[(essay date 1983) In the following essay, Quart discusses Malamud's technique of keeping his female characters at a distance--both physically and emotionally--from his male characters.]
Bernard Malamud's central characters are deeply isolated men. From Morris Bober and Frank Alpine incarcerated in the grocery in Malamud's early and best novel The Assistant, through S. Levin, eastern Jew confronting the West, and Yakov Bok among the gentiles, to the elderly Dubin in the snowy Vermont of Malamud's most recent novel, they suffer intensely and alone. You could say that Malamud's parables of regeneration are about nothing so much as learning a new relation to oneself through relation to others, but equally pervasive in his work is the fear of love and human involvement.
Women are set at a curious distance in Malamud's fiction, despite the intense passion, lust, yearning, directed at them. Malamud's ironies of style and moral-fable abstractions are themselves often distancers from the social and psychological textures of living in the world with a lover, a friend, even with oneself. But beyond this, a peculiar obliqueness characterizes the way his heroes relate to women.
Consider Fidelman, fallen among pimps and procurers in Italy, at work forging a painting:
While Scarpio is out talking to the guard, the copyist hastily sketches the Venus of Titian, and with a Leica Angelo has given him for the purpose, takes several new color shots. Afterwards, he approaches the picture and kisses the lady's hands, thighs, breasts, but as he murmurs, "I love you," a guard strikes him hard on the head with both fists.1
The intensity of passion at a hopeless distance, here further removed still by the guarded and forbidden woman's not even being flesh but paint, is a characteristic Malamud love drama. In his last novel, Dubin's Lives, William Dubin sounds like a spokesman for all the Frank Alpines, Levins, Fidelmans, and perhaps for Malamud himself, when, envying the young girl Fanny's sexual freedom, he characterizes his own youth: "I was a satisfied romantic--loved longing. It made an occasional poem for me."2 Not to mention novels.
In Malamud's work there is an immense expenditure of lust and fantasy on unknown or unattainable women.3 Romantic delirium exists in exact proportion to inaccessibility: for someone else's wife, for an Italian peintrice who scorns the hero, for a student when such an attachment threatens a job--and all of this covered with a gloss of self-mocking humor. The innumerable instances of voyeurism, often sexual, merely take the excitement of what is stealthy and withheld to the full length.4 That this excitement has a subtext of fear, perhaps even dislike for real women really experienced, is suggested by the repeated use of whores in Malamud's work, women who are discredited in one way or another by their relations with other men, often a means by which physical love itself is made to seem distasteful.5
At any rate, Alfred Kazin's description of Malamud's characters as "so poor that they live on air,...