Tag: Morris Bober

Becoming Jewish – Part VI of Facing Failure: A Levinasian Reading of Bernard Malamud

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Unlike any author in Jewish-American or Yiddish literature, Bernard Malamud closely traces the process of a non-Jewish character’s becoming-a-Jew. But what makes Malamud’s treatment so fascinating and thought provoking is the fact that Frank, an Italian-American character who becomes a Jew, is that Frank is inspired to become Jewish by virtue of a schlemiel. His model, so to speak, is a Jewish fool. However, as Malamud shows us, although Bober, Malamud’s schlemiel character, may be a fool he is actually very wise. Moreover, he is not a caricature in the sense that people usually think when they hear the word schlemiel. His foolishness is informed by his blindness to people’s bad qualities and his trust of others who, oftentimes, betray him. But what makes this foolishness saintly is the fact that in trusting people he and those around him suffer. His failures affect others; but, at the very least, they are honest. Frank, his assistant is deeply affected by Bober when he realizes how much Bober suffers for others and how Bober takes it in stride. This prompts Frank to do things for Bober, to repent for all the times he lied and stealed from him, and to eventually ask him for forgiveness. In the process, Frank becomes more and more fascinated with Jewishness and he realizes that he may have to become Jewish if he is to atone for what he did.   He comes to this realization when Bober, after hearing from Frank that he had been lied to, decides to turn away from Frank.

In the last blog entry, I pointed out how Frank had been caught stealing from Bober. Frank did this in order to have money to meet with Helen, Bober’s daughter.   To make things worse, when he meets up with Helen he saves her from being raped from Ward; however, once he does this, he forces himself on her (albeit in a way that is less aggressive). Following this, Helen, whose last words about Frank before leaving him are “uncircumcised dog,” learns of the theft and Bober becomes very disappointed.

In the wake of this, Frank becomes deeply introspective and realizes he has done wrong and needs to make amends. Frank gets a shot at redeeming himself when, out of nowhere, he is the first to notice that Bober is in a house full of gas (the burner wasn’t turned on). He saves Bober’s life.

Bober goes to the hospital. And in the time between Bober’s admittance to the hospital and his return back home, Frank starts looking into what it means to be Jewish. One of his biggest questions is how a people that suffers so much could be called “chosen”:

He read a book about the Jews, a short history. He had many times seen this book on one of the literary shelves and had never taken it down, but one day he checked it out to satisfy his curiosity. He read the first part with interest, but after the Crusades and the Inquisition, when the Jews were having it tough, he had to force himself to keep reading. He skimmed the bloody chapters but read slowly the ones about their civilization and accomplishments.   He also read about the ghettos, where the half-starved, bearded prisoner spent their lives trying to figure out why they were the Chosen People. He tried to figure out why but couldn’t. (191)

When Morris Bober returns, Frank decides to finally confess. He does this believing, as a good Christian would, that it would do the trick. But, as I noted in the last blog entry, it doesn’t.   Although Bober is a schlemiel – and schlemiels are rarely in these kinds of situations – he makes a decision to show Frank that he is at the limit. Bober has forgiven him many times but this time, with the urging of his wife Ida, he must draw the line. He does let Frank come back to work for him, and in doing so shows compassion, but something has changed. While, in the past, he was startled when he realized that he made Frank’s efforts larger than life, now he realizes that Frank doesn’t do as much as he once imagined:

Although Morris liked the improvements Frank made in the store he saw at once that they had not made the least effect on business. Business was terrible…He thought he had seen the store at its worst but this brought him close to fainting. (200)

Now, Bober starts realizing that the store he had worked in for so many years was a total failure. And in noting it’s failure, his near death, and Frank’s lying Bober starts coming to terms with failure. He, in a Levinasian sense, faces failure by noting the suffering around him that he can not do anything about save…give up. And this suffering hurts because they are already poor. Bober is too hold to learn a new trade and so is Ida (201). The thought of more poverty kills them.   But it is real. Frank witnesses all of this, first hand, and suffers with them. And when Ida fires him, due to this economic state of affairs, Frank leaves silently. He knows that it makes sense and he can no longer protest or ask for mercy.

At this point Frank drops out of the narrative and the reader, wondering what is going on with him, is drawn into a world without Frank in it. While this is going on, we see that the thing most on Morris Bober’s mind is survival and failure.   In one fascinating moment, Bober is visited by a Jewish customer. And in this moment, we see a side of Jewishness that we haven’t seen before. One that Frank has also never seen. The man suggests that instead of falling into poverty the store can be burnt down and that Bober can collect insurance money (212). Bober turns him away, however. He would rather be poor that rip off the system (212). Strangely enough, however, Bober thinks about it and even lights a few little strips of paper just to see them burn up (not to burn the store down).   But then, like a schlemiel, the little fire he starts catches on to his clothes. And Frank emerges, from out of nowhere, to put out the flames. He utters these words: “For Christ sake,” Frank pleaded, “take me back here,” But, as the narrator notes, “the grocer ordered him out of the house”(214).

The next words, of the next chapter, tell us that “Karp’s store began to burn.” (Karp, as I noted before, is the person who told Bober about how Frank was duping him and how Bober was duped by his faith in Frank. Moreover, Karp wants Bober to marry his daughter to his son.)   Ward, one of the people who, together with Frank, robbed Bober at the outset of the novel, is the one who burns Karp’s store down (more or less out of anger and hatred of Jews).   In the wake of this, Bober sinks into mourning, something Malamud sees as a major part of being Jewish: “Pain is for poor people”(219).   He sits with Karp and has tea with him in the aftermath.

