Tag: schlemiel

Marriage, Fate, and a Bathroom Epiphany in Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?”

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Irony often plays on the gap between expectation and reality. The gap between is a commonplace in much schlemiel fiction.   Playing on the main motif of How Should a Person Be? Sheila Heti, the main character and author of the novel, casts the other as her teacher. She looks for ethical and artistic models of personhood outside her self. Following this model, Heti notes how, several months before her wedding, she saw a beautiful wedding (the perfect model of how a wedding “should” be):

Several months before our wedding, my fiancé and I were strolling together in an elegant park when off in the distance we noticed a bride and a groom standing before a congregation, tall and upright like two figures on a cake…The vows were being exchanged, and the minister was speaking quietly. Then I saw and heard the lovely bride grow choked up with emotion as she repeated the words for richer or for poorer. A tear ran down her cheek, and she had to stop and collect herself before she finished what she was saying. (23)

When she comes to the same moment, years later, Sheila did the same things but “felt none of it.” She felt it was canned and she felt as if “she was not there at all”:

Then something happened. As I said the words for richer or for power, that bride came up in me. Tears welled in my eyes, just as they had welled up in hers. My voice cracked with the same emotion that had cracked her voice, but I felt none of it. It was a copy, a possession, canned. That bride inhabited me at the exact moment I should have been more present. It was like was not there at all – it was not me. (23)

Compounding the feeling of alienation and bad luck, Heti recalls a painful event with her last boyfriend before she got married. She and her boyfriend used to have desks in the same room. Both of them would sit at their desks and write plays (24). But one day, after hearing her on the phone talking about a crush she had a on a photographer, he got angry, stole her computer where she was sleeping and returned it to her desk with a play he wrote about her. The play had plotted out her entire life leaving nothing to freedom or chance. The plot casts her as a kind of existential schlemiel (in the worst sense):

When I go up the next morning, I found, there on the screen, an outline for a play about my life – how it would unfold, decade by decade. Reading it compulsively as the sun came up in the window behind me, I grew incredibly scared. Tears ran down my cheeks as a I absorbed the horrible picture he had painted of my life: vivid and vile and filled with everything his heart and mind knew would hurt me best. (24)

The play culminates with Sheila in a pornographic encounter with a Nazi. She kneels in a dumpster and gives a Nazi a blowjob (25). When she asks the Nazi, in her “last bubble of hope,” “Are you mine?” he says “Sure, baby,” and “cruelly stuck my nose in his hairy ass and shat. The end”(25).

Heti is disturbed by the play and tries but cannot stop thinking about it. She thought, in some way, that it could come true! She felt she could not escape this theatrical fate:

It lodged inside me like seed that I was already watching take root and grow into my life. The conviction in every line haunted me. I was determined to act in such a way as to erase the fate of the play, to bury far from my heart the rotting seed he had discovered – or planted – there. (25)

In these lines we see that Heti’s schlemiel is struggling with fictional fate. She wants freedom. But how will she get it if she is constantly making big mistakes. It seems as if there is no way out. It’s as if she was fated to be a slave, a schlemiel-slave-of-fate.  Marriage seems to promise a way out of fate, but it only seems to reiterate eternal repetition.

In the beginning of their marriage, they have “two years” of parties. At the end of the second year, she wonders “Why are we having these parties?(26). Imagining she was someone from the future looking back she says, winking at the Jews building pyramids: “That could only have built by slaves.”

While in the bathroom, Sheila thinks of a dream she had about writing and shitting: “Sitting there, I recalled a dream from the night before, in which I was taking pills that made me shit a lot. In my dream, I decided I would only write what I thought about as I shit – since I was now spending all my time shitting”(27). Her dream parallels shit and writing and touches on the main theme of making Big Mistakes (as noted in another blog entry, Heti points out that all artists must make “Big Mistakes” – a motif shared with schlemiels). It seems she is reconsidering not just her marriage but also her art.

Right after she leaves the toilet she meets someone who takes part in the Ugly Painting Contest: Margaux. The backstory of her relationship with Margaux gives us a sense of how artists, like schlemiels, have dreams about art but are awakened, like Sheila, to the fact that their project (writing, painting, acting) might be meaningless.   (The metaphor Sheila will use, which we have already seen above, has to do with waste: either having one’s face put in someone’s ass or defecating.) But the lesson is never final. The schlemiel, like all of these artists, seems to repeat the cycle. To be sure, the postmodern schlemiel goes through this process, returns to her original naivite, and starts again.

As Heti’s metaphor suggests, being an artist-schlemiel and making art is like returning to the bathroom, repeatedly.   And if one model fails, the schlemiel – at least in Heti’s version – will always move on to another. Once that fails, one goes to the bathroom and then returns to start again. In other words, as a result of repeated failure, the schlemiel’s models will always be tainted or will become tainted (at some point).   Yet the schlemiel doesn’t give up hope that he or she will, one day, know “how a person should be.”

