Tag: Bernard Malamud

An American-Post-Holocaust Schlemiel: Another Note on Bernard Malamud’s “The Lady of the Lake”

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Woody Allen’s Zelig traces the path of a character (of the same name) that, Irving Howe suggests (in one segment of Allen’s film), is based on the passionate drive of American Jews in the early 20th century to assimilate into American society.  Zelig, to be sure, is a schlemiel. But he is what I would call a post-historical-American schlemiel.  His Jewishness or his past is not his primary feature; his drive to assimilate is.  To assimilate, Jews – like many immigrant groups fresh to America – would act “as if” they were not Jews.  Instead, many Jews would act as if they were Americans. The act of hiding Jewishness and “passing” is nothing new.  Sander Gilman and Steven Aschheim, amongst other scholars, have drawn up historical documents from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries to show how prevalent this was in Europe.   In a book entitled Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Secret Language of the Jews, Gilman dedicates a chapter to Jews who acted as if they were German but who ultimately failed to be accepted.  He entitled this chapter “Living Schlemiels.”  Indeed, for Gilman, a “living schlemiel” is a person who tries his utmost to be accepted but in reality cannot.  In Allen’s film, Zelig is accepted wherever he goes, but, in contrast, many of the “living schlemiels” that Gilman discusses were not.   They learned the hard way.  Even though Woody Allen’s Zelig suggests that assimilation is something all American’s celebrate and that it doesn’t matter whether Zelig is Jewish since, ultimately, he is the everyman (a man, literally, of all occasions), Bernard Malamud suggests that a Jew can still try to pass and fail.

But there is more to the story.  In the “Lady of the Lake,” Bernard Malamud, shows us that what will (or perhaps should) trip a Jew up when he or she tries to pass is history.  To be sure, it is the memory of the Holocaust.  This is a lesson that Allen doesn’t take into consideration in Zelig since, quite simply, Zelig seems to have no history.  He just happens to live in the Jazz Era.  Malamud, in contrast, suggests we situate the schlemiel after the Holocaust. For Malamud, the post-Holocaust-American-schlemiel learns a lesson about what it means to be Jewish.

In the last blog entry, I introduced and discussed the basic plot of Bernard Malamud’s “The Lady of the Lake.”  As I noted, Henry Levin changes his name (and identity) to Henry R. Freeman.  After receiving in an inheritance, he leaves for Europe in pursuit of Romance. As a New York Jew, Romance is a European and a non-Jewish experience since Romance is not a central trope of Judaism. (In fact, as Daniel Boyarin points out in his book Unheroic Conduct, humility, hard work, and diligent study are the greatest traits, not pride, power, and masculinity, which go hand-in-hand with Romance and what he calls, following a medieval tradition, “Goyim Naches”).

When he arrives in Europe, he experiences beauty and mystery.  He is taken into what the theologian Will Herberg, in his book Judaism and Modern Man, thinks is antithetical to a tradition that eschews mystical fusion and forgetfulness.  When he meets a mysterious woman named Isabella, he does his utmost to win her over. But, as I pointed out in the last blog, she seems to see through his ruse when she asks him, immediately upon meeting him, if he is Jewish.

He denies his Jewishness and hides his secret.  But right when he is about to kiss her, he is accosted by a tour guide who likes like a “sad clown” and carries a “rapier.”  This is a key interruption since he hits Freeman in the crotch and says that what he is doing is a “transgression.” To be sure, what makes the story meaningful are these interruptions since they, apparently, disclose a tension between the Jew and the non-Jew.  To be truly free, Freeman believes that he must eliminate the tension.  He cannot stand being a “stranger” any longer.  And this incident “embarrasses” him.

This prompts Freeman to think about how different her history is from his:

And she was different too….Not only in her looks and background, but of course different as regards past…Her past he could see boiling in her all the way back to knights of old, and then some; his own history was something else again, but men were malleable, and he wasn’t afraid of attempting to create daring combinations: Isabella and Henry Freedman. (102)

As one can see from this passage, he respects her history and tradition and sees it “boiling in her all the way back to knights of old.”  It is a stable history that lives on and, apparently, doesn’t change too much.  As for his own history, he sees it as something that is “malleable.”  He doesn’t wish to keep it so much as change it and make a new, “daring combination.”  This is his main thought.  He will conceal his Jewishness to accomplish this experiment of sorts.