But out of nowhere, Karp says that he wants to buy Bober’s store because he likes the location (220). In response, “Morris couldn’t believe his ears. He was filled with excitement and dread that someone would tell him he had just dreamed a dream, or that Karp, fat fish, would turn into a fat bird and fly away, screeching, “Don’t you believe me,” or in some heartbreaking way change his mind”(220).

To be sure, failure and poverty are normal for Bober. So one can understand his response as being afraid that it was yet another false hope. However, this time it is real. He and Ida weap for joy as this seems to be the only real break they have had in life: real good luck (220).

But, as one can imagine, a schlemiel’s good luck doesn’t last too long.

Morris Bober, in his excitement, wakes up the next morning to see a “spring snow” falling on the ground. And instead of going outside with a jacket, boots, etc, he goes out in his regular clothes. That night, before going to bed, Bober becomes very emotional and reflective. He tells his daughter how much he loves her and, in tears, tells her how he remembers her when she was a baby and how he always wanted her to be happy (224). In response, Helen tells him how much she wants to give him and he tells her how much more he wants to give her. His last words to her, before he goes to bed are “look how it snows”(224). They both watch the snow “through the moving windows, then Morris sad good night”(224).

In his bed, alone, Morris becomes “restless, almost dejected” when he reflects on all the new changes he will have to “get used to.” Like many Jews, he worries about the future and what will be. He fears that the worst may happen to him and his family. But “what he feared most was that he would make another mistake and again settle in a prison. The possibility of this worried him intensely…His thoughts exhausted him. He could feel his poor heart running a race against the merciless future”(224). Bober remains a schlemiel because he fears he will likely make another mistake. For this reason, he sees this success as yet another possible failure.

Following this, Malamud describes how Bober becomes “drenched in hot sweat” while his “feet were freezing.” Being a good humble Jew, he worries that if he thinks to much about how sick he is and if he tells others people will suffer. He didn’t want to wake his wife or anyone else:

Gradually he accepted the thought that he had a cold- maybe a flu. He considered waking her to call a doctor but who could they call without a telephone? And if Helen got dressed and used Sam Perl’s phone, what an embarrassment that would be, waking up a whole family when he warrant their bell; also arousing a doctor. (225)

The narrator takes on a Jewish tone when he mimics Bober’s thought processes regarding the snow in April and how ironic it would be if this would lead to something bad. He reminds us that this is the state of a schlemiel: “It frustrated him hopelessly that every move he made seemed to turn into some inevitable thing”(225).

But this is not the last thought.

Malamud takes us into Bober’s last dream before dying: he dreams about his son Eprhaim, who died young. Eprhaim, to be sure, is only mentioned once in the novel. And this is, without a doubt, very important. Ephraim is Bober’s secret. He keeps his son’s death to himself and never mentions it. However, as we can see his last dream turns to him.   What Bober sees in Eprhaim is himself. He sees a man child who is poor and dies before he can live his life:

Ephraim wore a beanie cut from the crown of an old hat of Morris’s, covered with buttons and shiny pins, but the rest of him was in rags….The boy looked hungry. (226)

Bober is “shocked” by Ephraim’s hunger and he pleas with him. Bober tells him that he feeds him “three times a day.” But this statement is undergirded by Ephraim’s death: “why did you leave so soon your father?”

Bober continues to plea with him telling him that he will give him a college education and help him. But Ephraim turns away and “disappeared in a wake of laughter”(226).   Bober wakes with tears in his eyes and a feeling of regret. He “wanted to apologize” to his family and his wife for not providing enough. He even “moaned a little thinking of Frank”(226). His last thoughts are painful: “I gave away my life for nothing. It was a thunderous truth”(226).

But in the midst of this “thunderous truth,” the narrator distracts us: “Was the snow still falling?” And he tells us that Morris died in the hospital three days later. These last lines tap into what Malamud finds to be most important about being Jewish. The regret, the self-doubt, the feeling of meaninglessness, are there, they are “thunderous truth” that are belied by failure; however, in the midst of all of this there is distraction, laughter, and turning away. The pain, it seems, is too much. And though Morris Bober and the narrator acknowledge it, they both know that too much of the pain and regret will kill them. Distraction is a part of survival. But the pain is all based on suffering for the other. Bober is, in these moments, what Edith Wyschogrod would call a “sample” of the saintly. His life is committed to the other and the reader can sense Bober’s “carnal generality” through his final regrets and his realization that, with all he has done, he hasn’t done enough.   And this is the point: Malamud shows us that a schlemiel’s failures and mistakes need not be thought of as caricatures; they can teach us about what it means to be moral.

This “sample,” to be sure, has a lasting effect on Frank and prompts him to want to become a Jew and a schlemiel. Frank’s desire to become a Jew reaches its apex in the wake of Bober’s funeral.   And the process that we witness, as readers, shows us how the saintly sample can transform the life of another person and prompt them to become a Jew and a schlemiel-saint.

….to be continued…

 

 

Facing Failure: A Levinasian Reading of Bernard Malamud’s Fiction – Part V

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One of the greatest things Bernard Malamud provides the reader of The Assistant with is an acute sense of how complicated it is to become a good person.   The schlemiel in the novel, Morris Bober, is the model for goodness. His endurance of suffering, bad luck, and failure show the reader a character who, though comical, is in many ways saintly. But it is not his suffering so much that makes him a saintly-schlemiel as the fact that he trusts the other. We see this most clearly when Bober gives Frank, who becomes his assistant, a chance to do good.

As I have pointed out in the last blog entry, Frank is culpable for robbing Bober with Ward. And this may have prompted him to show up on Bober’s doorstep to help him out and become his assistant. However, as the story goes on, we see Frank struggle with being good. Even though he admits to himself that he has done wrong in the past, he still steals money from Bober. Moreover, he doesn’t speak to him and confess that he has done wrong. This lack of communication is, as I noted in the last blog, the missing link to fully doing teshuva (repentance).   His effort to become good must include being good in thought, speech, and action. As the novel shows, he is partial and until he speaks and stops stealing, his good feelings or thoughts are not enough.