Zionists and Schlemiels: On the Difference Between Cultural and Political Zionists at “Der Schlemiel” Journal

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Very few scholars have addressed the appropriation of the schlemiel by Zionist thinkers and critics. Daniel Boyarin has suggested the contrast between the less masculine, Medieval model for the Jew (which, to be sure, is a humble simpleton who bears many of the more feminine qualities that are associated with the schlemiel) and the more masculine Zionist model for the ideal Jew. Although his study suggests such contrasts, he doesn’t use the schlemiel or discuss how this comic figure was situated within the tension between the Diaspora Jew and the Zionist. Moreover, he doesn’t look at the differing cultural representations of Jews by Cultural Zionists (who aligned with Ahad Ha’am and included people like Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, and others) and Political Zionists in his study.  In his book Unheroic Conduct, he is more interested in the representations of the Political Zionists.

Building and extending Boyarin’s work to the subject of the schlemiel, David Brenner, in his book German-Jewish Popular Culture Before the Holocaust: Kafka’s Kitsch, dedicates a chapter to the schlemiel as a “proto-post-colonial subject.”   He takes the 1903 pro-Zionist journal Der Schlemiel: Illustriertes judisches Witzblatt [The Schlemiel: An Illustrated Journal of Jewish Humor] as the basis for his reading of the schlemiel in these terms.   What makes Brenner’s chapter on the schlemiel so important for schlemiel theory and scholars interested in Zionism is the fact that he historicizes the journals shift from a position that was informed by Cultural Zionism to one that was informed by Theodor Herzl’s version of Political Zionism.

Brenner points out that, in its first issue (and following issues) of Der Schlemiel, the German based journal looked to appeal to Eastern European Jews who had a great love for Jewish culture and Jewish humor. The first subject of the journal was the failed attempt of Theodor Herzl to make Uganda the homeland of the Jews. The Zionist congress, in this first issue, becomes a “congress of schlemiels” and Herzl is presented as parodying his thinking of such a possibility as schlemiel-ish.

But what interests Brenner most is the representation of the Jew who goes to Uganda and mixes Jewishness and African culture. The cross between the Jew and the African that is seen in some of the caricatures, according to Brenner, has a positive valence. The main character of one of the parodies is called Mbwapwa Jumbo. As Brenner notes, “Jumbo converts to Orthodox Judaism and Mizrahi Judaism.” And, “with time, he becomes an Eastern (African) Jew, speaking a German admixed with (and some English) syntax and vocabulary”(30). He argues that this caricature looked to create a kind of “cultural Judaism” (in the spirit of Ahad Ha’am).   This schlemiel is a proto-post-colonial schlemiel because it is a hybrid which inverts the degradation of Eastern European Jews and Africans by German and Austrian Jews who, like most Europeans, were bent on a colonial project.

To support his argument that the journal began with a bent toward Cultural Zionism, Brenner argues that Leo Wintz, a Ukranian Jew, founded the journal. He saw the schlemiel as a vehicle and as a “weapon against both anti-Semitism and assimilaton”(34). However, Brenner argues that Herzl wasn’t happy with the journal’s parody of his Political Zionistic move to leave for Uganda; and by the end of the year he suggested that they change editors.

When the Political Zionists take over, the schlemiel becomes, as Brenner argues, a “colonial subject.” It is more feminized and takes on a negative valence; now the mixture of the African and the Eastern European Jew takes on a more negative valence (36). The tough African takes on Eastern European customs (including Yiddish) and in doing so becomes weak. He leaves for Israel, is forced to emigrate to Galveston, Texas and falls victim to a pogrom (36).

Jumbo becomes the pit of a joke and is seen, a German-Jewish sense, as the schlemiel one doesn’t want to be.   According to Brenner, the new editors “stereotyped Africans and Jews in order to promote – but also to deconstruct – identity politics and other essentialisms”(38). However, this “should come as no great revelation: stereotypes were a time-tested effective means of attracting Jewish audiences in Western Europe to Jewish nationalism”(39). Jews learned what to be, in other words, by learning what not to be.

Brenner is on to something here because the German Schlemiel, as characterized by Sander Gilman in his book Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews, defines schlemiels as a comic characters who “believe themselves to be in control of the world but are shown to the reader/audience to be in control of nothing, not even themselves.” But according to Gilman, this character did not emerge out of Jewish folklore so much as out of the Enlightenment: “Schlemiels are the creation of the Enlightenment. It is the Jewish enlightener’s attempt to use satire to cajole the reader into not being a fool.”

In contrast, Ruth Wisse argues that the Eastern European schlemiel had more of a positive valence. Although it had negative features, it also had positive features such as humility, trust, and optimism. It translates the religious aspect of this character: “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 and right over wrong.”

The difference between the German and the Yiddish schlemiel is clear. While Gilman argues that the schlemiel was used by the Jewish-German enlightenment as a foil to show German Jews what not to be; in Eastern Europe, the schlemiel’s comic failures had a more positive aspect. In other words, the German enlightenment courted the meaning of failure differently from their Eastern European brethren.

Brenner adds to Wisse’s reading of the Eastern European (Yiddish) schlemiel by suggesting that Cultural Zionists read the character in terms of being a kind of Jewishness that was open to otherness; a post-colonial Jewishness that found hybridity funny, yet in a positive manner.   The non-militaristic and non-athletic aspects of the Jumbo character, according to Brenner, didn’t have a negative effect on the Eastern European readers of the journal.

