I sometimes think there is a fourth unwritten masterpiece of Jewish lust and love, shards of which glisten intermittently in all three writers, especially in the strong sensuality of Malamud's later writing. But on the whole, sharpened by centuries of dispersion and persecution, mitigated only by the sometimes suffocating closeness of the family, the Jewish literary sensibility has shown greater familiarity with suffering than with pleasure, a shuddering intimacy with physical anguish, mental anguish, and all the consequent anguish of the moral life. This is why Malamud's books deserve a special place even in so selective a constellation. They resemble the best books by contemporary black writers in their authenticity of setting and feeling, and their sense of the ironies life perpetrates on those who live too close to the margin.
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I sometimes think there is a fourth unwritten masterpiece of Jewish lust and love, shards of which glisten intermittently in all three writers, especially in the strong sensuality of Malamud's later writing. But on the whole, sharpened by centuries of dispersion and persecution, mitigated only by the sometimes suffocating closeness of the family, the Jewish literary sensibility has shown greater familiarity with suffering than with pleasure, a shuddering intimacy with physical anguish, mental anguish, and all the consequent anguish of the moral life.
This is why Malamud's books deserve a special place even in so selective a constellation. They resemble the best books by contemporary black writers in their authenticity of setting and feeling, and their sense of the ironies life perpetrates on those who live too close to the margin. I first read these two books some dozen years ago as an undergraduate, not long after they appeared, and they had on me a very special impact.
I was also struck by how closely the new book returned to the basic pattern if not the style of the earlier work. Malamud's is not exactly an expansive talent, but he tried hard during the sixties to shift the deep but narrow channel he had cut for himself, to avoid repeating old successes. It was in truth an unbearably flat book. It also involved something decidedly offensive, a masochistic comedy of humiliation that was a close counterpart to the more ghastly but, in a literary sense, equally pointless humiliations that made up the whole of the fixer's prison experiences.
The newer elements strike one first. Malamud long ago wrote two stories partly about blacks, but no outsider has as yet ventured to take the measure of what is obviously one of the great subjects of our time, the cultural and psychological upheaval caused by the insurgence of nationalism, separatism and racial pride among blacks today, which has affected the lives of all of us. Malamud is an ideal if unexpected candidate, for he has always been as much interested in ethnicity in general as in Jews, in those passions and perversities that make men behave like characters in folk stories and operas, fabulistic in their very essence.
If his Russians were too literary, dwarfed by the shades of their Dostoevskian originals, his Italians have always been as remarkable as his Jews. But the blacks present a unique problem, for they resist outsiders at the moment, they show only their hard shell, even as they lay claims and hurl charges that are too serious and desperate to be subsumed by any sort of. As it happens though, blacks have more and more been revealing themselves deeply in their own writing, and Malamud's chief black character is an aspiring but clumsy writer named Willie Spearmint, who gets intricately involved with another writer, Jewish, who bears the perfectly Malamudian name of Lesser, Harry Lesser.
Their interaction, and that of the books they are trying to write, forms the core of this novel. As Malamud Constructs them his literary efforts are a gross pastiche of all black confessional writers since Richard Wright. There's a serious problem of tone for Malamud. He intends this all to be mildly funny, but also serious, whereas in fact it is neither very funny nor very real. Malamud has made a genuine effort of sympathy and tact, but in his hands the black experience suffers a mildly whimsical trivialization, emerging neither exaggerated enough to be satiric nor yet inward enough to express the full human reality.
Willie Spearmint, on the other hand, is never done from within: we see him and his work entirely through Lesser's eyes. Harry Lesser fits this pattern perfectly. Prematurely old at 36, isolated from all human connection, he is a model of discipline, craft and devotion to art. Next door a jungle sprouts, full of obscene sexual imagery, on walls only recently belonging to a Mr. Willie's writing and life style have a raw intensity that Lesser has refined out of both his life and work, and the gradual interweaving of their two fates is the most effective thing in Malamud's novel.
Unfortunately, rather than undermining the stereotypes about black sexuality, this plot simply reverses, them; the black girl, for example, turns out to be frigid, Lesser's manful best. Malamud is letting his own fantasies run loose, as blacks themselves often do when they are not writing very well.
More shopworn still is the whole motif of art versus experience already conventional when Henry James exploited it for his marvelous fables about artists and writers, some eighty or more years ago.
