on p.101) of "Cowley's proposals" with no explication whatsoever. [Repetitions between sections could also have been avoided if only there were an index.]
Other operas on stories by Malamud include this writer's Karla, based on "Notes from a Lady at a Dinner Party" (1973) from the Rembrandt's Hat collection (known together with Idiots First as Tales of Malamud and both published by Theodore Presser); The Lady of the Lake by Elie Siegmeister (published by Carl Fischer together with his Angel Levine); The Jewbird by Raymond Goldstein (in Hebrew); [and the aforementioned Suppose A Wedding, based on Malamud's only published dramatic work, first published in 1963 in the short story collection, Idiots First. My staging of the work as a play, at Cornell in 1973, is believed to be the only time the piece has ever been staged to date. The new opera is an independent work, designed, however, as a possible intermezzo between Idiots First and Karla. The September 2 production will be its first public presentation, concertante. The first fully staged performance is scheduled for Sunday, June 1, 1997 at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, 1 West 4th Street in Manhattan.]
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