Tag: books

Malamud, “The First Seven Years” (1950)

malamud the first seven years

Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000), “The Shoemaker” (1945). From the Met: “The Shoemaker was among the first works Lawrence painted after returning from military service in World War II in early December 1945. Resuming one of his most enduring themes, these pictures from late 1945-46 focus on workers in the Harlem and show the range of occupations open to African Americans at the time, from teachers and office assistants to barbers, seamstresses, and steelworkers. Although Lawrence’s art was never overtly political, his subjects highlighted social issues, often with pathos and humor. Here, he contrasts the enormous body of the cobbler with his cramped quarters and the delicate shoes and tacks that occupy his attention.”

Sobel is a Polish refugee who knows no trade but learns it from the fundamentally kind-hearted and trusting Feld, the shoemaker who’d have rather had a son. For seven years Sobel pounds away at leather, on measly wages, his life spent reading books and lending them to Miriam, Feld’s daughter. As she turns 19, Feld sets her up with Max, a materialist. Sobel is upset and leaves the store in a huff. Feld doesn’t know why, or pretends not to, though at heart he knew all along that Sobel had had his eyes on his daughter. But he’s almost twice her age. Feld has heart attacks. Sobel had kept them at bay, being so trustworthy. When Feld hires someone else, he discovers after a while that the employee was stealing from him. Feld has a heart attack. He realizes Sobel is his only hope. Sobel asks him why he never considered Miriam for him, Sobel. Feld relents, asking Sobel to wait two more years. It’s fairytale like, a warm hearted story in the margins, like the love-letter marginalia that was in the books Sobel would lend Miriam. But it’s almost too focused on the two men, with Miriam too much in the background, taken for granted by all.

Partisan Review, September-October 1950

Chekhov, “Un portier intelligent” (1883)

A doorman daily lectures the help in a mansion, calling them good for nothing, demeaning them. That day, it’s about “instruction.” He berates them for not reading. Extols the virtues of books, where all sorts of worlds await. He picks up a ratty old book and goes to work, reads a few pages, falls asleep. He dreams of a world where everyone is intelligent, well read, where everyone, god forbid, is French (Des Francais, des tas de Francais”!) He’s then shaken awake by one of his masters and dragged to the police station for dereliction of duty. Returning to the mansion, he sees the help following his advice, one among them reading to the rest. “Laisse ça!” he yells at him. Not the direction I thought the story would take. Sartre would have turned a world of intelligent French into an inescapable hell.

The Spectator, No. 16, 1883