Mercilessness Clarifies: On Bernard Malamud



Bernard Malamud and Cynthia Ozick, backstage at the 92nd street Y

75 at 75: Writers on Recordings,” a special project from the 92nd Street Y in celebration of the Unterberg Poetry Center’s seventy-fifth anniversary and beyond, invites contemporary authors to listen to a recording from the Poetry Center’s archive and write a personal response. Here, Chris Bachelder reflects on Bernard Malamud’s reading from 1972, which was introduced by Cynthia Ozick. You can listen to the recording below. 

I’ve been talking to students about what a short story is, what it does, for about two decades. I’ve spent a lot of words. It occurred to me, while listening to this recording, that my entire teaching career has primarily been an attempt to say what Cynthia Ozick says—in just two words!—during her introductory remarks for Bernard Malamud. Of Malamud and his work, Ozick says, “Mercilessness clarifies.” Subject, verb.

The short story, I have tried to explain, is a very unpleasant business indeed. In this brief form, character is not developed but revealed. And characters, like the humans they represent and like the authors who create them, would much prefer not to be revealed. If a story draft has an escape hatch, a character will almost certainly slither through it. The successful short story, then, is a revelation machine, a ruthlessly efficient technology created to exert truth-inducing pressure on character. The pressure must be especially formulated for the protagonist—the story is a kind of constitutional torture chamber designed for one. The what of event must brutally befit the who of character. The writer must decide: Under what guise shall the devil appear? What vast trouble should I dispatch to this character on this day? How can the story cut off exit and extract that which character (and perhaps author) would prefer remained concealed? Only under certain circumstances can revelation occur, and story drafts fail when insufficient pressure is applied, or when the pressure does not correspond adequately to character, or when the writer allows the character somehow to evade the pressure.

The short story is a merciless form, and its best practitioners have been merciless. Flannery O’Connor knew the kind of pressure it takes to produce revelation. As the Misfit says, “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” And Malamud, whom O’Connor admired, was also an artfully cruel narrative architect. Nothing is ever easy for the Malamud protagonist. The ground state is bad—penury, loneliness, desperation, anguish—and the irreversible disturbances that ensue tend to make one wistful for the ground state. Malamud’s scenes are relentlessly dark and shabby: threadbare clothes, battered briefcases, yellowed whites, dim corners, and sour smells. The characters face profound and intractable tests of faith and desire that often reach allegory. (“The mythological and symbolic excite my imagination,” he once said.) Most of all, they suffer. The short story, Malamud teaches us, is about test and torment. The torment of Malamud’s stories is connected to identity—to Jewishness, certainly—but it is embodied by the literary form.

In this recording, Malamud reads “The Silver Crown” and “In Retirement,” two representative tales of obsession and anguish. The stories have a similar dramatic contour—once-upon-a-time exposition followed by then-one-day inciting event. Both begin by introducing a restless man who walks the streets with anxious energy. One is Albert Gans, a high school teacher whose father lies dying of cancer. The other is Dr. Morris, a lonely and bored widower who retired too young from his medical practice. Gans’s spiritual trial commences with a soiled card: “One afternoon after a long walk alone, as he was about to descend the subway stairs somewhere in the Bronx, still burdened by his worries, uneasy that nothing had changed, he was accosted by a fat girl with bare meaty arms who thrust a soiled card at him that he tried to avoid.” Dr. Morris’s dramatic ordeal begins with an irresistibly lost letter: “One morning after his rectangular long walk in the rain, he found a letter on the rubber mat under the line of mailboxes in the lobby.”

This card and this letter have been sent by the universe—a.k.a. the writer—to these particular characters, in much the same way that a blind man is sent to the narrator’s house in “Cathedral,” or that Manley Pointer is sent to Joy/Hulga in “Good Country People,” or that pistol-packing Miss Dent is sent to Blake in “The Five-Forty-Eight.” They are all catalysts and irritants, agents of the revelation. The mechanism of encounter is conventional—the age-old visitation—but each agent is custom made to disturb the protagonist. Manley Pointer is just the one for Joy/Hulga, her fears and desires. He gets inside of her sophisticated defenses in order to expose, clarify.

The soiled card leads Gans, the empirically minded science teacher, to a ragged rabbi who sells silver crowns ($401 for a medium, $986 for a large) that he claims will heal the sick. Gans pays for the large crown but he is convinced he is being swindled and thus becomes even more distraught. He suffers from humiliation, anger, anxiety, hope, skepticism, and desperation. There is no escape for Gans—his father is in dire condition, and he has entered into a transaction, both monetary and spiritual, with a dubious figure. The rabbi, either a mystic or a grifter, is a source of radical irritation, and Gans, so distracted, is finally ambushed by his real feelings for his father. The letter that Dr. Morris finds (and then reads) is a censorious note from father to daughter, disapproving of her sexual waywardness. The woman, Evelyn, lives in Dr. Morris’s building, and the retired doctor becomes consumed with feelings for her, both erotic and paternal. He can’t sleep, he can’t concentrate on his Greek grammar. He is overthrown with desire. He is sixty-six and he has had heart trouble, but suddenly he feels vital again. The story, its elegantly merciless structure, has him trapped and desperate. He, like Gans and like all Malamud heroes, is a prisoner of the story. He steals more of Evelyn’s mail. He lives alone in his mind, where he creates elaborate self-delusions. He imagines a life with the young Evelyn. He is agitated into bold action, the response to which is unambiguous, stark, and final. All has been clarified. In the end we see what Dr. Morris is, and so does he.

I feel compelled to add that to be merciless is not to be humorless. Malamud is an exceptionally funny writer—without ever straining to be. There are no punch lines, no ostentatious performances of comedy. On the page you never sense Malamud reaching for the joke, and in the recording his voice is flat, brisk, and restrained. There is none of the comic’s plea to be liked, appreciated. Malamud once said he liked his comedy “spiced in the wine of sadness,” and his humor emerges from despair. Malamud’s narrative voice is rarely funny—the comedy emerges from his vulnerable and captive characters. It is their desperate speech and thought that draw the laughs, as is evident in the recording. The eruption of laughter is the sound of the audience’s deep engagement with plight, its commiseration with helplessness. The humor is spiced, and there is a cathartic intensity to its release.

I may not have achieved Ozick’s succinct cogency with regard to Malamud’s art and to the operations of literary form, but at least I’ve had the good sense to teach (and learn from) Malamud’s stories. He is a distinctive moral artist whose writing helps to demonstrate that the short story is a wicked inquisition, its purpose directly at odds with the comfort of characters, readers, listeners, and writers.


Read our Art of Fiction interview with Bernard Malamud in the Spring 1975 issue.

Chris Bachelder is the author of Bear v. Shark, U.S.!, Abbott Awaits, and The Throwback Special. His writing has appeared in McSweeney’s and The Paris Review. He lives in Cincinnati, where he teaches at the University of Cincinnati.