Nonetheless, as Brenner points out, the schlemiel still trades in stereotypes. But that is the case with any stock character which conveys Jewishness to large audiences. The difference, however, is what these stereotypes convey. He looks into what features we identify with and why. And in the context of Political and Cultural Zionism, we can see that the representation of the schlemiel in Der Schlemiel differed along the lines of how they thought of how Jews were and…should be. In the schlemiel, in other words, we can see a criticism of Jewishness and a new vision. One is open to hybridity and the effeminate aspects of the character while the other trades, according to Brenner, in a kind of “nationalistic essentialism.” The schlemiel can help us to look at ourselves. The question, however, is what we see and what decide to identify with and what to reject. The Political Zionists leaned toward a German Jewish reading of the schlemiel; while the Cultural Zionists, who first started the journal, took on a more Eastern European reading.

 

 

 

The Schlemiel’s Trust Issues in Sheli Heti’s Comic Novel “How Should a Person Be?”

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Sheila Heti – the author, narrator, and main character of the comic novel How Should a Person Be? – has fears that if she trusts someone, she may hurt someone and hurt herself. But, as we learn from the prologue, she has to if she is to learn how a person should be. She doesn’t look inside herself; she looks to others. This conflict, at the core of her being, makes her experience of herself and the world more fragmented.

To bring out the fragmentation, Heti introduces emails to her narrative and, in addition, she does something odd and irritating with them: she breaks the emails into numbered lines that have no explicit reason for being numbered save for the order.   These emails punctuate the text and complicate the narrative with information which may or may not be relevant. Here is a small snippet of the first email from Margaux, which, however, does have relevance since it shows a tension between actions and expectations that Heti has of others. It also shows major distrust and insecurity:

1. i have always admired a lack of social obligation, in fact, i aspire to it. the number of birthday parties i attend is too many, apart from that, i assumed you weren’t coming to my party and you did not.

2. at my party, you husband, probably being noting but sweet and drunk and feeling generous, and probably having nothing to do with your sentiments, said, “hell, you and Sheila should spend more time together.”

3. and i laughed and thought nothing about it.

4. but then when i saw you in the street yesterday, i was very annoyed and probably annoying. my annoyance was unfair and a little silly.

The email ends with a kind of apology which recurs throughout the text in a certain manner; especially between Margaux and Sheia. Both make “mistakes,” feel ashamed, and apologize (especially Sheila). (Apology, to be sure, is a major part of Toronto culture, the milieu of this novel; wherein the average citizen says “I’m sorry” often in day-to-day life.)

Immediately following this email, Sheila says she is “thrown off” (in other words, the email astonishes her; and, as I have noted above, astonishment is a key feature of the schlemiel).   To be sure, the email makes Sheila feel special. Her excitement and astonishment becomes disturbed. This is evinced by the fact that as she wanders through the neighborhood she “zipped and unzipped my jacket as my body went from hot to cold”(31). She muses that this it is a curse and a blessing to “have a woman,” and she launches into her inability to understand women (herself being one) and their relationships with each other: “I supposed I didn’t trust them. What was a woman for? Two women was an alchemy I didn’t understand….It would have been too easy to count the ways I had been betrayed by girls, all the ways I had been hurt by them. And if I wanted, I could have easily made a list of all the girls to whom I had caused pain”(32)

The schlemiel, to be sure, has trust issues. But usually they are usually the other way around. The schlemiel trusts others and is betrayed. Here, the schlemiel is wary of trust because she has been burned so many times before. Sheila, this schlemiel, is more reflective on the meaning of trust than the character; and, in a postmodern sense, she does what the reader would do vis-a-vis what we find in a story like “Gimpel the Fool”:

Trust has to be won from zero at every encounter. That’s the reason you always see women being so effusive with each other – crying out shrilly upon recognizing each other in the street. Women have to confirm with each other, even after so many years: We are still all right….A woman can’t find rest or take up home in the heart of another woman – not permanently. It’s just not a safe place to land. I knew the heart of a woman could be a landing ground for a ma, but for a woman to land in another woman’s heart? That would be like landing on something wobbly, without form, like trying to stand on Jell-O. Why would I want to stand tall in Jell-O? (33)

In other words, Sheila, at this moment, is thinking about how much a failure and waste of time it would be if she tried to gain Margaux’s trust. However, in an odd follow up to this reflection, Sheila talks about her “first day at typing school”(33). Although the scene is odd, the theme of the text gives us a cue as to how this is connected to the reflection on women. While noting that she smiles at everyone, Sheila says that she regards all of the other people in the class as “liars” but she “wants them on her side.” She wants to be their “hero”(34). She “prayed” that she wouldn’t “create any enemies”(34). However, like a schlemiel, she fails, and realizes that she can’t use “wit” (as many schlemiels do) to win: “By the end of the first afternoon, they were laughing at me….I saw I wasn’t going to outwit them. Those people didn’t deal with wit”(34).

As in Woody Allen’s Anything Else -when Jason Biggs tells Allen that he and Allen can outwit two bullies by wit and Allen retorts that this won’t do – she realizes that she can’t win through wit because she belongs with the “liars and the weaklings”(34); the “jocks” have a different “interior” and have an “integrity that springs from the very center of the earth itself”(34).

