Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud

Bernard Malamud's first book of short stories, The Magic Barrel, has been recognized as a classic from the time it was published in 1959. The stories are set in New York and in Italy (where Malamud's alter ego, the struggleing New York Jewish Painter Arthur Fidelman, roams amid the ruins of old Europe in search of his artistic patrimony); they tell of egg candlers and shoemakers, matchmakers, and rabbis, in a voice that blends vigorous urban realism, Yiddish idiom, and a dash of artistic magic.

The Magic Barrel is a book about New York and about the immigrant experience, and it is high point in the modern American short story. Few books of any kind have managed to depict struggle and frustration and heartbreak with such delight, or such artistry. 

Goodreads description.

As I have said before one of the joys of this blog has been discovering great authors. Malamud was unknown to me, but once I started reading it became apparent that these short stories are by a master of the form. The majority are not magic realist in terms of the simplistic definition used by this blog, but all conform to the definition used by the inventor of the term Franz Roh: We are offered a new style that is thoroughly of this world, that celebrates the mundane. This new world of objects is still alien to the current idea of Realism. It employs various techniques that endow all things with a deeper meaning and reveal mysteries that always threaten the secure tranquility of simple and ingenuous things. This [art offers a] calm admiration of the magic of being, of the discovery that things already have their own faces, [this] means that the ground in which the most diverse ideas in the world can take root has been reconquered--albeit in new ways.

Malamud certainly endows these apparently simple stories about Jewish life in New York (and Italy) with profound meaning. They are parables of the mundane in which you can find layer upon layer of meaning and reference. I am sure that I, not being familiar with Jewish culture, missed much, nevertheless I felt compelled to put the book down after each story to think. You begin to question whether some of the characters, such as the wedding broker in the story that gives its title to the book, are not angels or messengers. Often there are the lightest of touches of magic in a story - for example when a baker describes that he had no success until his tears mixed with the dough, whereupon customers started queuing for his bread. 

The Angel Levine is a magic realist story by whatever definition you choose to use. It is the story of a tailor, who Job-like is in danger of losing everything and prays to God for help. Then the Angel Levine appears, but he is not what the man expects at all - the angel is black: The tailor could not rid himself of the feeling that he was the butt of a jokester. Is this what a Jewish angel looks like? he asked himself. This I am not convinced.

You can read another Malamud magic realism story, The Jewbird, free online here. In this story a Jewish bird fleeing the persecution of  bird “Anti-Semeets” takes refuge in a Jewish house, only to be persecuted by the Jewish homeowner. Witty and as ever profound, the story is just wonderful and says more than many novels. 

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