Bernard Malamud: The Fixer

Ever since I read Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer (my review here) and learned that Nathan Zuckerman’s reclusive literary father-figure E.I. Lonoff was likely inspired by Roth’s own affection for Bernard Malamud, I’ve been wanting to find out why Roth, a master, would consider Malamud a master. Where better to start than with his book that garnered the rare combination win of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize: The Fixer (1966)? (Only a few other books of fiction have won both awards: The Shipping News (1993), The Color Purple (1983), Rabbit Is Rich (1982), The Stories of John Cheever (1981); The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (1966), A Fable (1955); Gravity’s Rainbow (1975) was close.) So, with Roth and the big awards, the book has a lot going for it. Good thing, too, because I certainly think the cover condemns it to be purchased only by those who have heard a good word about it.

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The Fixer begins by introducing thirty-year-old Yakov Bok, a Jew suffering in a Jewish settlement in 1911 Tsarist Russia. His wife left him a few months before the book begins, and we meet a depressed Yakov packing his tools (he’s the eponymous fixer) preparing to leave the settlement. His father-in-law tries to talk Yakov into staying in the settlement with his own where he will be safe from the Jew-hating Russians. But Yakov knows the safety is merely illusion that evaporates when the Cassocks come; pogroms have a way of finding their way even into the settlements. Yakov’s father was killed in an earlier pogrom (probably the one from 1881-1884) when a man went out to kill the first three Jews he saw and Yakov’s father was the second. And only a few years before, in 1903-1906, an even bloodier pogrom had occurred (here is a link to a New York Times article about a particular riot in 1903; scroll to the bottom to see the relevant article).

Still, while these Jewish settlements were not safe, it was a bit safer to be in them than outside them in day-to-day life. Yakov doesn’t care anymore. He wants to go to Kiev to find a better life. He almost gets it, too. After saving a wealthy owner of a brick-making plant, Yakov is offered a job supervising shipping and keeping the ledger. It’s complicated, though, because Yakov does not admit he is a Jew; his new employer is a member of the Black Hundreds, and he wants Yakov to live in a district where it is illegal for a Jew to reside. The anxiety is so great Yakov cannot sleep at night, but he lies about his name and accepts the offer.

Soon a young Russian boy turns up dead in a cave. Yakov’s Jewish identity comes out, and, claiming that Yakov committed a ritual murder to recreate the crucifixion or fulfill some Jewish rite or torture for the sake of torturing or collect blood for passover matsos or whatever, the state arrests Yakov.

There are those among us, my children, who will argue that these are superstitious tales of a past age, yet the truth of much I have revealed to you — I do not say it is all true — must be inferred from the very frequency of the accusations against the Jews.

It sounds ridiculous, but we know well how true to life this situation was (is?). Indeed, this book is based on a historical event. Yakov is based on the real Mendel Beilis, who was imprisoned for the murder of the young Andrei Yushchinsky (now considered a saint by many Orthodox Christians). Unable to create a solid case, the state refused to indict Beilis/Yakov, but he remained in prison indefinitely while the state hoped for a confession of some type.

The first sixty or so pages of the book, while compelling, are basically straight narrative, and Malamud does little to show off his command of style. However, as Yakov’s time in prison draws out, and Yakov himself begins to lose his place in his own narrative while getting engulfed in history’s, Malamud creates this sensation for the reader with virtuosity. For example, ninety-nine percent of the book is told in the third person. But suddenly we get a short chapter in the first person. The next chapter begins in the second person:

But now I look at it like this: She had tied herself to the wrong future.

You wait. You wait in minutes of hopes and days of hopelessness.

Furthermore, most of the book takes place in a prison cell where a man simply waits. Malamud makes us feel the passage of time and its effect on the prisoner, but it never gets old (for the reader). Malamud keeps the narrative moving while adding segments where the form makes the reader stop to consider the passage of time:

Thus the days went by. Each day went by alone. It crawled along like a dying thing. Sometimes, if he thought about it, three days went by, but the third was the same as the first. It was the first day because he could not say that three single days, counted, came to something they did not come to if they were not counted. One day crawled by. Then one day. Then one day. Never three.

Malamud’s characters are full, realistic portraits of conflicted human beings. They are inspiring and heroic or repulsive and evil without being elevated to the unreal. Their interactions (and the results) are as intricately drawn as anything Dickens could dream up but without that feeling of convenience so common in Dickens; on the contrary, this book feels at once unbelievable and entirely real.

And as far as Roth connections go, Malamud also explicitly analyzes how history overtakes individuals.

Once you leave you’re out in the open; it rains and snows. It snows history, which means what happens to somebody starts in a web of events outside the personal. It starts of course before he gets there. We’re all in history, that’s sure, but some are more than others, Jews more than some.

Malamud is often included with Roth and Bellow as being one of the three largest figures in American Jewish literature in the mid- to late-twentieth century (sorry to Norman Mailer, though one of his nonfiction pieces, The Armies of the Night (1968), won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize). But Malamud has, to a degree, been lost in the cracks. Bellow studies are strong in universities, and his books regularly take up a shelf in bookstores. Roth is still a best-selling author whose books take up even more shelves in bookstores. With Malamud, however, sometimes I’ve struggled to find any of his books in the bookstore, and I never heard of a Malamud conference when I was in academia (not to say there isn’t one, but if there is it isn’t a large point on the radar).