This distinction is at the core of the latter day schlemiel. And though, as we can see above, she is wary of having a relationship with Margaux because of what she envisions will happen, she receives two more emails from Margaux that suggest to her that Margaux is a lot like her: she seems to be absent-minded and has a different interior that the jocks; she is a weakling of sorts, too. But, more importantly, Sheila can see that Margaux, in one of the emails, really wants to be her friend. It seems as if she can trust Margaux from email lines like this which Sheila all numbers “1”:

  1. i am surprised at how much i miss you, like a real teenage girl.
  1. hello. I was wondering, if you have red bike lights, could i borrow them tomorrow night?
  1. i’m going to paint your portrait a hundred times and never mention it to anyone – articulately.
  1. yes, I would like to see you. i have all the time in the world. (37)

Following this, Sheila becomes childlike and remembers a poem she used to read in Hebrew school:

Love is something if you give it away,

Give it away, give it away

Love is something if you give it away,

You end up having more.

 

Love is like a magic penny!

Hold on tight and you won’t have any!

Lend it, spend it, you’ll have so many,

They’ll roll over the floor, oh!

However, when she reflects on the poem, she becomes perplexed about what it means to give. The central metaphor of the poem distracts her from it’s content:

This seemed impossible to me, just crazy! If you give it away you’ll end up having more? It was the only poem I knew and my favorite one, for it baffled me. I recited it over and over to myself, as if there was something I could learn from it. In my head, in rooms in homes, zillions of pennies rolled over the floors, thick and encompassing like waves. (38)

She thinks these thoughts while “overcome with wonder” and drifts into thinking about something arbitrary: Margaux’s “grade-six graduation ceremony” in Texas (where she lived). She imagines her dressed like a schlemiel, with clothes too big for her. But there is a difference. Though she is laughed at by the audience, Margaux’s “dignity” is “in tact”(38) while, as we can see from her humiliating experience in the typing class above, the laughter at Sheila makes her vulnerable and affects her sense of self.

The dialectical back and forth between taking risks or opting out of them is at the crux of these types of reflections. The end of chapter three drives this home since he see that she, like a schlemiel, lets optimism overtake her cynicism: “For so long I had been looking hard into every person I met, hoping I might discover in them all the thoughts and feelings I hoped life would give me, but hadn’t”(38). She muses on how people have told her, however, that looking to others for hope is a dead end; and that it is better to “find such things in yourself, that you cannot count on anyone to supply even the smallest crumb that your life lacks”(39). This thought, nonetheless, doesn’t keep her from deciding that it is worth taking risks with Margaux, hoping that she would learn something how a person should be: “Although I knew this might be true, it didn’t prevent me from looking anyway. Who cares what people say? What people say has no effect on your heart”(38). The last words are the most telling since these are the words that can only be said by a schlemiel who trusts his heart over his head. This kind of logic is the logic of the schlemiel and one can assume that it will lead only to disappointment or some mistake.   Although trust is the basis of religion and society, the virtue of the schlemiel is to show us the other, more existential side of trust wherein the one who trusts often fails. For Heti, trust is a risk; but one that must be ventured.

Menachem Feuer’s Guest Appearance on Burning Books Podcast – American Pastoral #14

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I recently made a guest appearance of the Burning Books Podcast (a podcast dedicated to literature) and spoke about “glovemaking” in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, the novel itself, being raised in a glovemaking family in Gloversville, New York, the schlemiel, my blog, my new book project, and much much more.

Here is the description of the podcast by Burning Books and links to the podcast (Episode #14):

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Feel like making glove?? That’s not a typo. This week we discuss perhaps the best passage in any of Philip Roth’s novels, the ‘glovemaking scene’ (again, not a typo) in American Pastoral. And we do this with American lit scholar and Gloversville, NY native, Menachem Feuer. Also, we discuss the definition of a schlemiel, a person who could never make a glove. And Franz Kafka makes an appearance at the end – another person we can safely assume was not versed in the art of glovemaking, IN ANY SENSE OF THE WORD. Get that hand out of your pocket and put your headphones on. *heat*.
links:
 
iTunes 
 
https://itunes.apple.com/ca/podcast/burning-books/id711530960
 
Soundcloud
 
https://soundcloud.com/burningbookspod/ep14-american-pastoral-by-philip-roth
Check out BurningBooks other podcasts, too.  They are educational, insightful, and very interesting!

The Postmodern Chelm, or The Artistic Community in Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?” – Part I

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I can remember the first time I ever heard a story about the Jewish fool otherwise known as a schlemiel.   What struck me about the story, when I first heard it (when I was six or seven years old), was that the schlemiel wasn’t an independent agent. He lived amidst other schlemiels – in a town called Chelm.   And the community, I believed, had something to do with his foolishness.   Years later, I looked deeper into the issue to discover that German-Jews often associated the schlemiel with the ghetto while Eastern European Jews associated the schlemiel with the shtetl. And while the German-Jews looked down on this community and its relationship, Eastern-European writers – like I.B. Singer, who translated the fools of Chelm stories into storybooks for children – had a more positive view. But regardless of the place and perspective, we see the same thing: schlemiels are, traditionally, found in communities. And even though the ghetto is gone and the shtetl – following the Holocaust -is a thing of the past, the schlemiel still lives on.   But, in it’s North American incarnation, it doesn’t always live on in a community of schlemiels. To be sure, we can see how the schlemiel lives on – all by himself – in urban settings – as in Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant or Saul Bellow’s Herzog – or in rural settings – as in Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern (and in most of his short stories) or Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy.