After telling himself that he was a “victim” of Ward’s anti-Semitism, he decides that he wants to have a new beginning. This decision is the seed of his teshuva. After returning money to the register, Frank starts feeling good:

After ringing up the six bucks, to erase the evidence of an unlikely sale he rang up “no sale.” Frank then felt a surge of joy at what he had done and his eyes misted. In the back he drew off his shoe, got out the card, and subtracted six dollars form the total amount he owed. He figured he could pay it all up in a couple-three months, by taking out of the bank the money – about eighty bucks – that was left there, returning it bit by bit, and when that was all used up, giving back part of his weekly salary till he had the debt square. The trick was to get the money back without arousing anyone’s suspicion. (159)

In the midst of his joy of doing good, Helen, Bober’s daughter, calls him up on the phone. As I noted before, he has a crush on her and she likes him. Bober lets this slip by while Ida doesn’t. Helen, in her phone call to him, confesses that she would rather hang out with him that with Nat Perl, a Jewish boy who is likely to become a success in life. Helen’s mother, Ida, would rather she marry or hang out with Nat while Bober trusts, perhaps foolishly, that Frank would be harmless. He believed that Frank was a harmless poor person, like himself.

In this chapter of the novel, we see that Bober’s idealization of Frank is false on two counts. Thinking of when he will meet Helen, Frank realizes that he will need money for the cab to get home from the date. He then decides to steal some money from the register:

Frank had decided he didn’t like to ask Helen for any money – it wasn’t a nice thing to do with a girl you liked. He thought it was better to take a buck out of the register drawer, out of the amount he had just put back. He wished he had paid back the finve and kept himself the one-buck bill. (161)

But when he does this, Bober, for the first time, catches him in the act and decides to confront Frank: “The grocer held his breath for a painful second, then stepped inside the store”(161).   Frank lies to Bober and says there was a “mistake”(161). But Bober pushes him on this lie. Bober says flat out that “this is a lie”(161).   Bewildered, Bober, once again, asks Frank why he lied (Frank, recall, stole rolls and milk at the beginning of the novel without telling Bober, but Bober let it go on account of Frank’s poverty; now, however, Frank is no longer a homeless poor man). But Frank still can’t admit to it and insists that it was a “mistake.” Frank asks for another chance and Bober says “No.” Bober becomes sad and tells Frank to leave:

Frank stared at the gray and broken Jew and seeing, despite the tears in his eyes, that we would not yield, hung up his apron and left. (163)

Following this, Frank goes out to drink before he meets up with Helen, Bober’s daughter.   When Frank doesn’t show up on time, Helen starts to worry (165). And, out of nowhere, Ward shows up.   Ward, drunk, accosts Helen, she turns him away and, in the heat of the moment, he makes sexual advances. Helen fights back:

Struggling, kicking wildly, she caught him between the legs with her knee. He cried out and cracked her across her face… Her legs buckled and she slid to the ground. (167)

Frank emerges out of the trees and hits Ward. Ward runs off. Helen feels saved, kisses Frank, thanks him, and “holds him tightly.” But then Frank does the unseemly thing and although she tells him no, he insists that he loves her so much that he must have sex with her.   He “stopped her pleas with kisses…”(168). However, the last words are hers: “Afterward, she cried, “Dog – uncircumcised dog!”

These are the last words of the chapter. They indicate a separation of Jews and Gentiles that brings back old hatreds and ancient memories of oppression. They also show us how Frank has broken with all possibilities for goodness. He is in a low state and in need of redemption.

In the following chapter, we see Bober, his wife, and Helen mourning Frank’s departure from the store…and the possibility of goodness. They are saddened as they all, with the exception of Ida, had hope that Frank could turn things around.

Frank is deeply hurt. And at home that night the narrator tells us that Frank “cries out”(174). The narrator points out that Frank’s thoughts “stank” and “the more he smothered them the more they stank”(174). This stink is also physical. We learn that his body stank and that it was lodged in his nose. His body is repulsive: “The sight of his bare feet utterly disgusted him”(174). And his thoughts “were killing him. He couldn’t stand them.” Frank then experiences major ambivalence. He wants to leave the city, but he feels he must stay. He wants forgiveness and replays in his mind what he will tell Helen (174). In addition to this, he imagines what Helen will say and this drives him mad. He looks in the mirror and stages this dialogue. He “faces” failure:

Where have you been, he asked the one in the glass, except on the inside of a circle? What have you ever done but always the wrong thing? (174)

The narrator compounds things by noting how he also betrayed Morris and had failed to do the right thing on many occasions. Thoughts about all of these failures leaves him, so to speak, with a stink:

His thoughts would forever suffocate him. He had failed once to often. He should somewhere have stopped and changed the way he was going, his luck, himself, stopped hating the world, got a decent education, a job, a nice girl. He had lived without will, betrayed every good intention. Had he ever confessed the holdup to Morris? Hadn’t he stolen from the cash register till the minute he was canned? In a single terrible act in the park hadn’t he murdered the last of his good hopes, the love he had so long waited for – his chance at a future? His goddamn life pursued him wherever he went; he had led it nowhere….The self he had secretly considered valuable was, for all he could make of it, a dead rat. He stank. (175)

Meanwhile, Helen feels regret for having trusted Frank. The narrator, in a similar fashion, writes a paragraph full of questions about how she had been duped. This leads to her feeling a “violent self-hatred for trusting him”(176).

