Wednesday, November 14, 2012

`So That He Could Have It to Say'

It amounts to an adolescent game, a variation on the Robinson Crusoe fantasy, but proves itself useful in distinguishing the sustaining from the merely diverting: Marooned on an island, confined to a hospital bed, what books would you make certain to bring? Now let’s up the ante: What books or passages would you commit to memory, à la Fahrenheit 451, if you knew you would be denied access to printed matter? My first thought is poetry, more Shakespeare and Housman, for their music (itself a consolation) and graceful density of feeling and thought. In Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer (1966), Yakov Bok is imprisoned for the blood-libel murder of a Christian boy. The setting is Tsarist Russia in the early twentieth century. In prison, Bok is given strips of newspaper for wiping and is not permitted to read them, but does so surreptitiously. Malamud writes:

“During the endless empty days, to forget his misery a little, the fixer tried to remember things he had read. He remembered incidents from Spinoza’s life: how the Jews had cursed him in the synagogue; how an assassin had tried to kill him in the street, for his ideas; how he lived and died in his tiny room, studying, writing, grinding lenses for a living until his lungs had turned to glass.”

One thinks of Dr. Nahum Fischelson in Singer’s “The Spinoza of Market Street,” for whom Spinoza is a saintly figure, doubly an outsider, a reliable source of inspiration. But the inspiration for Bok gets him nowhere: 

“Necessity freed Spinoza and imprisoned Yakov. Spinoza thought himself into the universe but Yakov’s poor thoughts were inclosed in a cell.” 

Bok tries to remember what he studied of biology and history, and that too backfires: “They say God appeared in history and used it for his purposes, but if that was so he had no pity for men. God cried mercy and smote his chest, but there was no mercy because there was no pity.” He remembers scraps in Yiddish of stories by I.L. Peretz (1852-1915) and Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916), and some in Russian by Chekhov. Bok is an intelligent, thoughtful man but not well educated. He doesn’t think of himself as devout but neither is he a defiant unbeliever. Malamud said in an interview after he published The Fixer: "I am always interested in the irreligious man's unrelenting concern with God." Malamud writes of Bok:

“He recalled things from the Scriptures, in particular, fragments of psalms he had read in Hebrew on old parchment. He could, in a sense, smell the Psalms as well as hear them. They were sung weekly in the synagogue to glorify God and protect the shtetl from harm, which they never did. Yakov had chanted them, or heard them chanted, many times, and now in a period of remembrance he uttered verses, stanzas that he did not think he knew. He could not recall a whole psalm, but from fragments he put together one that he recited aloud in the in the cell in order not to forget it, so that he could have it to say.” 

Malamud reproduces Bok’s fragmentary memories of the Psalms, twenty-seven lines, a collage drawn mostly from the King James translation: 7:14-15, 6:6, 102:3-4, 35:11, 31:13, 10:12, 10:15, 21:9, 18:9, 18:14, 18:37. Their themes, from false accusation to retribution, comment on Bok’s plight. Many of us, Jews or not, locked up or free, hold in memory scraps of Psalms 23 and 100, and the speech in The Merchant of Venice in which Shylock emerges greater than the play that imprisons him.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Primo Levi does something similar with Dante's Ulysses in "If This Is A Man".