Two Jews sitting around talking about Bernard Malamud—that’s me and Peter Orner, me in Seattle, him in Hanover, New Hampshire, where he directs the creative writing program at Dartmouth College. Malamud was the author of three short story collections (starting with the 1959 National Book Award-winning The Magic Barrel) and eight novels (including the 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winner The Fixer) written between 1952 and his death in 1986. Orner is the author of two novels, three books of short stories, and two nonfiction collections, Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live and Still No Word from You, which will be published in fall 2022. In Am I Alone Here?, one of the most striking and personal essays is about Malamud’s story “My Son the Murderer.” I thought we could talk about a few of Malamud’s other stories, and we did, but in the end, the one we focused on most was “The Mourners,” and that’s the story you can read about here.
JEFF SCHWAGER: For those who’ve gone this long without reading Bernard Malamud, why should they seek out his stories now?
PETER ORNER: Because they stab you in the heart. He’s elemental. He literally gets to the heart of what we’re all about—what it is to be alive, to have a family, to fall in love, to die. He’s as elemental as it gets. Many of his stories are about people who are poor and struggling. His people work hard, and what do they get for it? Malamud’s stories are about the people who have come to this country without much and aren’t getting much. They’re trying to endure, and they don’t always succeed. These are not stories of triumph. Which is a hard sell, right?
JEFF: He was part of the Golden Age of Jewish fiction in America. How do you think he fits in alongside his contemporaries?
PETER: I hesitate to bring in these other names, the ones he’s always lumped in with. The old joke that Bellow, Roth, and Malamud were the Hart, Schaffner, and Marx of contemporary literature. He shouldn’t be put in the same category as the other two—because, and I’ll fight this one to the death, he’s better. I love Bellow. Roth less so, a lot less so. And let’s not forget Jewish women writers of that time too. Ozick. Paley. Bette Howland…
JEFF: They were doing different things. Both Bellow and Roth were primarily novelists, while Malamud’s best work was in his short stories.
PETER: Yes, they were these more so-called muscular novelists. They were after bigger fish. But they couldn’t do what he could do. I’m from Chicago, so I have a certain loyalty to Bellow, but neither he nor Roth could write the kind of sentences that Malamud could write. The attention to detail. The plainspoken poetry. Aside from their shared Jewish heritage, they didn’t have that much in common in terms of prose style. Malamud’s writing has more in common with Richard Yates, with Andre Dubus, Grace Paley, Guy de Maupassant, Isaac Babel, Virginia Woolf. That’s the level we’re talking about in terms of emotional resonance.
JEFF: Let’s talk about “The Mourners,” which is one of your favorite stories. Tell me why.
PETER: It’s a story about an eviction. It’s about a guy, Kessler, who’s a retired egg candler, which is a profession that no longer exists. Malamud specializes in those kinds of professions. The ones that are or will be forgotten. These are all people who are doing these low-level jobs that keep people fed, and they provide the basics, which I think is telling, because I do think that a story like “The Mourners” is about the basics. That’s what makes Malamud so timeless. This story is set in the ’40s, or maybe the ’30s. It was written in the ’50s. But what’s more timeless than an eviction? You know, take any eviction that happens tomorrow in 2021, and look at the circumstances around it. Where do people go after they’re evicted? Kessler, he just wants to have a roof over his head. He pays his rent. He’s not behind on this rent. But he’s a slob. The place smells. And so the janitor gets fed up with it, and he tells the landlord. And the landlord, because Kessler’s a slob, because his place smells, he evicts him. Kessler? He just wants a place to live.
JEFF: I think he wants someplace to die. He just wants someplace where he can sit and wait for death. What hangs over it for me, and I’m curious if it does for you, is the Holocaust, which was very recent history when the story was written. At one point, Kessler says to the landlord, “Who hurts a man without reason? Are you a Hitler or a Jew?” And as I was reading it, I was thinking of all the Jews in Europe who were forced from their homes, into ghettos, where they would wait for the trains basically. And what he’s waiting for is not dissimilar. It’s not the camps, but it’s another kind of death.
