There’s a memorable conversation recounted by Bernard Malamud in his 1957 novel The Assistant. Frank Alpine is walking with Helen Bober and having his first extended conversation with her. The scene is Brooklyn where Helen’s father runs a barely solvent Mom-and-Pop grocery. Unbeknownst to Helen and her father, Frank and another man had robbed the store at gunpoint, and Frank’s partner pistol-whipped Morris. After the robbery, Frank started clerking in the store.
He and Helen are attracted to each other. Both are nervous and inarticulate about their conflicted emotions. Frank goes to the public library knowing Helen will likely be there. He’s reading The Life of Napoleon. Helen asks why and he says: “‘I am a curious guy. I like to know why people tick. I like to know the reason they do the things they do, if you know what I mean.’” This exchange follows:
“He asked her what book she was reading.
“‘The Idiot. Do you know it?’
“‘No. What’s it about?’
“‘It’s a novel.’
“‘I’d rather read the truth,’ he said.
“‘It is the truth.’”
Helen speaks for us, the novel-readers. (Earlier in the novel, while riding the subway, she was reading Don Quixote.) Frank is the positivist in the conversation. For him, books are true or untrue. In a sense, he is right, but what he means is nonfiction or fiction. We go to good and great novels for the truth of human nature. Think of novels as applied rather than theoretical truth-machines. The teachers are George Eliot, Tolstoy, Henry James and Proust. We can add Malamud to that list, at least in The Assistant (so Russian a novel) and The Fixer (1966), set in Russia and suffused with Russian (and Jewish) themes. Malamud came up in a conversation last week with Boris Dralyuk, which sent me back to The Assistant. Boris said some of Malamud’s short stories “shock and pierce me anew every time.”
Without quite knowing it, Frank Alpine is potentially an ideal reader of novels: “'I like to know why people tick.’” Reading the great novels, especially when we are young, is a lasting education, an inoculation against raids by mere ideas and theories on the human. One of the sub-themes of The Assistant is the centrality of novels to a well-rounded, educated life. A few pages after the conservation quoted above, Helen gives Frank library copies of Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment:
"He noticed she handled each yellow-paged volume as though she were holding in her respectful hands the works of God Almighty. As if--according to her--you could read in them everything you couldn't afford not to know--the Truth about Life."
In his essay “What Happened to the Novel?” Joseph Epstein writes:
“The truths [Henry] James, and with him every great novelist, were interested in are the truths of the heart. James himself invoked his own readers to be a man or woman ‘on whom nothing is lost,’ and what is often lost in the realm of concepts and ideas are those truths the heart knows that no ideas can finally hope to encompass.”