Structure and Content in Malamud's Pictures of Fidelman

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Author: Robert Ducharme
Editors: Thomas J. Schoenberg and Lawrence J. Trudeau
Date: 2007
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,158 words

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[(essay date October 1971) In the following essay, Ducharme argues that the themes of suffering and responsibility provide "novelistic unity" to the episodic structure of Pictures of Fidelman.]

The work of any imaginative writer reflects, to some extent, his own experience. The short stories of Bernard Malamud, and his second novel The Assistant, draw upon Malamud's earliest experience of New York where he grew up in a Jewish neighborhood on the lower east side of the city. His years of teaching at a small state college in Oregon provided Malamud with the background of his third novel, A New Life, and his summer travels through Italy in recent years seem to have inspired the setting of the Fidelman stories. The Natural, a baseball story, and The Fixer, set in late nineteenth century Russia, arose by contrast from Malamud's reading, from vicarious rather than from direct experience.

Malamud's earliest stories--published in journals as widely divergent as the conservative American Mercury and the liberal Partisan Review--did not attract much critical attention; his first novel, The Natural (1952) received mixed reviews. After his second book--a collection of stories entitled The Magic Barrel (1954)--received the National Book Award for fiction, literary critics began to give Malamud's work more serious attention. When Malamud's second novel was published in 1957, the critical world was prepared to receive it with generous praise; The Assistant has already achieved the status of a minor post-war American classic. Malamud's third novel, A New Life (1961), seemed to be a response to the criticism that the social canvas of his earlier fiction had been too narrow. Instead of the urban Jewish setting of The Assistant, A New Life was set in a far Western state at a service-oriented liberal arts college. Furthermore, with the appearance of Malamud's second collection of stories, Idiots First (1964), there was a noticeable broadening of subject and setting; two of the stories included racial themes and four others were set in Italy. Finally, with the publication of The Fixer (1966), this particular criticism of Malamud's work seemed to be laid to rest. Set in late nineteenth century Russia, The Fixer is a political tale with moral themes of personal and social significance. Malamud's most recent work, Pictures of Fidelman: An Exhibition (1969)--a sequence of six related stories with an Italian setting--may be considered a kind of retrenchment to earlier interests and materials.1

Critical response to the Fidelman stories when they appeared in Malamud's earlier collections2 was not notably favorable. The stories were criticized for the uncongeniality of their Italian setting, many critics preferring Malamud's familiar Jewish ambiance. Yet several critics found much to admire in the resilience of the central character Fidelman.3 Nevertheless, when the five Fidelman stories (with a previously unpublished sixth) were issued as one book in 1969 under the title Pictures of Fidelman, the prevailing critical attitude toward Fidelman had not changed much.4 Only Robert Scholes' review in Saturday Review5 offered unqualified praise with a persuasive analysis to support it. In...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420075238