After sending a letter requesting to see her again, he is ecstatic to see that she wishes the same.  But before he goes, he is told that her family is known for “trickery.”  Following this, the theme of concealment and trickery comes more and more to the fore.

To be sure, Freeman, though exuberant and confident that he will trick her, sees more and more signs that something is amiss.  When he arrives on the island where she lives, she tells him that all of the paintings that he sees on the walls are copies (109) and this “slightly depresses him.”  This suggests that he wants something original and sees himself as a “copy” of sorts; after all, he is trying to copy a gentile.

Immediately after feeling this disappointment, he notices an image of a leper that catches his attention.  Freeman asks why the leper “deserved his fate?” Isabella’s answer hits at the main theme: “He falsely said he could fly”(110).  In response, Freeman asks, quizzically, “And for that you go to hell?”  She, however, doesn’t reply.  To be sure, she leaves him to ruminate on the lie.  Did Freeman also claim he could fly when, in fact, he couldn’t?  In other words, was Freeman really free?

What follows is a series of scenes that show Freeman on the edge wondering whether or not he should tell her the truth; that he is a Jew.  His excitement about her is interrupted by the lie he has kept to himself about his identity.  All of this annunciated by one word: “no”:

If Isabella loved him, as he now felt she did or would before long; with the strength of this love they would conquer problems as they arose….No, the worry that troubled him most was the lie he had told her, that he wasn’t a Jew.  He could, of course, confess, say she knew Levin, not Freeman, man of adventure, but that might ruin all, since it was quite clear she wanted nothing to do with a Jew, or why, at first sight, had she asked so searching a question? (112)

This worry and his interpretation of her earlier question stay with him to the very end of the story.  But it all begins to break down when, traveling into the alps, she asks Freeman whether the peaks “those seven – look like a Menorah?”

Hearing this, he thinks that she has called his bluff.  He is in shock, but he tries his utmost to cover it up, thinking he will pass a test:

“Like a what?” Freeman politely inquired. He had a sudden frightening remembrance of her seeing him naked as he came out of the lake and felt constrained to tell her that circumcision was de rigueur in stateside hospitals; but he didn’t’ dare.  She may not have noticed.  (115)

Following this, he narrowly averts questions regarding Jewishness. However, at this point, she reveals to him that she has tricked him: she is not nobility, she doesn’t come from a noble line; rather, she is the daughter of a caretaker.  The island that Freeman went to was not owned by her family.

After saying this, she was hoping he too would confess to some kind of trick.  However, Freeman still insists on being quiet about his Jewish identity:

“I’m not hiding anything,” he said. He wanted to say more but warned himself not to.”

In response she says, “That’s what I was afraid of.”  Her reply is odd; however, he doesn’t notice, all he can think about is how Italian she looks: “She was a natural-born queen, whether by del Dongo or any other name. So she lied to him, but so had he to her”(116).  However, he is avoiding the one fact: he didn’t tell her the truth.

To be sure, he only sees her as an Italian he can have a romance and a “future” with. When, near the end of the story, he sees her all in white, he imagines her as his bride.  He fails to notice, however, that she is now more hesitant toward him than ever.

In the final scene he kisses her, but she “whispers Goodbye” to him.  In response he says, “To whom goodbye?…I have come to marry you”(117).  Upon hearing this, she asks, once again, the question that pains him the most: “Are you a Jew?”

Although his mind tells him not to lie, he overcomes this and says: “How many no’s make never?  Why do you persist with such foolish questions?”

Her reply discloses the fact that Freeman’s denial of Jewishness – in order to experience romance and start a “new life” – was his downfall:

“Because I hoped you were.”

Malamud then brings the clincher. When she opens up her top, he sees, written on her breasts, “a bluish line of distorted numbers.”  In other words, she is a survivor of the concentration camps who had been marked by the Nazis for extermination.  She cannot deny her Jewish identity and, in fact, was looking to marry a Jew and thought that Freeman was, in fact, a Levin:

“I can’t marry you. We are Jews.  My past is meaningful to me.  I treasure what I suffered for.”

As she goes away, he says that he is really Jewish and grasps at her breasts.  She disappears and he feels as if he is grasping at a “moonlit stone” (a “lady of the lake”).  In other words, he was duped.  He is a schlemiel, in this scenario, because he lets his freedom get the best of him.  Malamud’s lesson is that Levin brought his bad luck on through his masquerade.  At the end of the story, we learn that Levin is, without a doubt, not a schlemiel like Zelig.