In the midst of all this self-loathing over mistrust and failure, yet another trauma emerges. Bober goes to sleep in his house, but since he forgot to light the gas he is exposed to noxious fumes. Frank smells the gas coming from Bober’s home and immediately springs up to save him. Frank does his best to revive him and succeeds in saving his life.

Although everyone is angry at Frank, the fact that he saved Bober’s life creates an awkwardness between them. And when he comes back the next day, we can see that Ida is agitated with his presence. But he gives her back all of the money he took and says he wants to visit Bober in the hospital. However, Ida doesn’t let him leave so easily and orders him to stay away from Helen.

When Frank finally faces Bober and confesses to him, we see a different person. To be sure, the whole novel Frank wanted to say something. But now more than ever Frank feels he can speak.   He wants to be trusted by Bober, the honest schlemiel. However, as in the Jewish tradition, Frank’s apology is not enough. It needs to be accepted:

“Morris, Frank said, at agonizing last, “I have something important to tell you. I tried to tell you before only I couldn’t work my nerve up. Morris, don’t blame me now for what I once did, because I am now a changed man, but I was one of the guys that held you up that night. I swear to God I didn’t want to once I got in here, but I couldn’t get out of it. I tried to tell you about it – that’s why I cam back here in the first place, and the first chance I got I put my share of the money back in the register – but I didn’t have the guts to say it…You can trust me now, I swear it, and that’s why I am asking you to let me stay and help you.”(198)

Morris Bober, however, is not astonished. He tells Frank that he figured it out long ago but didn’t say anything! Regardless, Frank’s pleas for forgiveness don’t stop: “But the grocer had set his heart against the assistant and would not let him stay”(200).   It seems that Frank’s efforts to do teshuva will require him to suffer more and this is something he learns from Bober who lives the life of a schlemiel where failure is an everyday reality and where trust is a premium. In effect, Bober’s refusal to accept Frank’s apology is a gift that will, in the wake of Bober’s death, prompt Frank to convert and become a Jew.   What is the meaning of this?  Is Malamud suggesting that to be forgiven and to regain trust, the criminal must become the victim?  Must Frank, in effect, not just become a Jew but…a schlemiel?

 

….to be continued

 

Facing Failure: A Levinasian Reading of Bernard Malamud’s Fiction – Part III

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One of the most important things about Frank is his timing. To be sure, Frank comes out of nowhere. But he does so after Bober is held-up, beaten with a gun, and hospitalized. He comes, like a Saint, to assist him. However, as a reader, one cannot help but wonder if Frank, who is described as a saintly and yet very dark person, was in someway involved in the heist.   But before we can even have this thought, Malamud shows us how generous Frank is.

To be sure, after Frank meets Morris Bober for the first time, he starts coming every morning and helping the grocer out. And, after helping every morning for a few weeks, he eventually asks him for a job (40).   And although Ida, Bober’s wife, is skeptical, Bober, being an “honest man” (and lest we not forget, a schlemiel), opens his arms Frank. Like Abraham in the Torah/Bible, Bober wants to help a stranger:

“Because somebody is a stranger don’t mean that ain’t honest,” answered the grocer. “The subject don’t interest. Interests me what you can learn here. Only one thing” – he pressed his hand to his chest – “a heartache.” (40)

Frank, in the most caring way, tells Bober that he will assist him until Bober gets better.   And things seem to be fine. However, as time passes Bober bears witnesses, to his chagrin, to the fact that Frank may really not be so honest. When, one night, Bober is closing down, he discovers Alpine is sleeping in the basement of his store. Bober asks him why he was down there and then springs a question on Frank regarding a theft: “Did you steal from me my milk and rolls?” Frank admits to stealing from Bober and said he did so because he was hungry. Bober asks Alpine why he didn’t ask him, and Frank gives an odd answer; namely, that he can take care of himself.

When Bober asks Frank why he didn’t stay with his sister, we learn that Frank lied: he doesn’t have a sister (51).   And this isn’t an insignificant detail. To be sure, Frank told Bober, when he first met him, that he was an orphan who went from home to home and eventually ran away to live the life of a homeless person.   Yet, somehow, he slipped a bit about staying with his sister to Bober. Now, he says, quite frankly: “I have no sister. That was a lie I told you. I am alone by myself”(51).   Confused, Bober asks him why and Frank tells him that he lied because he didn’t want Bober to think he “was a bum”(51). Bober, seeing Frank hungrily eat the food he stole, feels compassion for Frank’s poverty and seems to forget about the lie.

But in the midst of this conversation between Frank and Bober, Ida, Bober’s wife, comes downstairs to see what all the fuss is in the basement. As a result of her prompting, Bober tells Frank to find another job. While Bober gives Frank some slack, his wife doesn’t. She wants him out of her cellar and the store, but Bober, in defiance of Ida, lets him stay…even after he lied to him. And here we see the honest, saintly nature of the schlemiel.   Like Gimpel, in I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” Bober overlooks lies and deception because he, like Singer’s schlemiel, thinks that will prompt Frank to be more honest. However, as the novel goes on we see that Bober – much like Gimpel – is duped again and again.

Following this incident, Frank makes great efforts to redeem himself and this proves successful. He shaves and, so to speak, cleans up his act. Bober, excited by the change going on and, apparently, attributing the increased sales to Frank, gives Frank a raise (68). However, “Frank felt troubled about the raise because he was earning something for his labor that Ida knew nothing of, for business was a little better than she thought”(68). He is troubled because, while all of this going on, he has been stealing and giving himself money under the table (68). And, after a while, his shame disappears: “He had nothing to be ashamed of, he thought – it was practically his own dough he was taking. The grocer and his wife wouldn’t miss it because they didn’t know they had it, and they wouldn’t have it if it weren’t for his hard work”(69). The rationalization of theft is only the tip of the iceberg.

