From My Bookshelf: The Assistant, by Bernard Malamud

UnknownLast June, I shared a short list of books I hoped to read over the summer. Bernard Malamud’s 1957 novel The Assistant was on that list, because, as I explained “I should have read it long ago.”

Alas, the summer ended without my meeting the goal. But there’s a good postscript: I did manage to read the book this past week.

It’s phenomenal. The edition I’d purchased happens to include an introduction by Jonathan Rosen, and that introduction drew me in from its first two paragraphs:

We are told in the first sentence of The Assistant that the street “was dark though night had ended.” This description in many ways captures the larger condition of Bernard Malamud’s fiction. Writing after the grimmest struggles of immigrant life, after the Holocaust, after Saul Bellow had, with The Adventures of Augie March, made Jewish writing synonymous with American exuberance, Malamud conjured a world in which the long show of suffering still blotted out the sun.

Though he dabbled in magical realism, spread his wings in novels like A New Life, and occasionally sent a character to Italy following his own Fulbright there, Malamud’s most memorable fictions are set in an outer borough of Stygian darkness where the inner light of the soul is in constant danger of winking out. When the psalmist cries, “O Lord, do not let me go down into the pit,” he may have in mind something like Morris Bober’s grocery store.

See what I mean?

The thing is, now that I’ve read the novel, I’m just about as impressed with Rosen’s succinctly eloquent, perfect description as I am with the book itself. And as for that book, I’m going to point you to Josh Lambert’s write-up on it for his American Jewish Fiction guide, now available on the Fig Tree Books website.

Have you read The Assistant? What did you think of it?

5 thoughts on “From My Bookshelf: The Assistant, by Bernard Malamud

  1. Ellen Golub says:

    The Assistant is classic Malamud and a book that I love. But looking back over the decades, I no longer see it as so “Jewish” in its heart, rather a more sentimentalized Judaism with flecks of Christianity and assimilationism. Though I am a sucker for Malamud’s style– I can recite the first page of “The Magic Barrel” and the ending: “Violins and lit candles revolved in the sky.”– I prefer the current generation of more Jewishly knowledgable writers. I guess I’ve wearied of tikun olam and want more Hebraic ideas in my fiction. Still, thanks for the tip on Jonathan Rosen’s introduction. I am a Rosenphile and a fan of his book, The Talmud and the Internet.
    Thanks for all the good updates, Erika. I enjoy your posts.

    1. Erika Dreifus says:

      Thank you for such a thoughtful and interesting comment, Ellen.

  2. Clive Collins says:

    Another paragraph to add to the couple that you quote, Erika, this one from Philip Roth’s essay that appeared in the London Review of Books in 1986 []:

    “Not unlike Beckett, Malamud wrote of a meagre world of pain in a language all his own: in his case, an English that often appeared, even outside the idiosyncratic dialogue, to have in large part been clipped together from out of what one might have thought to be the least promising stockpile, most unmagical barrel, around – the locutions, inversions and diction of Jewish immigrant speech, a heap of broken verbal bones that looked, until he came along in those early stories to make them dance to his sad tune, to be no longer of use to anyone other than the Borscht Belt comic and the professional nostalgia-monger. Even when he pushed this parable prose to its limits, Malamud’s metaphors retained a proverbial ring. In his most consciously original moments, when he sensed in his grimly-told, impassioned tales the need to sound his deepest note, he remained true to what seemed old and homely, matter-of-factly emitting the most touchingly unadorned poetry to make things even sadder than they already were: ‘He tried to say some sweet thing but his tongue hung in his mouth like dead fruit on a tree, and his heart was a black-painted window.’”

    1. Erika Dreifus says:

      Oh, my. Thank you for sharing that, Clive.

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