To be sure, Malamud would like to let his readers know that there is no reward for the Zelig-like denial of history and Jewish identity.  The Jew, for him, is not a freeman.  The post-Holocaust-American Jew is bound by history, suffering, and memory.  But, as the story notes, the European Jew has a better understanding of this while the American Jew doesn’t.  For Malamud the American-Jew is a schlemiel who is more interested in an improvised, free, and new life than a historical one.   He is, as Hannah Arendt would say, the “lord of dreams.”  But these dreams, in this story, are the dreams of someone who cares more for freedom and romance than history and Jewish identity.

A Jew Hiding Behind a Free-man: A Note on Bernard Malamud’s “The Lady of the Lake” (Part I)

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Several critics have discussed Bernard Malamud’s interest in Jewishness.  My interest in his work, however, is not based solely on the topic of Jewishness in Malamud’s work; rather, it is also based on looking into how Malamud often addresses Jewishness by way of the schlemiel.  Ruth Wisse has made important efforts in this direction in her opus The Schlemiel as Modern HeroSanford Pinsker has also made efforts to address the schlemiel in Malamud’s work in his book The Schlemiel as Metaphor.  To be sure, these two works are the best scholarly accounts of the schlemiel available to us today.   But both of them were written in the early 1970s.  And though they provide great insights into Malamud’s work as it relates to the schlemiel, I feel that these insights can be built on by a scholar from our own time.  To be sure, my reflections on Malamud’s work mark a gap: I am not from their generation of critics (to be sure, I was a baby in diapers when they wrote their books) and I am writing this commentary on the schlemiel in Malamud’s work four decades later.   My insights, at least in this blog entry, look to find something relevant in Malamud’s work.  Does it still speak to us? Does he touch on themes that are still of interest today?  Or are we in a “post-assimilation” era which has “progressed” beyond the themes he once wrote on?

Malamud’s story, “The Lady of the Lake” – which appears in The Magic Barrel -presents us with a good test-case.  To be sure, the story hits on themes that still speak to us, today.  Malamud’s articulation of Jewishness, in this story, bring us into the consciousness of a Jewish character who would like to find out, for himself, if he is really a “free man” or a man bound by history (Jewish history).   This test, to be sure, is played out by a schlemiel since, for Malamud, this kind of a schlemiel is…a schlemiel because he tries to outwit history.  His desire to escape his Jewish history makes him into a schlemiel. To do this, he plays a masquerade which, in the end, fails to cover up his true identity.

The main character of “The Lady of the Lake” is Henry Levin:

Henry Levin, an ambitious, handsome thirty.

He receives an inheritance and decides to leave New York City for Paris “seeking romance.”  And the reason he goes is because he is “tired of the past – tired of the limitations it imposed on him”(94).   At the outset, the reader has no idea whether this “past” is personal, familial, or tribal.

Immediately after noting this problem with the past, Malamud notes that Henry Levin, when abroad, changes his identity.  At the hotel register, he signs his name as “Henry R. Freeman.”  His name introduces his challenge.  Like a modernist artist, he wants to create a “new” life and invent himself anew.  To do this, he goes under an alias. As the story goes on, however, this alias is tested.

To be sure, he so badly yearns to be free that he moves restlessly through Europe and ends up in Italy.  This process of movement makes him feel as if he is a real man (and not a nebbish).  To illustrate, Malamud includes a scene where Levin takes a rowboat out and braves the waters:

He kept rowing though he felt risk.  However, the waves were not too bad and he discovered the trick of letting them hit the prow head-on.  Although he handled his oars awkwardly, Freeman, to his surprise, made good time. (97).

The reader will notice that Levin, now Freeman, is not a total schlemiel (of the nebbish variety).  Although he “handled his oars awkwardly,” he does display skill and perseverance.  And this shows that the narrator sees this change as exemplary of some kind of transformation as Freeman pursues an adventure whose end is romance.

Upon docking on an island, Freeman experience an untold of beauty and although he feels blissful he also has a sad memory:

By now the place was bathed in mist, and despite the thickening sense of awe and beauty he had felt upon first beholding the islands.  At the same time he recalled a sad memory of unlived life, his own. (97)

In the midst of these sad thoughts, he notices, for the first time, a mysterious woman on the edge of his vision.  She disappears and is left with a sense of mystery and romance. This set’s up the plot since the woman he sees takes on reality and represents his biggest challenge: to fall in love with her and have her fall in love with him.  But, to do this, he has to hide his past.

