[(essay date 2001) In the following essay, Delbanco offers an overview of the stories in The Magic Barrel and discusses the reception of Malamud’s collection.]
I first met Bernard Malamud in 1966. I was an ambitious boy of twenty-three, with a debut novel about to appear and the self-confident conviction that I could and should replace him while he took a leave of absence from his teaching job. He was leaving Bennington College for what turned out to be a two-year stint in Cambridge, Massachusetts; I drifted into town and was hired—astonishingly, I still believe—by elders who saw something in this junior they might shape. By the time the Malamuds returned, I was happily ensconced as their near neighbor in Vermont; over the years we grew close.
The relation was avuncular; though Bennington’s faculty is unranked, Malamud was much my senior colleague. It was and is a small school and town, and the Language and Literature Division seemed very small indeed. We attended committee meetings and movies and concerts and readings and poker games together; we shared meals and walks. When I married, in 1970, the Malamuds came to the wedding; when they gave a party we helped to cut the cake. With no hint of condescension he described me as his protegé; I asked for and took his advice. My wife’s day-book bulks large with collective occasions: cocktails, picnics, weddings, and funerals shared. In times of celebration or trouble—when our daughters were born or had birthdays, during the years I served as Director of the Bennington Writing Workshops, at ceremonies in his honor, or when in failing health Bern needed a hand with a suitcase or car—we saw each other often. At his death on March 18, 1986, it seemed to me and to my wife and children that we had lost a relative. The loss endures.
So I can’t and won’t pretend to critical distance; this is an author I loved and admire. At his best he strikes me as an enduring master of this ending century, and his best consists of the early novels (The Natural, The Assistant, A New Life) and a baker’s dozen of short stories. Though lumped—to his disgruntlement—with that of other “Jewish” writers from Singer to Bellow to Roth, the prose was nonpareil. And the terms of appreciation feel oxymoronic as soon as applied: his is a magical realism, a simple complexity, a practiced naturalness. My guess is that, when the dust settles and those critics to whom we look forward look back, the work will loom large within our art’s terrain—in the forest a tall tree. For his concerns are timeless not timebound, his preoccupations lasting and diction not likely to date.
* * *
At Bennington, in 1984, Bernard Malamud delivered a lecture titled “Long Work, Short Life”. Its closing assertions are characteristic in diction and stance: self-assured yet modest, a high priest of aesthetics who’s wearing a business suit.
I have written almost all my life. My writing has drawn,...