Bernard Malamud (1914-1986--a year younger than my father) was back on page one of the New York Times Book Review today. It's right where he belongs. The long story was a review of two Malamud volumes published by the Library of America--volumes that all lovers of American literature ought to have. (Link to the Times review.)
I'd never heard of Malamud until the 1965-1966 academic year--my senior year at Hiram College--when I took a course in contemporary American literature with Prof. Abe C. Ravitz. We read (I think) The Assistant (1957) in that class (hard to remember because of all the subsequent Malamud reading I've done), a novel that features one truly bizarre episode at a cemetery--a fall into a fresh grave that, of course, evokes Hamlet and other stories. The final paragraph blew me away back in the day:
One day in April Frank went to the hospital and had himself circumcised. For a couple of days he dragged himself around with a pain between the legs. The pain enraged and inspired him. After Passover he became a Jew.
It was from that novel--and from all the other Malamud I read (and I eventually read all of it)--that I began to learn about the various lives of Jews. A WASP from Oklahoma, I knew zip about Judaism (except, of course, the Bible stories). I realized, reading Malamud, that my ignorance was far more vast than I'd suspected.
Dr. Ravitz also had us read a cool story--"The Jewbird"--which I liked so much that I used it, early in my career, with my middle school students, who probably learned from it that their teacher really was a weirdo. Later on, Malamud sort of drifted out of my curriculum; I don't know why. Probably because I was just stupid.
Another Malamud story that had an effect on me was "A Summer's Reading"--a story about a 19-year-old kid (named George) who tells everyone in his neighborhood that he's going to read 100 books that summer. I think I related to that kid because I would have done what he did--initially: read nothing and lie about it. But when the word spreads around his neighborhood, George becomes something of a local celebrity. He likes it. But soon ... suspicion from his working sister, who earlier gave him some money because she was so proud of him. The summer passes. He hasn't read squat. Then, the final paragraph ...
One evening in the fall, George ran out of his house to the library,where he hadn't been in years. There were books all over the place, wherever he looked, and though he was struggling to control an inward trembling, he easily counted off a hundred, then sat down at a table to read.
That story had (and has) tremendous resonance for me because I went through a period (somewhat earlier than George--junior high) when I just stopped reading but lied all the time about it--to my friends, my parents, my teachers. And then--without any reason I can really think of--I was back reading and have never stopped--and don't plan to. (Honest!)
Anyway, as the years went along, I bought and read each new Malamud as it appeared--and then, almost exactly twenty-eight years ago--I learned that he had died at the age of 71. (Link to New York Times obituary.) At the time, I was just 41, and 71 seemed, well, an okay age to die. Now that I'm 69, I've revised that opinion--strongly. My grief was of the selfish sort: I wanted more Malamud to read.
In 2004, Joyce and I were in Cambridge, Mass., driving around looking at Longfellow sites--his former home, his grave in Mount Auburn Cemetery--his tomb, really. While we were driving through, we saw the much more modest stone of Bernard Malamud. It some ways, it seemed fitting, that simple grave--he was never an outrageous writer. But in other ways, I wanted him to have a marker that would attract everyone to the site--a marker that said, Here lies a great American writer.