The next day, he goes back to the island and notices that the tour guide and a tour are there.  He describes the tour guide as a “sad-looking clown” who stabs with a “jaunty cane.” This comic figure is by no means arbitrary.

After Freeman, once again, experiences beauty and has a mixed feeling (based on his memory of his “personal poverty), he encounters the “lady of the lake.”  His epiphany displaces his dis-ease:

When he glanced up, a girl in a white bathing suit was coming up the steps out of the water.  Freeman stared as she sloshed up the shore, her wet skin glistening in the sunlight.  (100).

Malamud’s poetic-prose follows up on this moment and articulates the image of an Italian goddess.   However, Malamud follows this up by describing Freeman’s body and the fact that he is a New Yorker. In sizing him up and contrasting his body to hers, the narrator, points out Freeman’s anxiety, yet gives him a pass:

Although he feared this moment, partly because of all he hungered for from life, and partly because of the uncountable obstacles existing between stragers, may the word forever perish. (100)

In contrast, she has no fear.  But when they come into close quarters, she asks him if he is Jewish:

The girl studied him for a full minute, then hesitatingly asked: “Are you Jewish?”

In response, Malamud tells us that Freeman “suppressed a groan” and was “secretly shocked” by the “unexpected question.”  Yet, as the narrator points out, “he did not look Jewish and could pass as not – had”(101).  So, “without batting an eyelash, he said, no, he wasn’t”(101). This moment is central to the text.  He feels exposed but wants to hide this, as he wants to hide his Jewishness so as to find romance.

But right when they are about to kiss, the guide, the “sad-faced” clown appears out of nowhere: “He gazed at them with astonishment, then let out a yell and ran down the stairs, waving his cane like a rapier”(102).  He looks at Freeman and yells “transgressor,” yanked him away, and “whacked him across the seat of the pants”(102).

The narrator notes that this “departure from the island was an embarrassment.”

Malamud’s decision to cast the figure of the “sad-clown” as a character who breaks the moment of bliss up is telling.  It suggests a deeper motif that has to do with Jewishness. The sad-clown with a rapier parries Moses with his staff.  He separates the Jew from Romance and Beauty.  Freeman’s embarrassment is a testimony to the shame he feels.   He feels as if he has lost.

However, the “sad clown” doesn’t return.  But, to be sure, one wonders, following this, if Freeman is the sad clown who doesn’t want to be a sad-clown.  The next day, Freeman does his utmost to make amends and sends the woman, whose name is Isabella (think of Queen Isabella of Spain – who prompted the Inquisition), a letter.

She agrees to meet.  What ensues is a ruse.  The whole time they are together, the narrator points out that she hesitates with Freeman.  She seems to be hiding something?  Is this because of his Jewishness?  Does she distrust him and does she despise Jews? Why would she, immediately, ask if he is Jewish.  This, to be sure, is the lingering question.

In the next blog entry, I will address this question and what happens to Freeman at the end of the story.  As I hope to show, his attempt to defy history (and be a truly “free man”) makes him a schlemiel and this conveys a lesson which should be of interest to Jews today; that is, if history and Jewish identity still matter to post-assimilated Jews…

A Note on Bernard Malamud’s Novel, A New Life

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Since I am a hyphenated American-Jew, whenever I come across a Jewish-American novel – new or old –  I always wonder whether or not I will identify with the experiences of the characters.  What I have found – and as anyone who reads my blog can see – is that I identify with the schlemiel character.  But this is a general identification.  I often find that I am interested in some schlemiels more than others.   Some, for instance the schlemiels in the novels of Gary Shteyngart or Philip Roth, do not resonate as much as schlemiels in other novels.

The reasons for my attraction or repulsion do not have to do with the fact that I do or do not share traits or problems with the given character.  To be sure, I think I have found a standard that many people would likely agree with: schlemiels that are excessively caricatured are less meaningful than schlemiels that are less caricatured.  Indeed, the sign of a good-writer-on-the-schlemiel can be found in how they balance humor with seriousness in his or her stories or novels.     After all, schlemiels fail and failure is…a serious thing.   The art part comes in with regard to how one address failure.  If one does it right, the reader can come to the text with a sense that what they are reading is simultaneously comic, utterly serious, and worthy of his or her concern.  Unlike many writers who address the schlemiel, I am now finding that Bernard Malamud stands out in his treatment.  His work, though written for another era, speaks to me, even today.

