Wednesday, May 15, 2019

'The Multifarious Adventures of the Human Heart'

In 1975 a bookish friend and I were playing one of those presumptuous literary parlor games popular with young people who have read too much and lived and thought too little: name the three greatest short stories ever written. I can’t remember his choices but mine remain egotistically vivid: Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “The Spinoza of Market Street,” Flaubert’s Un cœur simple and Faulkner’s “Red Leaves.” One out of three is not a bad average for a twenty-three-year-old, but I have no idea what I was thinking when I came up with Flaubert and Faulkner. I’ve haven’t read either in years, while I regularly return to Singer.

This week I reread some of Bernard Malamud’s stories. At twelve or thirteen, when I was secretly trying to write fiction, he was the writer I most often imitated, even more than Bellow. His style was pared-back and dry, which gave me the mistaken impression that I could easily copy him – a monolingual suburban goy imitating a Yiddish-infused, inner-city Jew. This week I also reread Joseph Epstein’s piece on Malamud in Essays in Biography (Axios, 2012). Near the end he writes:

“The received opinion about Bernard Malamud is that he was best as a writer of short stories, and this opinion is probably correct. He himself defined the short story as ‘dramatizing the multifarious adventures of the human heart.’ Not many writers—Chekhov, Isaac Babel, Isaac Bashevis Singer—did it better. In his stories, no matter how dark his subject, his comic genius came alive, and when it did, so did his characters, whereas in the longer form of the novel his innate glumness too often seemed to win out.”

Malamud wrote two excellent novels – The Assistant (1957) and The Fixer (1966). The others are disappointing. His best work in the short form is in The Magic Barrel (1958) and Idiots First (1963). What interests me is Epstein’s variation on the parlor game I played years ago. I can’t argue with Chekhov, Babel, Singer and Malamud. They stand at the heart of my essential short fiction list, to which I would add Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and James Joyce for a single story, “The Dead.”

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