Tag: malamud

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

Malamud, “The Prison” (1950)

bernard malamud the prison

The Lexington Candy Shop on the corner of 83rd Street and Lexington Avenue, opened in 1925. (Untapped Cities)

Tommy is one of Malamud’s Sisyphean characters, married to the sort of woman who goes so far as to change his name. He was once Tony. He did not stop her from changing it to Tommy. That was his first mistake. He runs a candy store with her, working from eight in the morning to midnight six days a week, going to the movies by himself on the seventh day. “No matter how hard you tried you made mistakes and couldn’t get past them. You could never see the sky outside or the ocean because you were in a prison, except nobody called it a prison, and if you did they didn’t know what you were talking about, or they said they didn’t.”

A 10-year-old girl is in the habit of buying two rolls of colored tissue paper every Monday, and, as Tommy discovers after his wife installed a surveillance mirror (she trusts no one), stealing two candy bars. The story is a study in the psychology of discipline: Tommy’s own as he tries to control himself before confronting the girl, and the notion of disciplining a 10-year-old thief: how do you do it? How far do you take it? Tommy ponders. He doesn’t want to frighten her. His compassion gets the better of him. Week after week his plans to confront her fail him. He finally decides to put an anonymous note in one of the bars. But she doesn’t appear the Monday he wanted to try the note. Somehow he ends up at home upstairs for a nap and when he goes back down, his wife has caught the girl and is thrashing her, as is the girl’s mother. The girl runs off, and “at the door she managed to turn her white face and thrust out at him her red tongue.”

“You could never see the sky outside or the ocean because you were in a prison, except nobody called it a prison.”

Commentary, September 1950, “The Magic Barrel,” 1958 

Malamud, “The Cost of Living” (1949)

bernard malamud the cost of living

New York, 1949. “A&P Supermarket on Broadway in Queens.” (John M. Fox)

Sam Tomashevsky has run a grocery store for three decades. The shoe-repair store next door went bankrupt when a chain store opened nearby. The store stood empty for several months until the landlord prepared to sign a lease with a chain grocery. Tomashevsky panics. He knows his demise is ahead. He recounts the funereal end of the shop next door:

He pleads with his landlord, tries to convince two investors to open a shop instead. All fails. The inevitable happens. The story was written in 1949, but it’s a moving precursor of the demolition of mom and pop stores at the graspier, cheaper hands of chains, an early illustration of the Walmartization of America. Of course he goes out of business. He can’t compete with the calculated neatness, the light, the cheap prices of the store next door. A great line (from the Buick-driving investor who insults Tomashevsky for trying to run a business “in this stinky neighborhood”: “he gave good advice the way a tube bloops toothpaste.”

Harper’s Bazaar, March 1940

Malamud, “Steady Customer”

Four waitresses in a restaurant are crying. Their 28-year-old colleague Eileen had just died during a gallbladder operation. None of them wants to take over her lucrative section. The owner, Mr. Mollendorf, recruits a new waitress, Rose, from the agency, and the four girls agree to give her the section—except for one table: that of the steady customer who’d been Eileen’s for two years. The two were’t yet going together, but the waitresses were under the impression that they were going to start. Ant least that’s what they tell Rose. One of the waitresses decides to keep that table. The customer comes in, orders his usual. Doesn’t ask about Eileen. The girls are furious. The witness decides to tell him outright. All he says is: “I—I see,” his voice “curiously uncontrolled. ‘I’m sorry.’” The girls are still more furious. “They’re all alike,” one of them says. They stare at him. Customers begin starring at him:

The girls don’t know if he left because he was overcome by the news or because he was upset at the way he’d become an object of their scorn. “I’m convinced he really and truly loved her,” one of them says, closing the story.

New Threshold, August 1943.

Malamud, “The Place Is Different Now” (1943)

homeless bernard malamud the place is different now

(Karim Corban)

 Wally Mullins is a bum ever since he stole money from the subway service where he worked. He’s just out of the hospital after his brother the cop, Jimmy, gave him a beating and nearly gave him gangrene (what’s with gangrene? The snows of Kilimanjaro.) ordered him to get out of the neighborhood. He looks around for a place to sleep. Runs into his mother and sister. The sister is as cruel as jimmy but she can’t beat him up. The mother wants to give him money so he can get his shirt out of the laundry, and does. He uses the money first to buy some food, then hands to a tavern, and there, Jimmy is drinking a beer, and sees him. The chase. Another massive beating. Bloodied, Wally goes to the only friend he has, the barber Mr, Davido, who cares for him because during the Depression the barber had slapped his own son, when his son was a bum, and has never seen his son since. Mr. Davido shaves Wally, whose tears mix with the shaving cream. A very touching story of regret and cruelty. 


American Prefaces, Spring 1943

Malamud, “Benefit Performance” (1943)

(William E. Sauro/The New York Times)

Father is a struggling actor, daughter is in mid-20s, in bed with an unspecified illness that seems to be her period, often quarrels with father. She receives a guest, Ephraim, a plumber, to father’s disdain. They all fight, the father questioning Ephraim’s conversational skills, Ephraim questioning the father’s ability to make a living for his family. Much fork-clanging on plates and door-slamming.

Threshold, 1943