The Fixer, The Tenants, and the Historical Perspective

Citation metadata

Author: Iska Alter
Editor: Janet Witalec
Date: 2003
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 9,119 words

Document controls

Main content

Article Preview :

[(essay date 1981) In the following essay, Alter explores differences in Malamud's interpretation of historical significance in The Fixer, which Alter categorizes as a novel of "Jewish historicism," and The Tenants, which he calls a "work of a disillusioned American idealist."]

From the mythic transliteration of baseball history in The Natural to the adaptation of the Beiliss case that forms the basis of The Fixer to the angry eschatology of The Tenants, Bernard Malamud has been concerned, either obliquely or overtly, with the ways in which history shapes the individual, defining the nature of inward perception and controlling the relationships with the institutions and personnel of the external environment. Indeed, the ambivalence and growing pessimism of the later fiction might be attributed to the anomic tendencies, the nihilistic futility, and the overpowering violence of contemporary history. To be sure, most critics are quite correct when they find as the predominant theme in Malamud's work a continuing affirmation of man's capacity to mature, to accept responsibility, and to create through experience a moral structure within which to function. Yet it cannot be denied, it seems to me, that the ethical system so prized by Malamud, called mentshlekhayt by Josephine Zadovsky Knopp,1 becomes increasingly ineffective as a force to insure order or stability and increasingly ambiguous as a determinant of personal emancipation when confronted with events occurring in historical time. No longer does the development of a principled sensibility liberate in the presence of the anarchic disorder that seems so much a condition of modernity. Rather, such a sensibility would appear to imprison and isolate,2 producing only internal psychic changes. Granted that to Malamud it is precisely this altered consciousness that is of the utmost significance; nonetheless, there seems to be a radical disjuncture between the transfigured self and the world in which the transformed individual ultimately must act.

Malamud has illustrated in the course of his novels and short stories that history has proven the American dream to be corrupt and the possession of Eden illusory, that race and sex lead to war rather than harmony, that the artist's power to discipline chaos is negligible, while the attempt to do so is often self-destructive. What then is man to do in the face of history's power? The prophetic chronicle of Yakov Bok, the fixer (1966), and the chiliastic tale of Harry Lesser and Willie Spearmint (1971), tenants in the crumbling house of history, offer two different responses to the question of man's involvement in history and his ability to utilize the multiple perspectives of history in order to fashion an identity that might be applicable in society at large. It is interesting to observe too that the implications of these variant responses have themselves been conditioned by dissimilar historical times. It should not be particularly surprising that this subject absorbs Malamud's imagination given not only the sacralization of history that is a major component of Jewish theology,3 but also the evangelical impulse that seeks to explain and...

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420047440