Immediately following this moment, Malamud includes a flashback to the moment when Bober was beaten up. In this flashback, we learn that Frank, along with a person named Ward Minogue, was one of the people who robbed and beat Bober. We learn that Ward, Frank’s partner in crime, is clearly anti-Semitic and that he sees nothing wrong with stealing from a Jew and beating a Jew up. He sums up his attitude with the expression, “a Jew is a Jew.” Frank, pacing nervously around the block, remembers this moment and Ward’s voice when he went in that day to rob Bober:

He remembered thinking as they went into the store, a Jew is a Jew, what difference does it make? Now he thought, I held him up because he was a Jew. What the hell are they to me so that I can give them credit for it. (70)

At the point in the narrative, everything changes. As readers, our sympathy for “the assistant” diminishes. Yet, now we can understand why he showed up at Frank’s store. He wants to make amends. The fact that Frank may admire saints may show some hope, but now we can see that anti-Semitism may have prompted him to do the deed and commit the crime. Regardless of his intention to make amends, now we see that his going back to Bober to work for him still didn’t keep him from stealing. These new insights make Alpine’s character more complicated. And show us that, of the two, Bober, the schlemiel, may be the real saint.

Adding to this, Malamud has us bear witness to Frank’s thoughts as he walks through the city streets and remembers what he did. He is tortured about what he did and what he was at the time doing. But he gets away from these thoughts by going on a search for Ward (71).   When he meets him, he asks for his gun so he can hold-up “the Jew” Karp. But Ward refuses to give him back the gun. What, one wonders, is behind this request? Does Frank really want to hold up Karp, “the Jew”? What does he want to do with the gun?

Following this encounter, as readers, we are not sure if Frank is a different man. To be sure, he stays on. When he sees Ward a second time, he asks him to hold up Karp (143). Ward says that he can’t understand why Frank would want more money. Ward tells Frank that he was “sure you’d have saved up a pile by now, stealing from the Jew(143).   Frank doesn’t own up to the fact that he had been stealing. However, now he tells Ward that he doesn’t want to do any crime. He just wants his gun. In response, Ward threatens Frank by saying that if he won’t rob Karp, he wants a bribe. If Frank doesn’t give him money, he threatens that he will tell Bober and his wife that Frank has a crush on their daughter, Helen.

To add to the tension, Malamud notes that Ida tells Helen to stay away from Frank. In contrast, Bober looks the other way when he sees Frank kissing his daughter (148). In the face of this, he just shrugs his shoulders and adds, “So what is a kiss? A kiss is nothing”(149). He trusts Frank, but in doing so he doesn’t think about what is at stake if Frank wins her heart. On top of that, Karp wants his son to go out with Helen but Bober isn’t interested in having his daughter marry a man who is destined to success. He wants, first and foremost, an honest man. And for that reason, his wife thinks he is a schlemiel. Because Frank, to her mind, is far from honest. And, more importantly for her, he’s not Jewish, can’t make a real living, and will likely leave her and never come back to the area.

Meanwhile, we learn that Ida is not the only one who suspects Frank. Karp does too. Malamud points out how Karp knew that Frank was stealing from Bober and tried to convince Bober that something was amiss with Frank. But Bober, being the trusting schlemiel, will hear none of it:

Without doubt Morris kept Frank on to make his life easier, and probably, being Bober, he had no idea what was happening behind his back. Well, Julius Karp would warn him of his daughter’s danger. Tactfully he would explain him what was what. (151)

To be sure, it is Karp that brings everything down and exposes all of the things that Bober chooses not to see or knows nothing about.   Karp starts, in a Talmudic fashion, by asking Bober how his business improved: “How is this possible? You are maybe advertising in the paper?”(153). Bober’s responses to Karp show him sinking deeper and deeper into despair. Bober realizes that his success was based on the fact that he was willing to overlook things. Karp shows him that he, like a schlemiel, misunderstood what was going on:

Morris smiled at the sad joke. Where there was no wit money couldn’t but it. “By word of mouth,” he remarked, “is the best advertising.” “This is according to what the mouth says.” “It says,” Morris answered without shame, “that I got a fine clerk who has pepped me up the business. Instead going down in the winter, every day goes up.” “Your clerk did this? Karp said, thoughtfully scratching under one buttock.” “The customers like him. A goy brings goyim.” “New customers?” “New, old.” “Something else helps you also?”(153)

Bober then goes right to it and say what he really believes about Frank: the “most important help to me is Frank.” “Astonished,” Karp tells Bober that he has been duped. The reason whey he was doing so well was because Schmitz, the German grocery store owner in the neighborhood, was sick and had cut his hours in half (154). Bober was getting his business.   And then Karp delivers the final blow; namely, that Schmitz’s business was already auctioned off to hard working Norwegians. They would end up wiping him out financially. His business would go down hill very soon. After hearing this, Bober is demolished:

Morris, with clouded eyes, died slowly. Karp, to his horror, realized he had shot at the clerk and wounded the grocer….The grocer wasn’t listening. He was thinking of Frank with a violent sense of outrage, of having been deceived. (155)

But, in the face of this calamity, we see that Frank has change of heart.   The more time Frank spends with Bober, seeing Bober suffer, the more moral he becomes. To be sure, Bober becomes, for Frank, a kind of saint or what Edith Wyschogrod would call a saintly “sample.” But this saint is more like a schlemiel-saint than a Christian-saint.