At the outset of her book, How Should a Person Be? Sheila Heti does something different. She situates Sheila, a female schlemiel, amongst a small community of schlemiel-artists.   What I like most about this is that Sheila is not the only “odd one out” – something we find in the above mentioned novels (save for The Assistant, in which Frank, the main character, slowly becomes a schlemiel; but, when he does, he does so alone, in the wake of Morris Bober’s death).   Woody Allen often situates himself as the only “odd one out,” too. For instance, in the film Annie Hall (1976), he presents himself, at the very beginning of the film, as the “odd one out.”

As far as schlemiel literature, film, and art goes, this is a novel move. It gives us a sense of what Sheila, the main character, shares with other artists. As I pointed out in my first blog entry on the book, Sheila, in the Prologue, states her purpose which is to figure out “how a person should be.” What’s interesting about the first chapter is that we learn that she is not alone. And the people she could take guidance from are, by and large, on the same journey as she is.   What makes this more interesting is the fact that half of the people she mentions, in this regard, have Jewish names. This suggests that she lives in half-an-artistic kind of shtetl. And that shtetl, so to speak, is in Toronto. The schlemiel lives on, albeit in an urban postmodern setting which adds new dimensions to this comic character.

The first Jewish name we see is in the title of the first chapter: “Sholem paints.” (Instead of the Hebrew transliteration, Shalom, we have the Yiddish one; moreover, one thinks of Sholem Aleichem when one sees this name.) The first words of the chapter tell us where we can find him, Sheila, and the other community members:

We were having brunch together. It was Sunday. I got there first, then Misha and Margaux arrived, then Sholem and his boyfriend, Jon. (11)

What’s most important to the narrator is how they feel about the space (“the diner”) which, she notes, had been “repainted” from “grease-splattered beige to a thickly pastel blue and had spray painted giant pictures of scrambled eggs and strips of bacon and pancakes with syrup”(11). This new décor “ruined the place somewhat.” And this spurs the theme of the first chapter which is ugliness, art, failure, and selfhood:

I remember none of the details of our conversation until the subject turned to ugliness. I said that a few years ago I looked around at my life and realized that all the ugly people had been weeded out. Sholem said he couldn’t enjoy a friendship with someone he wasn’t attracted to, Margaux said it was impossible for her to picture an ugly person, and Misha remarked that ugly people tend to stay at home. (12)

Since all of them are artists (one is an actor, two are painters, and Shelia is a writer), one can assume that, at some level, they have had to deal with frustration, failure, and disappointment. Heti speaks to these issues directly in her descriptions of Sholem, Misha, and Margaux.   Each of these reflections dovetails into mediations on failure and they spur the idea to have an “Ugly Painting Competition” (this frames the beginning and the end of the novel, which is separated into acts of a play that Sheila never finishes; and although the novel is completed – and we are, to be sure, reading and interpreting the finished work – the fact of the matter is that a novel is not a play; failure, therefore, is built into the clash between the novel and it’s content). The turn to ugliness – in the midst of their conversation – is fascinating since it is an inversion of what artists are supposed to create; namely, beauty.   And this inversion exposes the other side of being an artist today which has much to do with things that are very ugly. What makes this most powerful, however, is that this is delivered in a comic manner, though a community of schlemiels who come up with the idea of an “Ugly Painting Competition”:

Who came up with the idea for the Ugly Painting Competition? I don’t remember, but once I got enthusiastic suddenly we all were. The idea was that Margaux and Sholem would compete to see who could make the uglier painting. I really hoped it would happen. I was curious to see what the results would be, and secretly envied them. I wanted to be a painter suddenly. I wanted to make an ugly painting – pit mine against theirs and see whose would win. (13)

This is, to be sure, the first activity in the Chelm-like community. And the enthusiasm for it betrays a deeper sadness in all of them. When Sholem, for instance, nearly finishes his ugly painting, he gets very depressed and anxious. Like a schlemiel, he bears witness to his failure:

Making the painting had set off a train of really depressing and terrible thoughts, so that by the time evening came, he was fully plunged into despair. Jon returned home, and Sholem started following him around the apartment, whining and complaining about everything. Even after Jon had gone to the bathroom and shut the door behind him, Sholem still stood on the other side, moaning about what a failure he was, saying nothing good would ever happen to him, indeed that nothing good ever had; his life had been a waste. (14)

These are the types of reflections we also hear from Bernard Malamud’s Morris Bober. But Sholem’s comments are within a larger competition and community than Bober’s utterances of self-deprecation, failure, and suffering. Sholem, Misha, Margaux, and Sheila are all, as I will show in the next entries, engaging failure.

 

To be continued….

Saying too Much, Or Not Enough: The Schlemiel, Speech, and Bad Timing in Malamud’s “The Assistant”

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More often than not, schlemiels miss opportunities. They are often too late or too early; they either speak too much or too little. Schlemiels do things that make them the odd one’s out. Andy Warhol, an unlikely candidate for the schlemiel, finds a good idiom to express this endless bungling when he points out how, “Whenever I’m interested in something, I know that timing’s off, because I’m always interested in the right thing at the wrong time.” Although it may seem as if Warhol is the odd one out, he is saying something many Americans can identify with. Although many of us don’t like to admit it, because its embarrassing or unprofessional, our timing is often off.   To be sure, relating to the other or to time itself, we often misjudge what to say and what to do. Oftentimes, this has to do with the fact that when we act we often act at the wrong time and take risks in relation to norms that are often not so clear. To be sure, failure is endemic to being human but in the schlemiel it is caricatured to an even greater extent so as to point out what we often choose not to admit about who we are and the meaning of what we actually do.   We tend to overestimate ourselves and others and the schlemiel flies in the face of this misrecognition. But for all it’s failures, the schlemiel is, as I have argued, a deeply moral and even saintly character. But this saintliness – unlike the saintliness of saints in this or that religion – is tainted with missed opportunities, bad timing, and failure.