But Malamud's apocalypse is humanly very different from Bellow's. Where the latter's version is a paranoid manipulation of stereotypes and racial fantasies, Malamud's novel at its best depicts a range of real human interaction. Though Willie appears on the scene as a kind of primitive, though he barbarously destroys Lesser's manuscript, he has a genuine grievance, he has been callously injured, and he is himself an artist trying to make sense of his experience, to and change.
Bellow's black can't change because he is a mere emblem, a criminal who speaks wordless threats by brandishing his genitals, a force of insurgent primitivism and animality in whom Bellow summarizes all the sins of the sixties: sex, youth, women, blacks, crime in the streets. Bellow yearns to be Sammler, the old sage contemplating Meister Eckhardt, but Malamud's novel is directed against the very withdrawal that Bellow finally apotheosizes.
Lesser, somewhat unconvincingly, is two decades younger than his creator, a man still in the middle of the journey, still able to make choices, to will to live again. But Lesser goes back on his own redemption; the choice he eventually makes indicates a new level of pessimism in Malamud's work.
Many critics have commented on the movement of rebirth and renewal that concludes almost all of his books'. To do so would be to come to terms with time, aging and dying, which his long effort has come to represent, to find humanity and love — the subject of his book — through writing rather than living, as the character in his unfinished. Lesser's book like Malamud's is about a writer who is blocked as a human being and who instead seeks love through the characters he creates.
The book has a strong personal resonance. Malamud's protagonists are always roughly the same person, lesser versions of himself, himself seen under the aspect of frustration and failure, and Lesser's particular failure arises out of his profound but desiccating devotion to art.
That is preceded by the last and most real of Lesser's reveries, in which the black and the Jew, both at a dead end, square off in savage combat in the nowenveloping jungle, mutilating each other head and sex in a ghastly symbiosis of failure and irresolution. Each has at last overcome his isolation; that is the only redemptive note.
Archives Malamud's best book in years, about a black and a Jew. View on timesmachine. TimesMachine is an exclusive benefit for home delivery and digital subscribers. To preserve these articles as they originally appeared, The Times does not alter, edit or update them. Occasionally the digitization process introduces transcription errors or other problems; we are continuing to work to improve these archived versions.
But the blacks present a unique problem, for they resist outsiders at the moment, they show only their hard shell, even as they lay claims and hurl charges that are too serious and desperate to be subsumed by any sort of As it happens though, blacks have more and more been revealing themselves deeply in their own writing, and Malamud's chief black character is an aspiring but clumsy writer named Willie Spearmint, who gets intricately involved with another writer, Jewish, who bears the perfectly Malamudian name of Lesser, Harry Lesser.
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Malamud's best book in years, about a black and a Jew
With The Tenants , his sixth novel, Bernard Malamud took a risk and wrote a book about two writers stuck in a nearly condemned building, in the urban wasteland of an America riddled with conflict. His need to dramatize in fiction a clash between race and individual will, between determination and creation, was clearly made urgent by the events and political transformation of the late sixties. The urgency is evident both in his reducing the politically vast conflict to bare essentials two writers—an African-American and a Jew—one woman, one empty building, one destroyed manuscript , as well as in his consequent refusal, perhaps even inability, to provide any resolution to the tensions of the book. The Tenants is rife with discord and confusion and unanswerable questions, all leading to an eventual narrative disintegration that closely corresponds to the breakdown of order and civility the book depicts. Absent is soothing narrative harmony; absent is the recollection in tranquility; but present is the painful immediacy of a world in which writers cannot produce.
First published in , The Tenants is a ruthlessly funny dissection of a relationship of profound unease and mutual destruction. The last remaining tenant in a condemned New York tenement, Harry Lesser struggles against rising panic and escalating odds to complete the novel he started ten years earlier. Then he stumbles on a black man, sitting typing in one of the deserted flats: Willie Spearmint, soul writer. Touchy, hostile and anti-semitic, demanding then denouncing Lesser's critical help with his floridly violent tales of oppression, Spearmint is exactly what Lesser doesn't need - or does he? Bernard Malamud. Bernard Malamud, one of America's most important novelists and short-story writers, was born in Brooklyn in
In this short novel, Lesser is a man digging his heels in. His landlord wants him out so he can demolish the apartment block and finally make some money out if his land, but Lesser cannot comprehend Perhaps I should've read Malamud's works in order, because I just jumped through time into a completely different author. I've read Malamud's first two books and loved them; I even loved the crazy Bernard Malamud died in The tenants. Bernard Malamud.