I recently came across a used, 1961 edition of Bernard Malamud’s novel, A New Life.  On the back cover, I read something that I have never seen on any back cover: the mention of the word schlemiel.

In a New Life, Bernard Malamud has written a novel that is at once devastating satire on academia, a ribald comedy, an ironic commentary on East Coast Experience and West Coast innocence – and above all, a profoundly moving fable of redemption and rebirth, a Pilgrim’s Progress of an unforgettable holy schlemiel.

Like many blurbs on the backs of books, this one promises a lot of interesting contents.  Reading this for the first time, I wondered, most of all, how this book would be a “Pilgrim’s Progress of an unforgettable holy schlemiel.”  What made S. Levin, the main character of A New Life, a “holy schlemiel?”   How does one define a “holy schlemiel?”  Does he or she do things that are religious or is he or she an expression of holiness (yet in secular trappings)?    I also wanted to know how this holy schlemiel was “redeemed” and “reborn”?  Does that ever happen with a schlemiel if, as Ruth Wisse says, the schlemiel is more like an “existential condition” and less “situational?”

Another thing that concerned me was the question of how “ribald” a comedy it was.  Was S. Levin a caricature?   How much comedy did Malamud inject into the creation of the schlemiel?

With these questions in mind, I picked up the book and started reading.

The first thing I noticed, when I opened the book for the first time, was the epigram – a citation from James Joyce’s Ulysses: “Lo, Levin leaping lightens in eyeblink Ireland’s western welkin!”

How, I wondered, would S. Levin “leap” and “lighten” – in an “eyeblink” – America’s (not Ireland’s) “western welkin”?  Welkin is Old English for sky or heavens.   The irony here is that in Malamud’s revision Levin is a Jew who, in migrating West from New York City, will somehow bring light to the dark American sky.  How could this be?  Would he do something redemptive?  Hopefully, by the end of the novel, I thought, I can answer this question.  After all, the notion that a schlemiel is redemptive is of great interest to me.   What is Malamud after?

In contrast to a redemptive figure, the narrator’s first words of the novel describe S. Levin in the most fallen manner:

S. Levin, formerly a drunkard, after a long and tiring transcontinental journey, got off the train at Marathon, Cascadia, toward evening of the last Sunday in August, 1950.  Bearded, fatigued lonely, Levin set down a valise and suitcase and looked around in a strange land for welcome. (7)

Levin is a schlemiel who wants to stop living a life of failure. To this end, he takes the Jewish wisdom of changing your place changes your “mazel” (luck) seriously.  He leaves for California (“a strange land”) to start a “new life.”  There, he will take up a job as a college professor of composition.

But there is a problem: although you can take a schlemiel out of New York, can you take the New York out of the schlemiel?  Can a schlemiel, by leaving New York for a new life, also leave the schlemiel behind?  Is it associated not just with a way of life but  also with a city where Jews lived en masse?

When he arrives, he is greeted by two characters who play a role in his fate: a teacher and his wife:

They stared at Levin – the man almost in alarm, the woman more mildly – and he gazed at them.  (7)

This initial gaze is telling since the gaze is not so much at the Jew (which is cloaked by the narrator) as at the stranger who is about to come into their life.  Malamud tells us that the man, who is “almost in alarm,” is energetic and has a “rich head of red hair.” Reading this, I cannot help but think of the Biblical figure of Esau – the brother of Jacob.   According to the Midrash, he has red hair all over his body. The Midrash suggests that this matches his essence: he is a hunter and more athletic than his intellectual and humble brother, Jacob.

What I love about this initial encounter is the fact that Malamud suggests that we think of the struggle between the schlemiel and a possible Esau as a struggle of epic, biblical proportions.  This gives the schlemiel a context with more gravitas and weight.

Nonetheless, as one can see from the first lines, S. Levin is a schlemiel be virtue of the fact that he has failure written into his very existence.  This failure receives some comic reflection but is still quite serious.  S. Levin, after all, really wants to live a “new life.”

How does Malamud balance out the weight and the comic lightness of the schlemiel?

…to be continued…..