…to be continued

 

Facing Failure: A Levinasian Reading of Bernard Malamud’s Fiction – Part II

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Writing on Bernard Malamud, Sanford Pinsker argues that with his work we have something fundamentally different from what we find in I.B. Singer. As Pinsker notes, I.B. Singer “had to face the agonizing problem of re-creating a ghetto experience that had been too short lived”(77, The Schlemiel as Metaphor: Studies in Yiddish and American Jewish Fiction).   Singer has this responsibility because he was a Yiddish writer who came to America. For this reason, Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi argues that Singer created a “virtual shtetl” in America. His most popular schlemiel, Gimpel, is a remnant from the world that had died in Europe after the Holocaust.   The real translation of Gimpel into English is not “Gimpel the Fool” so much as “Gimpel the Simpleton.” He is, without a doubt, conveying a Jewish “sample” of the ethical to post-Holocaust American writers.

 

However, Bernard Malamud has a different American context than Singer. According to Pinsker, “Malamud and a host of other postwar American Jewish writers had to discover the boundaries of a heritage that, for them, had hardly lived at all”(77). What emerges out of Malamud’s struggle is a different kind of Jew. Citing Theodore Solotaroff, Pinsker writes that “Jews in his fiction emerged as a ‘type of metaphor…both for the tragic dimension of anyone’s life and for a code of personal morality’”(77).

 

Pinsker builds on this to argue that the morality of Malamud’s fictional Jews can be found in the fact that Malamud’s Jews are “so filled with suffering that one imagines they have just changed clothes after a four thousand year trek across the desert”(78).   And in Malamud’s hands, this morality had a specific target. According to Pinsker, the schlemiel helped Malamud to deal with post-Holocaust anxieties that hadn’t been addressed immediately after WWII: “For American Jewish writers, the figure of the schlemiel became a way of dealing with the more troubling aspects of this condition, a way of talking about moral transcendence rather than economic advancement”(79).

Morris Bober, whose name sounds a lot like the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, is the main character of Malamud’s second novel, The Assistant.  He provides us with an exceptional “sample” of how this “moral transcendence” is communicated through a schlemiel.   To begin with, the main character’s body is an excellent index of what Wyschogrod calls “general carnality.” When we first meet Bober, a man in his sixties who has a failing convenience store and deli, he is dragging “heavy boxes to the door, panting”(31).   We see him in his daily routine which is bleak and weary. His first encounter with another character is, to be sure, an act of charity. When a little girl comes in asking for food for her mother, who has a running bill she can’t pay, he tells the girl “no more trust.” She burst into tears, and Morris – feeling great compassion – gives her food, takes note of the bill and his growing debt, and moves on. This doesn’t bother him. He’s used to losing money and, as the novel shows, puts morality over money. And this, in many ways, makes him a poor schlemiel.

When, a few pages later, the narrator provides a more detailed description of Bober we can see that he is an existential schlemiel of sorts. He seems to be stuck in a store that doesn’t become successful. He is one of three Jews living in a predominantly non-Jewish area in New York City. His other two neighbors have succeeded in making successful businesses, but he has not. Everything seems to be failing around him. The narrator’s description gives us a vantage point to understand his bodily state and “carnal generality.” He is constantly facing failure:

The grocer…had never altered his fortune, unless by degrees of poverty meant altercation, for luck and he were, if not natural enemies, not good friends. He labored long hours, was the soul of honesty, it was bedrock; to cheat would cause an explosion in him, yet he trusted cheaters – coveted nobody’s nothing and always got poorer. The harder he worked – his toil was a form of time devouring time – the less he seemed to have. He was Morris Bober and could be nobody more fortunate. With that name you had no sure sense of property, as if it were in your blood and history not to possess, or if by some miracle to own something, to do so on the verge of loss. (17)

Morris Bober, like Gimpel the Tam (simpleton), trusts everyone. He is the “soul of honesty.” And this marks the foolishness of the secular (schlemiel) saint. He lives in poverty and his happy with his lot and his name (his, so to speak, essence or “generality” is marked by being a “little man” or simpleton).

In the story that follows, we see that Bober is faced with failure to such an extent that he wonders whether or not it is worth it to keep his store. Karp, his neighbor, ends up selling a storefront to a person who would compete with Bober and, to his mind, would likely run him into deeper poverty and force him to close. Bober’s wife urges him to sell the store, but, like a schlemiel, he argues that he “came to late” and lost his opportunity to sell it when it would have been smart. Now, he would get nothing.

In the midst of this crisis, Karp sees him one morning and tips him off that that there is a strange car in the area and that they may hold-up his store. He suggests that Bober close his store down: “Telephone the police,” cried Karp. “The car is parked across the street.” “What car?” “The holdupniks.”   After Karp leaves and Bober motions to call the police, “the store door opened and he hurried inside”(25). Bober is accosted by two crooks who take his money, call him a “Jew liar” for not telling him where the “money is” (and he really doesn’t have any more; he’s near broke), and then proceed to beat him up.

When the blow descends on Morris, he sees all of his frustration and failure pass before him. He “felt sick of himself, of soured expectations, endless frustration, the years gone up in smoke, he could not begin to count how many. He had hoped for much in American and got little…He fell without a cry….It was his luck, others had better”(27). These last lines are telling because, even though he sees his whole life as a series of failures, he still ends off thinking, like a simpleton, that this was his “luck.” In other words, he accepts suffering, failure, and loss with a shoulder shrug.

Following this event, it seems as if Bober’s life and store are over. He can’t carry on. At this moment, an Italian man named “Frank Alpine” (I will refer to him, as does the novel, as “Frank”) shows up. When we first meet him, we learn that he has been hanging around in the area looking for a job. The narrator calls him “the stranger”(30).   He is unkempt, has a beard, and comes from the West. He seems like a fly-by-night kind of person.  His face, seemingly like his character, is “unbalanced.”

He was young, dark-bearded, wore an old brown stained hat, cracked leather patent shoes and a long black overcoat that looked as if it had been lived in. He was tall and not bad looking, except for his nose that had been broken and badly set, unbalancing his face. (29)

And, following this description, the narrator notes that “he looked bleary, unhappy, his beard hard”(30) when he shows up for the first time in the neighborhood.