PETER: Such a great point, Jeff. That’s it, Kessler is looking for a place to die. And true, it’s not the camps. It’s nothing like that. But it doesn’t mean it isn’t cruel. It’s cruelty, American style, right? We evict people, we bring the sheriff who comes with his henchmen, and they literally carry Kessler out of the apartment with his stuff, and they leave him on the street. And the landlord, Gruber, is another Jew. He feels the weight of getting rid of him. But this isn’t Jew and Jew. This is landlord and tenant. This is America. And once the landlord decides, and once it starts, it has to be shown that Kessler has no rights in the matter. He’s a renter. If the landlord says he’s got to go, eventually the landlord’s gonna win. And that’s what happens: the marshal comes, and they take him out and they leave him on the street. And what happens after that is what makes the story utterly extraordinary to me. Kessler’s on the street, and it starts to rain, it starts to sleet, and his neighbor, an old Italian woman, sees him, and she starts to scream. She doesn’t like him. She’s never been friendly to him. But she sees him and she just shrieks. There’s sorrow in her shrieks, and disbelief. And her sons, to get their mother to stop screaming, carry Kessler back upstairs, and another neighbor files the lock on his apartment, and they bring his things back upstairs and put him back in his apartment.
JEFF: It’s the goyim who save him.
PETER: Yes, and why? What is the Italian woman seeing? What’s the problem? Like I say, she never cared about Kessler before. Why is the fact that he’s on the street so horrific to her? It’s never explained, which I, as a writer, as a reader, as a human, appreciate. It’s why Malamud is so good. His people always react in a way that is incredibly singular. Most people do not shriek when they see this horror on the sidewalk, right? We often walk by, don’t we? And the ending. I think it might be, to my mind, the most extraordinary of Malamud’s many great endings. Gruber comes upstairs, and he sees Kessler sitting on the floor—
JEFF: He’s practically catatonic.
PETER: Yes. And Gruber says he’ll move him, he’ll find him another apartment, and Kessler doesn’t respond. He’s swaying from side to side. He’s thinking about the family he abandoned. And Gruber realizes he’s mourning. And then Malamud writes, “Gruber then suffered unbearable remorse for the way he had treated the old man. With a cry of shame he pulled the sheet off Kessler’s bed, and wrapping it around himself, sank to the floor and became a mourner.” For me, it all boils down to what Malamud does at that moment. And what he doesn’t do. What he doesn’t say. If we could bottle that we would know how to make one of the great American stories.
JEFF: I also felt, as I was reading the story again, how it applies to the stories of immigrants today. The inhuman way they’re treated. I know you edited Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives as part of the Voice of Witness series, which digs deep into those immigrant stories.
PETER: That’s right, there’s lots of parallels. I think that anyone who arrives in this country tomorrow—no matter who they might have been in their home country—is most likely going to struggle. Maybe they take a job working in someone’s house, cleaning it, taking orders. That person will relate to what is going on in Malamud’s stories. Yes, his people are also hyper-specific to his time and place. The wonderful use of English, which is inflected with Yiddish, but also German and Russian and Polish.
JEFF: It’s like Spanglish.
PETER: True, people often create their own vernacular. And, you know, it takes an artist of his caliber to work with that vernacular. In a way, it’s made up. Yes, people talked the way Malamud’s people talk, and they certainly talked that way in my family. But Malamud is also tracking something bigger than an imitation of an old world way of talking. As you suggest, like other people, Malamud’s people are working with what they have. There’s something so universal about this. That’s why I think he chafed at being called a Jewish writer. I think he found it a limiting concept. In some ways these are the most Jewish stories ever written by an American, and yet they utterly transcend that idea. These are stories that capture what it means to come to this country and not make it. And if people can’t relate to that, then they should start talking to people who come to this country and don’t make it.
JEFF: Do you teach Malamud?
PETER: I do. Or I should say that I have in the past. But not so much lately. I tend not to—this is going to sound terrible—to teach stuff that is so personal, and I take Malamud personally, maybe too personally. I couldn’t handle anyone dismissing it or not getting it. I do recommend him a lot. And I enjoy trying to write about him. There’s an essay about him in Am I Alone Here? And another in a new book of essays coming out, Still No Word from You. Now that I think about it, to circle back to your original question, one of the reasons that Malamud might be a tough sell is because so much of his work is about what isn’t there. You know what I mean? It’s hard to sell what isn’t there. And yet, with Malamud this restraint makes all the difference. If “The Mourners” had one more word it might have collapsed under the weight of the emotion. As it is, he doesn’t hand it to you. And so you feel it in the gut.