A Brief Note on Varieties of Schlemiel Experience: Coen Brothers, Gary Shteyngart, and Judd Apatow

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As far as schlemiel theory goes, I’ve been writing on a variety of the schlemiels this week.  The differences between them are suggestive.  But, more importantly, I’m seeing that I identify more with one variety rather than another.  And the reasons I have for this identification speak most to what I find, today, most important about this character.    I hope that my identification resonates with other people since, to my mind, we now have a rare opportunity to understand how important the schlemiel can be – at this historical  moment -for prompting thought about what it means to be an American.  This thought, as I will argue, engages us in existential questions that are of great urgency.

A few days ago, I wrote a blog post on a trailer that Random House posted on Gary Shteyngart.  The point of the blog entry was to address a reading of the trailer made by Slate.   The author of the article claimed that the trailer failed miserably in attempting to make a gay joke vis-à-vis Shteyngart’s performance as a gay author with two husbands (played by James Franco and Jonathan Franzen).  I felt the repeated characterization of this trailer as the product of “lazy” thinking was a red herring.  Instead of presenting an argument it presents that author’s preference for gay jokes told about a James Franco who, in his mind, authentically attempted to embody gayness in a recent celebrity roast.   This aside, I felt that the real issue was the characterization of Shteyngart as a schlemiel (a “little failure”) in this trailer for his book by the same name.

To this end, I looked at how the trailer – by way of the schlemiel -offers a critique of success and masculinity.  This is what I call the “meaning of failure.”  However, the truth of the matter is that the critique is mild.    I wouldn’t exactly call it the product of “lazy thinking” so much as a similar concession to a market that filmmakers like Judd Apatow have taken full advantage.

To be sure, Judd Apatow’s schlemiels – in films like Forty Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Super Bad – may be failures but they are all, ultimately, commercial successes.  And, in contrast to the schlemiel we see played by Gary Shteyngart, his schlemiels end up, at the end of the film, winning.  Regardless, both varieties of schlemiels in Shteyngart’s tailer and Apatow’s films are charming.  Their failure doesn’t hit home to hard.  It isn’t what I’d call existential.  And, ultimately, there is little we can gain from it save for a kind of snarky, comic titillation.   This brand of schlemiel comedy can be seen in shows like Big Bang Theory and in nearly every Will Farell film.   There is little that can be said about this save for the fact that it simply maintains a status quo and instead of prompting change it creates a new norm in which schlemiels-are-one-of-us.  They may not be the likes of James Franco or Jonathan Franzen – “real men” who seek out “truth” and live out the “erotic” – but they are, like all of us, a little deluded by their hopes.  Nothing too disturbing is at work, here.  No.  In the end, all of this schlemiel comedy is feel-good-comedy.  Americans can laugh a little at their schlemiel-keit and still feel good about their misperceptions.  We can face the day without any anxiety or sadness.

In contrast to these varieties of schlemiel, I was fortunate to have seen the Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis this week.  In this film, we see another variety of schlemiel that, to my mind, deserves more elaboration.   As I noted in yesterday’s blog entry, J. Hoberman decided to read the film – and all other Coen Brother’s films – in terms of the schlemiel.   His reading of the schlemiel sees this character as the subject of his own demise since he is blind to the things he does and brings on his own bad luck.  However, as Hoberman also notes, he is also is the subject of bad luck that is not of his own making.   To be sure, one might think he is a shlimazel (the subject of bad luck) since he is hit with so much bad luck (indeed, one of my friends tweeted me that he thought Hoberman was wrong: Llewyn Davis wasn’t a schlemiel, he was a shlimazel.)

The reason I identify more with the Coen Brothers film is because the schlemiel they show us is not of the feel-good type.  Davis’s misperceptions, false-hopes, and failures are not laughable in the same way they are with Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Seth Rogen et al.  Rather, they are painful to watch.  And, as I noted, yesterday, what makes him a schlemiel is not so much his charm or this or that redeeming quality so much as the possibility that, at the end of the film, he may have hope.  But more to the point, he is a schlemiel because he persists – despite the fact that the odds are against him.  But this persistence is permeated with weariness and failure.

The range of identifications we have with Davis is much more complex than any of the feel-good schlemiel films.  To be sure, I left the film thinking about myself: my false hopes, failures, my family, and the America that helped to foster my dreams.  I didn’t leave any Judd Apatow film with these thoughts.  On the contrary, I could go home feeling good about myself.