At the end of Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant, a book schlemiel theory has blogged on a lot, Frank lives in the wake of Morris Bober’s death. As I pointed out before, he takes on the legacy of the schlemiel. This is emblematized in the moment when, during the funeral, he falls into Bober’s grave. He falls in because he was distracted.   But this doesn’t detract from the fact that Frank wants to do good and make amends for things he has done wrong. Now that Bober is dead, it is a lot more difficult for him to get forgiveness; since Bober didn’t fully forgive him for what he did, Frank has to make appeals to Helen and Ida, who survive Bober.

While Ida and Helen are sitting shiva (mourning), Frank gets to work and helps out:

He had used their week of mourning, when mother and daughter were confined upstairs, to get the store going. Staying open kept it breathing, but beyond that things were rocky. (233)

Lest we not forget, Helen is not on good terms with Frank because of his untimely sexual encounter with her. Ida is on the fence with him. Neither of them know that he was one of the people who robbed Bober. Regardless, Frank works diligently to gain back their trust. He cooks food, makes sandwiches, and works while they are in mourning and, later, away from the store.

Even though Helen stays away from Frank, he keeps on working until, one day, he decides that he wants to tell her that he wants to pay for her education. But the time that leads up to this is awkward since he is unsure of his timing:

He was nearing the library when he glanced up and saw her.   She was about half a block away and walking toward him. He stood there not knowing which way to go, dreading to be met by her as lovely as she looked, standing like a crippled dog as she passed him. He thought of running back the way he had come, but she saw him, turned and went in haste the other way. (238)

Since the timing is off, the situation alters her timing too. And then he “blurts” out what he wants to say: “They shivered. Giving her no time to focus her contempt, he blurted out what he had so long saved to say but could not now stand to hear himself speak”(238).

Frank knows he has, like a schlemiel, said the wrong thing at the wrong time. But Helen is moved by this awkwardness.   Even though his timing is off, she is startled by his tenacity:

Considering the conditions of his existence, she was startled by his continued abilty to surprise her, make God-knows-what-next-move. His staying power mystified and frightened her, because she felt in herself…a waning of outrage. (239)

However, she says the opposite thing of what she wanted to say. She refuses him and says she doesn’t want his help.   However, she is curious. Querying into his “virtue,” she asks him why he is so persistent.   And at this point, Frank puts his foot into his mouth by saying that everything he is doing is because “I owe something to Morris.”   When she asks “for what?” Frank goes into schlemiel consciousness and battles with himself as to whether or not he should tell the truth. And this turns into a question about timing. Is now the right time to speak?

What more could he say? To his misery, what he had done to her father rose in his mind. He had often imagined he would someday tell her, but not now.   Yet the wish to say it overwhelmed him. He tried wildly to escape it. His throat hurt, his stomach heaved. He clamped his teeth tight but the words came up in blobs, in a repulsive stream. (240)

The narrator’s nauseating metaphor for Frank’s speech as “blobs, in a repulsive stream” indicates that Frank says the very things that will lead to him being despised. When Helen learns that Frank was in on the robbery of Bober, which the book began with, she “screams” at him, calls him a criminal, and leaves. Frank’s last words to Helen are, “I confessed it to him.” But this confession doesn’t make a difference. His timing was off. But then again he spoke the truth and in telling her he suffers it.

In the wake of this, Helen realizes that Frank did change into “somebody else” and was “no longer what he had been”(243). And in realizing this she feels that “since he has changed in his heart he owes me nothing”(243). And, in effect, she releases him from his debt to Morris. She does this actively by, for the first time, thanking him and declaring his debt over (243).   He feels that now it is the right time to start all over. However, his timing is off. She refuses. But he learns to let go.

Following this event, Frank goes back to a form of timing he knows well. He becomes, like Bober, bound to the store. In the midst of his first day, after confession, he dreams of Helen and sees himself, in a moment of day dreaming, as St. Francis. He gives Helen, a “little sister” a rose.   He is a saint, but in reality he doesn’t have Helen.

And in the last paragraph of the novel, we learn that he “one day” decided to have himself circumcised. And, following it, his time is filled with the pain of circumcision and the inspiration that he is a Jew. This time, in contrast to the bad timing in the end of the novel, is not, as Warhol would say, the right thing at the wrong time. On the contrary, Malamud seems to be telling us that Jewish time – now marked on his body – will always be a mixture of pain and inspiration.   But this time may always seem wrong and may always seem off. Perhaps that is the virtue of the schlemiel: to show us how time is always right and wrong – how time may be off when it is on and vice versa – or as Hamlet would say “out of joint.”  But that can be funny sometimes…while at other times it can be really painful.

