The Magic Barrel: An Introduction

Jhumpa Lahiri
Bernard Malamud Centenary

In commemoration of the centenary of Bernard Malamud’s birth (April 26, 1914), FSG’s Work in Progress will be celebrating this icon of twentieth-century American literature throughout the week.

We are all haunted by certain writers whom we have never read. “I should read that author,” we think guiltily to ourselves in libraries, at bookstores, during dinner-party conversations. “One of these days,” we assure ourselves, “I’ll pick that up.” Perhaps the author has been recommended to us, by a friend, a teacher, a glowing review. Or perhaps we are simply aware that the author is one of the greats, a celebrated master of his craft, a creative genius we would be sorry to miss.

Until recently, Bernard Malamud was, for me, one such author. My first encounter with him was shamefully brief. I was in the process of putting together an exercise for a class I was teaching, and was seeking examples of physical description that were especially powerful. Leafing through a short-story anthology, I came across Malamud’s “The German Refugee” and, struck by a description of its eponymous character, typed it up. In my haste to prepare for the class, I did not even read the whole story. “I should read some Malamud,” I had told myself at the time. That was more than three years ago.

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I had heard Malamud praised by others. I was aware that he was an American writer of the twentieth century, that he produced both short stories and novels. I had heard of The Natural, his novel about baseball which had made its way to the screen. But I had never heard of The Magic Barrel, Malamud’s first collection, published in 1958 and awarded the National Book Award, until a fellow writer urged it upon me.

The experience of reading the book was akin to a rite of initiation: thrilling, inspiring, and accompanied by the sense that my appreciation for the art of fiction had been profoundly, permanently altered. The stories settled swiftly and deeply into my consciousness; now that I have read them, I cannot believe there was ever a time I had not. Like all great writers, Malamud left me hungry; as soon as I finished The Magic Barrel, I went to the Brooklyn Public Library, suddenly eager for more.

As the child of Bengali immigrants to the United States, I recognized, with particular affinity, many of the themes embedded in Malamud’s portrayal of Jewish immigrants in New York City (and occasionally traveling, in Italy) after World War II: geographical dislocation, generational conflict, arranged marriages. But to deem this astonishing book “immigrant fiction” would be inaccurate and absurd. What Malamud locates about the immigrant experience—a sense of loss, of struggle, of wanting what we cannot have—constitutes the nuts and bolts of all dramatic fiction. Malamud’s characters are disappointed, determined, often desperate people. They are filled with regret and, above all, with longing. A writing teacher once told me that in order for a fictional character to come alive, he or she must want something. Malamud’s characters want endlessly: they want better lives for their children, they want affordable housing, they want freedom, they want respect. They want food in their bellies. They want love. None of these desires is exclusive to immigrants, of any one place or generation. All are central to the human condition, and they are the very marrow of Malamud’s work.

My favorite books are those which not only captivate me, but also teach me something about writing. There is not a tale in this collection that I did not learn from. Malamud’s paragraphs are so richly detailed, so brilliantly compressed, that we are ushered quickly and inexorably into a character’s life. The first paragraph alone of “Angel Levine” is more telling and affecting than many novels I have read. It begins:

“Manischevitz, a tailor, in his fifty-first year suffered many reverses and indignities. Previously a man of comfortable means, he overnight lost all he had, when his establishment caught fire and, after a metal container of cleaning fluid exploded, burned to the ground. Although Manischevitz was insured against fire, damage suits by two customers who had been hurt in the flames deprived him of every penny he had collected. At almost the same time, his son, of much promise, was killed in the war, and his daughter, without so much as a word of warning, married a lout and disappeared with him as off the face of the earth.”

By the end of the paragraph, we also learn the Manischevitz now suffers from debilitating backaches, that he can barely work, and that his wife is at death’s door. In the hands of most other writers, this torrent of detail at the start of a story might feel both clumsy and melodramatic. In Malamud’s, the effect is graceful, moving, and entirely plausible.

I was repeatedly stunned by the quiet force of Malamud’s sentences, by the sheer vigor of his prose. In every story, I discovered more of the remarkably vivid physical descriptions that had first drawn me to Malamud, enabling me not only to picture his characters visually, but to glimpse them from within. Here is the description of an importunate Italian Jewish real-estate agent named Vasco Bevilacqua in “Behold the Key,” a story of an American Jewish graduate student searching for an apartment for his family in Rome:

“His hair rose in all directions. His eyes were gentle; not sad, but they had been. He wore a clean white shirt, rag of a tie, and a black jacket that had crawled a little up his back. His trousers were of denim, and his porous, sharp-pointed shoes, neatly shined, were summer shoes.”

Malamud’s dialogue, pitch-perfect, is equally illuminating, breathing fire and personality into his characters with each stroke. For days after I read the title story, I kept hearing Salzman, the irrepressible marriage broker, gently inquiring, “A sliced tomato you have maybe?”

Though humor and lightness abound, these are not easy stories to read. Almost everyone is a victim; Malamud repeatedly reminds us that the world can be a ruthless, arbitrary place. The tragedies, large and small, are always devastating. A girl is beaten by her mother for stealing candy that a shopkeeper willing allows her to steal. A frustrated scholar’s most sacred possession, his manuscript, is stolen and burned. A kindly shopkeeper dies because he cannot afford to see a doctor. A beautiful woman slips like Eurydice from a man’s loving arms. Embedded in these incidents are mankind’s darkest impulses: dishonesty, doubt, cowardice, hatred. Atrocity lurks behind more quotidian struffles, and the mention of it is no less shocking or upsetting than it was fifty years ago. Consider Isabella’s revelation to Freeman at the end of “The Lady of the Lake” that she is a Holocaust survivor: “‘Buchenwald,’ [she] said, ‘when I was a little girl. The Fascists sent us there. The Nazis did it.’” The sentences takes one’s breath away. The story continues: “Freeman groaned, incensed at the cruelty, stunned by the desecration.” And so are we.

These are timeless, trenchant, essential tales. “Have you read Malamud’s The Magic Barrel?” I’ve been asking my friends. When they shake their heads no, I am grateful that I am no longer among those people.

Check back for more Malamud…
Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London and raised in Rhode Island. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, and author of three books. Her debut collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the PEN/Hemingway Award and The New Yorker Debut of the Year. Her novel The Namesake was a New York Times Notable Book, a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist and was selected as one of the best books of the year by USA Today and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications. Her most recent novel is The Lowland.

Bernard Malamud (1914 – 1986) wrote eight novels; he won the Pulizer Prize and the National Book Award for The Fixer, and the National Book Award for The Magic Barrel, a book of stories. Born in Brooklyn, he taught for many years at Bennington College in Vermont.