One of the great insights I left the film with was that we need to look into what is outside Llewyn Davis (outside the schlemiel) so as to understand what is inside him.  The Coen Brothers cast him in relation to failed artists, his decaying family, outsiders, and a long-journey from New York City to Chicago and back again.  His schlemiel character is defined against this outside which exudes hopelessness, hardness, and decay.  His false hopes, in many ways, are a response to this outside.  They protect him from being destroyed by this outside.  However, this protection is thinned out as the film goes on.

The more weary he grows, the more he realizes that the hopes he had set up for himself were out of tune with what was possible.  However, we see that it is not simply his fault.  The fact that he actually does make an album shows us that his hopes were nurtured by an industry.  But, as we see, this industry could care less about him.  And when he arrives in Chicago this hits home.  To be sure, his long journey there reminds me of what happens to the main character of James Joyce’s classic story “Araby”: the time the character has to wait before arriving at his destination wears away at his passion so much so that when he arrives he realizes that he was running on false hope.

To be sure, during the trip to and back from Chicago Llewyn shows us a schlemiel who realizes that he has failed on many levels. But the twist is that, though this is the case, he still goes on hoping and being a schlemiel (albeit with reduced hopes).

J. Hoberman, in his review of the film, thinks that this film has resonance with Bruce Jay Friedman’s novel, Stern.  But, after seeing the film,  I think the better reference is to Bernard Malamud.  Ruth Wisse points out that Malamud’s schlemiel’s also fail but they go through an existential process of coming to terms with these failures.  Yet, like this film, they still remain schlemiels.

Wisse tells us that Malamud’s “interest” in the schlemiel has “not been sociologically determined.   Alone among American writers he has fixed on the Jews as representative man – and on the schlemiel as the representative Jew.  His Jewish Everyman is an isolated, displaced loner, American in Italy, Eastern in the West, German refugee in America, bird among bipeds”(110).  And there is a challenge to the status quo in his work:  “Malamud sees the schlemiel condition as the clearest alternative to the still-dominant religion of success”(111).   But the alternative is based on becoming cognizant of one’s failure and delusions: “The character courageous enough to accept his ignomity without being crushed by it is the true hero of Malamud’s opus, while the man playing the Western hero without admitting to his real identity – Jewish, fearful, suffering, loving, un-heroic – is the absolute loser”(111).

Wisse’s final distinction can be applied to the Coen Brother’s Llewyn Davis.  Everything he touches “turns to shit,” he is a good musician, but he is not the hero of folk music.  By the end of the film he “admits” to this.  And we see this in the scene where, after leaving the venue where Bob Dylan is playing (for the first time), he is beat up by the husband of a woman-musician he lashed out at when he – for a moment – threw all his dreams away.

Sitting on the sidewalk and watching the cab drive away, with Dylan playing in the background, Davis, for the first time in the film, smiles.  And by doing so, he accepts his “real identity” as a ‘fearful and suffering man” who has no right to take away the dreams of others.

I want to add to this by pointing out that this, in contrast to the possibility of becoming successful with Bob Dylan, is what makes him a schlemiel.  He is a schlemiel because he fails, grows bitter, and accepts it.  At this moment, what is outside Llweyn Davis goes inside.   Still, it is up to us to decide whether or not all of his bad luck is redeemed by the possibility of Dylan.

To be sure, this decision is based on our historical situation and the place of hope and cynicism in our society, today.  The brief moment at the end of the film may, for us, be outweighed by the rest of the film and, in that case, Davis may come across as yet another American casualty.   On the other hand, this brief moment may come across as a moment of hope. This all depends on how we see ourselves in history.  Malamud, it seems, finds the power of freedom – the power to accept one’s bad luck – as the definitive moment.   And this, it seems, would be in defiance of history.  On the other hand, what might matter most is how we, and not the characters, in this historical moment, have to say about hope and cynicism.

Regardless of how you look at it, the fact of the matter is that this variety of the schlemiel – as opposed to the other varieties I have mentioned above – prompts these questions.  To be sure, we need more schlemiels of the Coen Brothers and Bernard Malamud type today.  These other schlemiels simply make us feel good about ourselves; in contrast, their schlemiels prompt us to think, become anxious about who we are, and to seriously address the meaning of hope and cynicism in America. The “land of dreams” gives birth to schlemiels, but it also destroys them and enables them to destroy themselves.  It also gives them an opportunity to ask questions about existence that, in other countries, are simply not possible.