Interested in the Right Thing at the Wrong Time: On Andy Warhol’s (American) Comedic Reflections

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When reading Andy Warhol’s The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: (From A to B and Back Again), one cannot but be struck by his absent-mindedness and innocence. It is distinctly American and, at the same time, it is urban and ironic.  Andy drifts in and out of different topics in a simple and understated way. And, because of his writing’s extreme simplicity, it comes across as comical.

In the first part of the book, entitled “How Andy Puts His Warhol Pants On,” Warhol frames the discussion about “bluejeans” within a conversation between Warhol and B (two ordinary Americans) about the most ordinary things like waking up and talking about what they do once they are up. In the midst of this we see Warhol’s greatest American desire: to have a TV show:

“I wake up every morning. I open my eyes and think: here we go again.”

“I get up because I have to pee.”

“I never fall back to sleep,” I said, “It seems like a dangerous thing to do. A whole day of life is like a whole day of television. TV never goes off air once it starts for the day, and I don’t either. At the end of the day the whole day will be a movie. A movie made for TV.”

“I watch television from the minute I get up,” B said. “I look at NBC blue, then I turn the channel and look at the background in a different color…”(5)

Warhol lets B drone on and then interprets what she was saying, which is, basically, what Warhol dreams of:

B was referring to the great unfulfilled ambition of my life: my own TV show. I’m going to call it Nothing Special.

Warhol’s dream show, like much else he says, is really “nothing special.” But this, Warhol is telling us, is what people do when they have time: they fill it with chat about things they do, like to do, would like to do, and don’t want to do. They also drift into things that “believe” in.

Warhol tells B that he “believes in uniforms”(12). B says she also “believes” in them because “if there’s nothing there, clothes are certainly not going to make the man. It’s better to always wear the same thing and know that people are liking you for the real you and not the you your clothes make”(12). After making this cliché statement about the self vs. the clothes one wears, B changes the subject to where people leave their things. She finds it best to leave ONLY clothes out: “Nothing should be hidden except the things you don’t want your mother to see. That’s the only reason I’m scared of dying”(12).

She doesn’t want her mother to find “the vibrator” and her “diary.” Warhol finds this discussion to be going in the wrong direction. For this reason, he tells B that he “believes in bluejeans.”

Like an ad on TV, B says that the jeans made by Levi Strauss are “the top original bluejeans. They can’t be bought old, they have to be bought new and they have to be worn in by the person. To get that look. And they can’t be phoney bleached or pheoney anything”(13).

In response, Warhol suggest “French Bluejeans.” B rejects this and says, “No.  American are the best. Levi Strauss.” Warhol, excited by her response, whispers that he wants to die with his bluejeans on.” This so excites B that she says he should be President! Blue jeans, it seems, make the American and are more important than TV.

These reflections are, to be sure, comical by virtue of their simplicity and optimism. TV, Bluejeans, and how one lays things out in one’s room are shared as if they were self-evident truths. Warhol would have us believe that bluejeans really do make the man…and the President. He would have us believe that all Americans want their own TV show but really have nothing special to say. Americans are all simple people; Andy is an American; therefore he must like bluejeans, TV, and…things.

What interests me about this comical talk is when it turns away from things and turns toward comedy itself. In chapter seven, which is entitled “Time,” Warhol discuss timing in relation to comedy. What he admires most about comedians is their timing:

I look at professional people like comedians in night clubs, and I’m always impressed with their perfect timing, but I could never understand how they can bear to say exactly the same thing all the time. Then I realized what’s the difference, because you’re always repeating your same things all the time anyway, whether or not somebody asks you or it’s your job. You’re usually making the same mistakes. You apply your usual mistakes to every new category or field you go into. (114)

Warhol, always looking for the American common-denominator, realizes (as if in an epiphany) that we repeat ourselves constantly. Timing makes these things…interesting and funny.   However, when the timing is off, one may fall flat.

Warhol understands this intimately. Following this aphorism, Warhol notes that he, like a schlemiel of sorts, is always off in his timing. Because, whenever he is interested in something, he always seems to come too late:

Whenever I’m interested in something, I know that timing’s off, because I’m always interested in the right thing at the wrong time. I should just get interested after I’m not interested anymore, because right after I’m embarrassed to still be thinking about a certain idea, that’s when the idea is just about to make somebody a few million dollars. My same good mistakes. (114)

Like the schlemiel, Warhol’s mistakes are honest and common. The irony of this reflection is that Warhol, as we can see above, seems to be on time. After all, B says he should be President because he said he would like to “die in bluejeans.” But there is something odd about this timing. The idea of bluejeans being something someone should die in is not novel, but, at the moment, it sounded so novel that Warhol – in a brief moment – became an icon.

But, as Warhol muses elsewhere, one must do something…regardless of whether one is on time or not. And that’s the wisdom of a schlemiel who does things all the time – even though those things might be too late, at least the fool does them…And, sometimes, as Warhol knew very well…being late can be fashionable.

 

The Death of a Schlemiel, the Eulogy, and The Conversion: Facing Failure Part VII

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After the Holocaust, different scholars and journalists have debated over whether the schlemiel is dead or should live on.   Regardless of the debate, however, it is evident that the character has lived on whether in literature or film.   One need only go to the movie theater to see the film Neighbors to see this or watch episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm or Louie to gather the evidence. One can also see this character running throughout numerous novels. Nonetheless, there have been and there still are some people who would like to bury this character.

