Sunday, May 10, 2015

`I Could Write a Big Book'

In 1932, Bernard Malamud (1914-1986) was presented with a Scholastic Art and Writing Award for an essay he had written in high school. “Life—From Behind a Counter” is Malamud’s account of working in his father’s grocery in Brooklyn – experiences he drew upon in his greatest novel, The Assistant (1957). The schoolboy prose is stiff and earnest but already admirably clean and transparent. Malamud hasn’t yet developed the gumption to work a little harder and resist the easy cliché, but the mysterious clarity of his best fiction is already evident. Missing, except in some of the dialogue quoted in the essay, is the suffusion of Yiddish in Malamud's English. Unlike most of the school compositions I have read (and written), Malamud’s says something, recounts reality. He has observed a small plot of the world and reflected on the experience. 

Especially good is his description of dealing with a customer, “a tall woman . . . richly dressed in furs.” The encounter is memorable enough for him to call it “my first awakening.” Anyone who has ever worked in retail will recognize the impotent frustration, the sense of injustice, he feels when serving a difficult customer: 

“She gasped deeply and then let me have it. She gave me a tongue-lashing that drove the blood swiftly to my face. She heaved, rocked, tossed, and creaked —like a ship on the high seas. In vain did I try to protest, to explain—nothing doing! My father refused to come to my aid. He stayed where he was and attended to another customer. Finally, with a very well enunciated `Stupid!’, she strode haughtily out of the store, as I sighed in deep relief.” 

Malamud’s father doesn’t come to his defense. He says, instead, “My son, now you have learned the business man’s first law. The customer is always right,” which is approximately the last thing in the world a teenager wants to hear. Malamud adds: “I learned the first law of business that night, but somehow I felt that I had learned something else.” He learns about human beings, their grievances, casual cruelties and self-centered pettiness – essential knowledge for a writer of fiction. Malamud has already alluded in his essay to Wordsworth, Beethoven and the Old and New Testaments. Now he cites an unexpected forebear: 

“Samuel Johnson learned that it was good to be honest from his mother; a thick volume elaborating on the subject didn’t teach him anything new. I learned that it was good to be honest from my parents, but experience with dishonest people and the knowledge of the consequences of their dishonesty taught me more than a thousand books.” 

I doubt that more than a handful of high-school students in the U.S. today could articulate such morally savvy sentiments – or cite Johnson as a source. Malamud closes his composition with a prophetic exchange with a meat salesman: 

“`I bet,’ he said, taking a bite of the apple and pointing his pen knife towards the window at the figure of the beggar, `vat you see in vun day, und vat you hear in vun day from dese people—you can write a leetle book about.’” 

“I nodded—only I thought, `I could write a big book.’” 

“Life! from behind a counter.” 

A brief digression: When I was few years younger than Malamud when he wrote his essay, he was probably my favorite fiction writer. The Natural (1952) never much interested me because it dealt with baseball and myth, two subjects that continue to bore me. But I read and reread The Assistant, The Magic Barrel (1958), Idiots First (1963) and The Fixer (1966). I loved Bellow but when I tried to write like him, the result was a ridiculous pastiche of Bellovian gestures. I thought I could write like Malamud, but soon Malamud was no longer writing like Malamud. Often the later books are embarrassing – strident, plodding, even on occasion inept. But in The Assistant, the former grocery clerk wrote his “big book.”

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