I’m trying to figure out why this is so. Is it justified? While I thought The Fixer was an enjoyable book, a fantastic book, a stylistic book, an important — even vital — book, I don’t think it is as complicated or nuanced as Roth and Bellow. Perhaps that’s why he’s slipping away. Then again, this is the only one I’ve read, and I plan on doing my part to keep him around by reading his entire oeuvre.

11 thoughts on “Bernard Malamud: The Fixer

  1. Isabel says:

    Did you sense doom from the beginning of the novel? Or did you sense that Yakov was just a negative person.

    If it’s the first, then this speaks to Malmud’s writing strength.

    Let me know. I am curious.

  2. Trevor says:

    Interesting question, Isabel. I’m not sure I was paying close enough attention since I already knew Yakov was going to be arrested and imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. In fact, the first few pages are of him arrested and then we go back to see the development. During the development I definitely could see how Malamud put the pieces together that the prosecution would later use to create a false case, so in that sense I could feel the approaching doom.

    As far as Yakov’s demeanor is concerned, while he was definitely a negative person, he was basically disillusioned with life, his in particular but also with life in general. He and his wife couldn’t conceive a child, he didn’t believe in God yet was part of the rituals, and then his wife left him for another man. He’s subject to a history that has not been kind to his people, and he knows that any day another pogrom could begin that arbitrarily takes his life just as it did his father’s. But basically, he wants to wipe his past out and begin again, and he has no scruples about not claiming his Jewish heritage except that it could get him in trouble. All of this changes while he’s in prison. He’s still bitter, but he has a more definite enemy and a more definite cause.

    Let me know if this answers your question. If not, I’ll give it another shot :).

  3. Your comments about Malamud do spark a response — I have read a number of his novels and, honestly, do not remember any of them. I’ll be interested in your exploration of his work — it does seem that not many other people have read him.

  4. zhiv says:

    Interesting. Didn’t realize that The Fixer was such a prize-winner. Funny to hear about and take an interest in Malumud through the filter of Roth. You might want to take a look at The Assistant, which Dorothy did a nice job on:

    http://ofbooksandbikes.wordpress.com/2009/01/16/the-assistant/

  5. Myrthe says:

    You have me all confused now, Trevor! I was convinced I had read The Fixer years ago, but when I read your review there was absolutely nothing I recognized. I know I did read some Malamud back then, but now I suppose it wasn’t The Fixer. It seems I have to go digging around my bookshelves a bit to see what I do come up with (because I also remember that I own one or two of his books, unless that’s a mistaken memory as well ;-) ). I can see a reread coming up at some point.

  6. Trevor says:

    Surprise, surprise! Turns out where I’m staying in D.C. has free wireless internet access. While I can’t say I’m going to have much time to blog, I can at least be on here at times!

    Kevin and Myrthe seem to be proof that Malamud is a writer one enjoys but does not remember well. It’s been a few weeks since I finished The Fixer, and I can still remember most of it, but the power behind it all is waning. I wish it were not the case because I truly enjoyed the book. And I’m not sure why it’s happening that way. Though the book was heavy on plot-based narrative, it was heavy on character development too. While it was at times heavy-handed, it was also subtle. For some reason the subtleties of character and style are slipping behind the larger, heavier elements for me, and those heavier elements were not the best part of the book.

    zhiv, thanks for the link! Not only do I appreciate the comments on Malamud, but this is a new book blog for me to start reading!

  7. Dorothy W. says:

    I’m very curious to see what you will think of The Assistant when you get there. Your description of Malamud’s characterization holds true for that book as well — the people are very conflicted and very real. He doesn’t seem as complex a writer as Roth, maybe (it’s been too long since I’ve read Bellow to say), although it matters what kind of complexity we’re talking about. He doesn’t have Roth’s formal experimentation, but are his characters as rich as Roth’s? Possibly. I wonder if it’s a matter of fashion and Malamud will get some recognition at some point in the future. Or maybe Roth’s subject matter feels more relevant to us now.

  8. Trevor says:

    Hi Dorothy, glad you came to add your insight! I think you’re right about Malamud’s characters. While Nathan Zuckerman is one of my favorite characters ever, I think on the whole Malamud’s characters in The Fixer were just as rich. I also think you’re probably right about it being a matter of fashion. Roth’s predicaments feel much more relevant to me. It helps, I’m sure, that I live in the New Jersey suburbs of New York and frequent Newark often. The context of The Fixer was to me very new.

    I am anxious to read The Assistant, especially after your review!

  9. Pip's Squeak says:

    About Malamud, a reason why his books have largely disappeared from the shelves is that, although a very good writer, his themes are mostly Chicken-soup novel specific and in consequence provincial. This is a shame since he could have become an outstanding author instead of merely a very good one. As for Roth, I admit to not being able to stand the stuff, while Bellow is a real mediocrity disguised by elegant prose. Turning what could have been marvellous novellas into bloated novels, the latter reminds me of Patrick White.

  10. Trevor says:

    I have yet to read Bellow, but I have a few of them on the shelf calling to me. I’ll be interested to see if I agree with you, Pip.

  11. I read this book forty years ago. I never forgot Yakov’s decision to participate in
    History. he understood that freedom is only availatbtle if we understand the parameters
    Of our existence. Malamud influenced my life as no other author has. only a great writer
    Can Mark his readers.

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