But, to be sure, this character lives on. And if one were to look in Yiddish literature, one will be hard put to find a story where a schlemiel dies, is buried, and is given a Eulogy. Even in Jewish American fiction, I.B. Singer, Saul Bellow, Bruce Jay Friedman, Nathan Englander, and Shalom Auslander (to name only a few) don’t have stories or novels that include the death of a schlemiel character. Bernard Malamud is an exception to the rule. Near the end of his novel, The Assistant, Morris Bober, the schlemiel of the novel, dies, is buried, and is given a eulogy.

What most interests me about this fictional funeral is the eulogy dedicated to the schlemiel and the effect it has on Frank, the gentile character who, on the one hand, betrayed the schlemiel and, on the other hand, asked for his forgiveness. It is a unique moment in schlemiel literature because it discloses the schlemiel as a broken Saint of sorts while, at the same time, handing on the baton to Frank who becomes a schlemiel, literally, in the wake of Morris Bober’s death. And, in the end, converts to Judaism. This initiates a new kind of American-schlemiel-tradition.

The Rabbi’s Eulogy notes, immediately, the chief characteristic of Bober, which is the main trait of the schlemiel: “Morris Bober…was a man who couldn’t be more honest”(228). To illustrate, he recounts a story told to him by Helen, Bober’s daughter, who:

Remembers from when she was a small girl that her father ran two blocks in the snow to give back a poor Italian lady a nickel that she forgot on the counter. Who runs in winter-time without a hat or coat, without rubbers to protect his feet, two clocks in the snow to give back five cents a customer forgot….Could he wait for tomorrow? Not Morris Bober. (228)

The Rabbi goes on to explain that he did this because he “did not want the poor woman to worry”(229). He didn’t want her to suffer.

The Rabbi, near the end of the Eulogy, discusses Bober’s Jewishness and in doing so he brings out the American schlemiel’s brand of Jewishness which may not be observant but is, at the very least, full of heart:

When a Jew dies, who asks if he is a Jew? He is a Jew, we don’t ask. There are many ways to be a Jew…’Morris Bober was to me a true Jew because he lived in the Jewish experience, which he remembered, and with a Jewish heart.’ Maybe not to our formal tradition – for this I don’t excuse him – but he was true to the spirit of our life – to want for others that which he wants for himself…He suffered, he endur-ed, but with hope. Who told me this? I know? He asked little for himself – nothing, but he wanted for his child a better existence than he had. (230)

Following the talk, Helen reflects, in her grief, on what she heard. And in her reflection she corrects a few things that really bring out why Bober was a schlemiel:

I said Papa was honest but what was the good of such honesty if he couldn’t exist in this world? Yes, he ran after this poor woman to give back a nickel but he also trusted cheaters who took away what belonged to him….He was no saint; he was in a way weak, his only true strength in his sweet nature and his understanding. He knew, at least, what was good. (230)

She adds that he was not admired, as the Rabbi claimed, and hardly anyone knew his kindness and trust which went under the radar. And her last words give the most negative assessment of her father and explain why she ultimately saw him as responsible for his own failure:

He didn’t have the imagination to know what he was missing. He made himself into a victim. He could, with a little more courage, have been more than he was. (230)

Frank, following the ceremony, reflects on Bober’s death and what stays with him is that Bober’s Jewishness was linked to “suffering”: “Jews could make a suit of clothes out of it”(231).

As they put dirt on his coffin, Helen and Ida give their last words. Helen throws a flower into the grave. When it comes to Frank’s turn, he becomes a schlemiel and falls into the grave:

Frank, standing close to the edge of the grave, leaned forward to see where the flower fell. He lost his balance, and though flailing his arms, landed feet first on the coffin. (231)

Frank, like a schlemiel, scrambles out of the grave, “helped by the diggers”(232). And he thinks to himself how he has ruined everything and how he has failed: “I spoiled the funeral, he thought. He felt pity on the world for harboring him”(232).

In this moment, Malamud creates something of a schlemiel tradition that passes from the death of one schlemiel to the birth of another schlemiel. The irony is that Frank is not a Jew – not yet. At the very end of the novel, he becomes one. He “circumcised himself” and “the pain enraged and inspired him”:

One day in April Frank went to the hospital and had himself circumcised. For a couple of days he dragged himself around with a pain between his legs. The pain enraged and inspired him. After Passover he became a Jew. (246)

Malamud’s narrative on Frank becoming a schlemiel and then a Jew is thought provoking.   Frank didn’t simply become a schlemiel; he became a Jew. But in doing so he had the courage, like Abraham (the first Jew), to circumcise himself. And this pain “enraged and inspired him” because he, like Abraham, went against his nature. What makes this so fascinating is that even though he goes through this he is still a schlemiel. He is a Jewish schlemiel who faces failure.

The terms Malamud uses to describe this are fascinating because the Jewish Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas uses the same terms to described the relation of the self to the other. As Levinas says many times in his book Otherwise than Being, the other “persecutes me” and “inspires me.” To be sure, this is what a Schlemiel Saint like Bober does for Frank. After all, Frank’s decision to circumcise himself and become a Jew is ultimately inspired by him.   He was inspired by what Edith Wyshcogrod would call Bober’s “saintly sample”  of  “carnal generality” – that is, if Boner’s  selflessness and suffering for the other (in general, and Frank, in particular).

 

 

 

 

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