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.
With The Tenants (1971), 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. A library of books exists about the inability to write, but The Tenants is a different beast. It’s a book about the impossibility of writing in a world which is about to be condemned. At the same time, it reaffirms the need for literature as a mode of human engagement with the world, insufferable though the world may be.
Malamud’s inner political conflict—for real political conflicts are always inner conflicts—is embodied in his two main characters: Lesser, the Jewish writer, who has been writing the same book about “love” for ten years, and Willie, the African-American writer, who wants to write a “black” book and is possessed by an intense animosity toward whites, Jews in particular. Malamud perhaps succumbs to the dominant racial and cultural models of the time; thus Lesser is constantly referred to as “the writer” while Willie is always “the black.” (And the passivity of Irene, the woman who’s but a conduit between the men, has certainly, and rightly, angered feminists.) But Malamud, with the instinct of a great writer, pursues the conflict, strives for difficulty, as anything else would be dishonest. Thus Lesser’s name suggests that he’s a lesser writer, while Willie is strongly marked by his indomitable will. Malamud dreams of writerly solidarity, of a situation in which writers of all creeds and colors can first and foremost see themselves as writers. (The first time they meet, Lesser watches Willie writing for a while, and the first thing he says to him is, “I’m a writer myself.”) At the same time, it seems clear to him that no writer—particularly not a relatively privileged white writer—can exclude himself from a world that is fundamentally inscribed with injustice and with the anger that inescapably arises from it. Having read one of the many drafts of Willie’s book, Lesser muses, “What can I say to a man who’s suffered so much personal pain, so much injustice, who clearly finds in his writing his hope and salvation, who defines himself through it?” But he then goes on to offer a critique of Willie’s work, out of a sense of writerly duty: “And if Lesser suppresses truth Lesser is a fake. If he’s that, how can he go on writing?”
The Tenants marks a turning point in the history of American letters: the beginning of the rise of identity politics in literature and the related loss of confidence in the possibility of “pure art.” Malamud’s greatness lies in the fact that he is simultaneously capable of lamenting the end of pure “humanist” art and of recognizing the inevitability of the social transformations that have made it untenable. It is in this gap between the past and the future—in the condemned building whose razing will allow for the building of a new structure—that the battle between Lesser and Willie takes place. It is this pit of contemporary hell that consumes Lesser’s unfinished book and Willie’s unwritten one.
It would be easy to see The Tenants as different in its disharmony from Malamud’s beautifully, immaculately constructed earlier works. But as far back as The Magic Barrel, published some thirteen years before The Tenants, Malamud seemed to be concerned with similar issues, though perhaps they were less pressing at the time. In “Angel Levine,” a black angel comes to offer salvation to a tailor named Manischevitz, who refuses it, thereby demoting the angel to a life in a ghetto, and then redeems him by accepting it. The situation is not unlike the one in The Tenants, where the black writer says, “I am art . . . My form is myself!” while in some ways he seeks redemption in Lesser’s acceptance of his art. In “The Girl of My Dreams,” a writer named Mitka burns “the manuscript of his heartbroken novel in the blackened bottom of [a] rusty trash can.” Indeed, The Magic Barrel is full of vanishing manuscripts, as is The Tenants, where Lesser’s ultimate torment is the disappearance of his manuscript. Scholars surely have found the themes and leitmotifs that connect all of Malamud’s books, but it is necessary to point out that some of the themes that obsessed Malamud from the beginning come to a head in The Tenants. This too suggests that the conflict in The Tenants is not only burningly political but also deeply personal—that in placing the two writers in dialogue, Malamud is in dialogue with himself. To be sure, it’s an intense, irresolvable, and ultimately violent dialogue between Lesser and Willie, the writer and the man, the white and the black, the past and the future, existence and nonexistence—between Malamud and Malamud.
It is precisely this dialogical deep structure that renders The Tenants not only a fascinating book, but a timely one as well, as monologues demanding political and literary complacency increase the need for dialogue. The Tenants is not a book you can read wrapped in a warm blanket by a fireplace while the snow covering everything outside renders the world harmonious. It’s a book that will make you argue against it or for it, that will make you argue against yourself, argue against the world. It will make you angry and conflicted—and alive.
Aleksandar Hemon is the author of The Question of Bruno, Nowhere Man, The Lazarus Project, Love and Obstacles, and The Book of My Lives. He has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation, the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature, the PEN/W. G. Sebald Award, and, most recently, a 2012 USA Fellowship. He lives in Chicago.
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.