Nonetheless, he has something mysterious and even saint-like about him.

Sam, who had a candy store in the neighborhood, speaks with Frank. Before speaking with him, however, he sees that Frank is looking off at a picture of a monk. The narrator describes the picture:

The picture was of a thin-faced, dark-bearded monk in a course brown garment, standing barefooted on a sunny country road. His skinny, hairy arms were raised to a flock of birds that dipped over his head. In the background was a grove of leafy trees; and in the far distance a church in sunlight. (30)

Sam, seeing Frank’s interest in the image, asks him if it is “some kind of priest.” In response, Alpine notes that it is a saint: “No, it’s St. Frances of Assisi. You can tell from the brown robe he’s wearing and all those birds in the air”(30).   Following this, Frank further explains that what made him special was the fact that “gave everything away”:

He gave everything away that he owned, every cent, all the clothes off his back. He enjoyed to be poor. He said poverty was a queen and he loved her like she was a beautiful woman. (31)

To be sure, Franks words about the saint indicate that we has been moved by his hagiography. He has, as Wyshchogrod would say, a “sample” of “ethical transcendence.”

When Frank first meets with Bober, he carries his milk bottles in for him. And Frank “willingly accepted when Morris, who knew a poor man when he saw one, invited him in for coffee”(34). Bober, in many ways, is like St. Francis of Assisi. But Bober is Jewish. Frank and Morris engage in conversation and we see this difference come to the surface when Frank explains how he is Italian. Regardless, Bober puts that to the side as he talks to him in a fatherly manner (36). Frank conveys his story to Bober and the story. Like Bober’s story, it is sad. His father leaves him at young age and Frank is raised in an orphanage.   In response to this story, “the grocer was moved.” And both of them bond on the fact that have both experienced poverty and failure throughout their lives.   They both understand the same things that are the substance of what Wyschogrod would call saintly.   However, as we shall see, the schlemiel, Bober, is the bigger saint. He suffers more than Frank and Frank takes advantage of him. Nonetheless, this changes as the novel progresses.

 

Facing Failure: A Levinasian Reading of Bernard Malamud’s Fiction – Part I

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The schlemiel is often thought of as the Jewish fool who, in the traditional joke, is paired up with a nudnik and a schlimazel. The schlemiel, as the traditional joke goes, is asked to get a bowl of soup by the schlimazel. When the schlemiel gets right near the table, and it seems as if all will go well, he spills the soup of the schlimazel’s lap. The schlimazel, who receives the bad luck, screams out. And the nudnick asks what kind of soup it is. In this scenario, the schlemiel is portrayed as a perpetual bungler who disseminates bad luck wherever he goes. (In fact, all three figures congregate around bad luck.) As the explanation goes: Jews, accustomed to bad luck throughout their history, took to this character so as to laugh at their misfortune. But, to be sure, there is obviously more to the story. The schlemiel is not the ordinary fool and shouldn’t simply be thought of as a bungler. The schlemiel is, to be sure, related to the Jewish saint. His failure has deeper roots.

In The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse points out how the schlemiel, in Yiddish literature, Ruth Wisse argues that “the genesis of the literary schlemiel within the context of Yiddish literature is the tale of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav entitled “A Story about a Clever Man and a Simple Man.” The story, published in 1807, anticipates Yiddish literature which will take the schlemiel as its main character. In Hebrew and Yiddish, the word “simpleton” is “Tam,” this term was often used by Hasidim to describe a righteous man. The irony, however, is that for the Hasidim, the simple man is the righteous man. He need not be a “wise man” or “clever man.” Rather, he can be a schlemiel, too. And, as Wisse notes with regard to this story by Rabbi Nachman, what makes it special is that “the instinctive response of devotion” is privileged over “the highest achievement of the mind”(17).   In the story, the simpleton’s devotion is seen as comical by the “clever man,” but in the end the simpleton’s devotion pays off.   The most important thing for Wisse is to map the movement from the simple schlemiel to the secular one in Yiddish literature. She is interested in how faith and righteousness is translated into the secular. Writing on this, Wisse argues that “in the later secular works, faith is not a matter of religious credence, but the habit of trusting optimistically in the triumph of good over evil, right over wrong. It is also the dedication to living “as if” good will triumph over evil”(22).   In Yiddish literature:

The figure of the schlemiel was employed to present the case of hope over   despair, because the author retained his awareness of reality even if his character did not. The schlemiels are committed to Messianic truth, and if need be they can reinterpret, distort, or obviate immediate reality when it contradicts their ultimate ideal. Society finds them wanting, but according to the internal judgment of the story, their foolishness is redeemed. Rarely does this literary schlemiel rise to the heights achieved by the Bratzlaver’s simple man, because rarely does the modern author share the great Rabbi’s full-hearted conviction. More usually, the schlemiel remains the practical loser, winning only an ironic victory of interpretation. (23)

Wisse was referring to the Yiddish tradition of schlemiel literature. And her explanation of the schlemiel is framed in terms of the translation of Rabbi Nachman’s simpleton into Yiddish literature vis-à-vis the concept of faith and acting “as if” the good will triumph.

What I would like to suggest is that we approach the schlemiel’s relationship to religion and literature differently. Instead of looking into Yiddish literature, I would like to take up the schlemiel in post-Holocaust Jewish-American literature (namely, by way of Bernard Malamud, one of it’s greatest representatives); and instead of looking at the schlemiel by way of Wisse’s framework for faith and its translation into the secular, I would like to use a different model based on Edith Wyschogrod’s reading of Levinas in terms of addressing the Saint and hagiography. The latter, as I hope to show, is a model which helps us to understand how faith is not an idea but something that is transmitted, as Wyschogrod would say, by way of “samples of ethical behavior”(277). Unlike Wyschogrod, however, I am not taking actual saints as my example so much as schlemiels who, to be sure, are really saints in disguise. The main character of Bernard Malamud’s novel, The Assistant, a Jewish store owner in the post-War era named Morris Bober is a case in point. Since, today, our hagiography is fiction and our saints are the “little men” and everyday people.

