The Assistant: Biography: Bernard Malamud
Well known for his tragicomic novels and short stories about the Jewish American experience, Bernard Malamud is counted with fellow writers Saul Bellow and Philip Roth as one of most prominent Jewish American authors of the twentieth century.
“Life is a tragedy full of joy,” Bernard Malamud once wrote, explaining the characteristic mixture of sorrow and comedy in his work. Malamud’s own life contained plenty of both. Malamud was born April 26, 1914, in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. His parents, Max and Bertha, ran their own grocery store, as Morris and Ida Bober do in The Assistant. The setting and many details of The Assistant are inspired by incidents fromMalamud’s childhood. For instance, Malamud recalled as a child stealing quarters from the till, and his father catching him at it and forcing him to pay the money back. Times were tough during the Depression years, and like Morris, Max faced lonely days in which customers were few.
While Bernard and his younger brother Eugene were children, their mother became severely mentally ill. She died in an institution when Bernard was 15, likely a suicide. Eugene also struggled with mental illness throughout his life.
Although his parents themselves were not literary people, and did not have many books in the home, young Malamud enjoyed writing stories and knew he wanted to be a writer from a very young age. He attended high school in Brooklyn, going on to earn his bachelor’s degree from City College of New York in 1936 and a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1942. In 1945, Malamud married Ann de Chiara, an Italian-American Catholic, despite the opposition of both their families to the mixed-faith marriage. Bernard and Ann’s early years together may have inspired some details of the relationship between Helen, a Jew, and Frank Alpine, an Italian-American, in The Assistant. The couple had two children, Paul (b. 1947) and Janna (b. 1952).
Besides writing, Malamud was a teacher and professor. He began as an instructor of night school English classes in New York, and later moved on to teach composition at Oregon State University. In 1961, already famous as a writer, he moved to Bennington College in Vermont, where he taught for the rest of his career. Bennington was at that time a women’s college with a progressive atmosphere. There Malamud fell in love with a writing student named Arlene. The affair went on for years, but did not destroy his marriage to Ann.
Malamud’s desire to write intensified after he read about the horrors inflicted on the Jewish people during the Holocaust. While still at Oregon State, he began to achieve fame as a writer. His first novel, The Natural, was published in 1952. The tale is a magical sports fantasy about an average, middle-aged baseball player who emerges seemingly out of nowhere to become a legend of the game. In 1984, it was made into a movie starring Robert Redford. Malamud’s second novel was The Assistant (1957), followed by the story collection The Magic Barrel (1958), which won a National Book Award. Like The Assistant, the short stories in The Magic Barrel depict the tragedies and joys of Jewish immigrants in New York City.
In 1967, Malamud won both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize for The Fixer. This powerful novel, based on a true story, is about a Jewish man wrongly convicted of murder in anti-Semitic Czarist Russia. Malamud’s other notable novels include The Tenants (1971), which deals with racial relations in an urban ghetto of New York City, and Dubin’s Lives (1979), a semi-autobiographical picture of a middle-aged Jewish writer involved with a much younger woman.
When Malamud died on March 18, 1986, he had written seven novels and more than fifty short stories, many of which have become classics of American literature.