 

Edith Wyschogrod’s Reading of Levinas, Saints, and Hagiography

Before we begin our reading of Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant, I’d like to briefly go over Edith Wyschogrod’s reading of Emmanuel Levinas, Saints, and Hagiography.

To begin with, Wyschogrod, in an essay entitled “Exemplary Individuals: Toward a Phenomenological Ethics,” argues that her starting point for a reading of hagiography and saints must start off with what she calls “carnal generality.” She draws on this notion from the work of Merleau-Ponty and Levinas (264).   For Ponty, “generality is inscribed in the incarnate subject, an ensemble of self-transcending acts and lingual capacities. By contrast, Levinas focuses on the alterity of other persons and its impact on the self, an alterity that cannot be brought into conceptual focus by language.” Although these definitions differ, “both agree that the psycho-physiological primordium that is the incarnate subject expresses a generality of which universals and essences are derivative types”(264).

Wyschogrod argues that these generalities are “context-specific” (she calls these contexts “carnal generality”).   In the spirit of phenomenology, Wyschogrod argues that Ponty, in his “analysis of social existence,” looks, through “successive exfoliations” of the context, to get at the “essence” of the phenomena. However, Wyschogrod notes that Ponty stays away from the word “universal” and suggests that we use the word “carnal generalities” to avoid the connotations suggested by words like “essence.”   To be sure, Wyschogrod tells us that he uses the term “carnal generalties” in reference to “dialogue” and language. Drawing on this, she argues that “this generality is constituted by the power of the self to inhabit the body of the other”(265). In other words, language is the medium that brings a “carnal generality” between self and other together: “together the other and I form an ensemble of significations, a single flesh that is traversed and expresses meaning”(265).

Wyschogrod notes the difference, however, between Ponty and Levinas on this issue of language. While, for Ponty, there is a coming together of the self and other in moments of communication, for Levinas, “the breach between the self and other is unsurpassable”(266).   This difference, argues Wyschogrod, is what “”opens discourse” and makes “ethical relation possible”(266).   Regardless, for Levinas and Ponty, the “carnal generalities” remain. The question, however, is what they communicate and what we can learn from them.   For Wyschogrod, “carnal generality” conveys what she calls “exemplification” and this is best seen in hagiography.

To introduce this new idea, Wyschogrod, instead of writing about saints and their hagiography, talks about a case of “idiot savant twins” convey by the neuropsychologist Oliver Sacks. In his account of the case, Sacks recalls how the two would engage in “a singular and purely numerical conversation,” a “mathematical game in which they exceeded the competence of the most sophisticated mathematicians”(269). After watching them, Sacks concluded that “the twins did not form abstract notions of numbers but experienced them in some sensuous and immediate way”(269). As Wyschogrod explains, Sacks discovered that they learned and communicated not by way of mathematical ideas but…spatially.

Saints, argues Wyschogrod, are not much different: “they are idiot savants of the ethical, although, in contrast to the twins, they often possess considerable psychological acuity, as well as remarkable powers of political and social organization”(269). Wyschogrod argues that the entire life of the saint is devoted to the “alleviation of sorrow (psychological suffering) and pain (physical suffering) that afflict other persons without distinction of rank or group…or that afflict sentient beings, whatever the cost in pain or sorrow to him or herself”(270).

With this definition in mind, Wyschogrod argues that not all saints are mystics in the sense that they do not all experience a from of unity with the Godhead but many, the most ethical, remain painfully incarnated (270).   Her project is to preserve, for “modern and postmodern critics,: a “concept of saintliness” by “uncovering singularities,” which she associates with the “landscapes of the saintly imagination”(270).   To illustrate how this relates to hagiography, Wyschogrod cites a few passages from St. Teresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Siena. But the last two examples she cites come from the Baal Shen Tov and Buddhism.   What she notes, in this hagiography, is how the “trace of transcendence” can be seen in them. To be sure, she notes that the bodily presence in them is an ethical figure.

In the second to last section of her essay, Wyschogrod writes of what she calls “exemplification”(277). This is the view that, “in taking the saint to be an exemplary figure, we mean that the saints’ acts are samples of ethical behavior and that the saint’s life as a whole an sample of compassion, generosity, and love”(277). Take note that Wyschogrod takes heed of Jacques Derrida’s critique of the example, which is based on the structure of the signifier and the signified (the idea – signified – has an example – a signifier) and, ultimately finds its birth in Plato’s concept of “forms” – eidos). For this reason, she uses the word “samples” (not examples) to describe what the saints provide readers:

The utility of samples lies in their enabling us to learn the character of the whole of which they are samples. Thus, in the case I am considering, one would watch the saint’s behavior in order to learn what goodness, compassion, and love are like. (277)  

Unlike Wyschogrod, who took saints as her samples, I would like to take the schlemiels of modern fiction as our samples. There is a “trace of transcendence” in them. Perhaps the reason Wyschogrod overlooked them is because she didn’t associate the comical with the ethical. And this, I believe, needs to be addressed. To be sure, as I have noted, the schlemiel, as Wisse sees it, is ultimately a religious figure. It can provide us with a sample that is closer to us since the world we inhabit is much more ironic than the world that the saints occupied. To be sure, I think that the saint’s hagiography survives by way of schlemiel fiction. And it speaks to us in an intimate manner after the Holocaust.