My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Assistant (1957) is Bernard Malamud’s second novel. Frank Alpine, its eponymous anti-hero, becomes a clerk in the failing Brooklyn grocery store of Morris Bober after Bober is robbed and assaulted. The Italian-American orphan and drifter Alpine slowly intricates himself into the ways and values of the Jewish Bober family; he comes to admire the old man’s goodness and persistence and to fall in love with Helen, the Bobers’ smart, ambitious daughter.
Both bad luck and moral weakness afflict this ensemble, however. Morris’s masochism and ineffectuality slowly doom his business, even as his daughter dithers over her romantic and educational possibilities; more seriously, Frank Alpine’s drive to behave well and improve himself is constantly detoured by his capacity for dishonesty, theft, and even rape.
The slim, stark novel sometimes reads like one of Hardy’s or Dreiser’s naturalist tragedies as the characters’ innate and determined doom closes around them. But the three main characters—Morris, Helen, and Frank—wrestle with moral questions, invoke Catholic and Jewish metaphysics, and struggle to make themselves better people by aiming at otherworldly ideals; The Assistant therefore transcends naturalism. Despite its economical, persuasive, and even gritty realism, Malamud’s novel has the air of parable.
The Assistant is very much of its time and thus easy to contextualize narrowly: as a sociological phenomenon, the book represents the midcentury success of Jewish writers in American literature, while its protagonist Alpine is an exemplary postwar character, an ambiguous, delinquent seeker of existential authenticity and identity. Its religious and parabolic dimensions, though, also make it seem universal and out of time.
For Malamud, he is doing no more than following in the high tradition of the novel. The novel, in fact, is a motif and theme in this novel. When we are first introduced to Helen Bober, she is reading, Don Quixote, proverbially the first novel, precisely because its hero is both undone and redeemed by his idealism. Later on, when Frank encounters her, they have this exchange:
He asked her what book she was reading.
“The Idiot. Do you know it?”
“No. What’s it about?”
“It’s a novel.”
“I’d rather read the truth,” he said.
“It is the truth.”
Dostoevsky’s novel is another Don Quixote, an attempt to write the life of a “positively beautiful man.” The Russian novelist appears again when Helen, who has been meeting Frank at the library, instructs him to read several classic novels:
She wanted Frank to like novels, to enjoy in them what she did. So she checked out Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Crime and Punishment, all by writers he had barely heard of, but they were very satisfying books, she said. He noticed she handled each yellow-paged volume as though she were holding in her respectful hands the works of God Almighty.
Crime and Punishment repelled yet fascinated him, with everybody in the joint confessing to something every time he opened his yap—to some weakness, or sickness, or crime. Raskolnikov, the student, gave him a pain, with all his miseries. Frank first had the idea he must be a Jew and was surprised when he found he wasn’t.
It is remarkable not only that Malamud associates novels with the Bible (“the works of God Almighty”) but that Frank, and behind him his author, associates the arch-anti-Semite Dostoevsky with a sense of Jewishness. Something similar happens when Frank gives Helen a beautiful leather-bound collection of Shakespeare, the only gift of his that she keeps (a wooden rose she discards is one of the novel’s other motifs).
Malamud’s recruitment of the anti-Semitic writers Shakespeare and Dostoevsky to his own moral and artistic cause should be a model to the contemporary writer and thinker; as it is a productive rather than reductive, expansive rather than restrictive, humane rather than brutal, and open- rather than close-minded gesture, this widening of compass and consciousness would do much to repair the damage that sour self-righteous puritanism has done to cultural liberalism in the last decade.
At the same time, literature is not necessarily enough for this novel. When Frank upbraids Helen for not forgiving him for raping her in literary terms—”‘Those books you once gave me to read,’ he said, ‘did you understand them yourself?'”—I doubt Malamud expects us to take his side. (Despite any stereotypes one has about 1950s literary culture, the rape is not treated as anything less than totally reprehensible in the novel, though Frank is depicted as redeemable.) What means more to Frank than Raskolnikov are his memories of tales about St. Francis he heard from a priest in an orphanage. Frank defends their truth to a skeptical interlocutor almost as Helen had defended Dostoevsky to him, with the claim that the “stories” about the saint indicate a “fresh view of things.” Despite the novel’s similarity to scripture, religion may be more important.
The novel’s horizon is not Catholicism or religion in general, though, but a certain vision—not of Judaism, but Jewishness. This, which has proved controversial among Malamud’s readers, comes out in Frank’s discussions with Morris:
“But tell me why is it that Jews suffer so damn much, Morris? It seems to me that they like to suffer, don’t they?”
“Do you like to suffer? They suffer because they are Jews.”
“That’s what I mean, they suffer more than they have to.”
“If you live, you suffer. Some people suffer more, but not because they want. But I think if a Jew don’t suffer for the Law, he will suffer for nothing.”
“What do you suffer for, Morris?” Frank said.
“I suffer for you,” Morris said calmly.
Jewishness is, in other words, obligation, even at the expense of the self, to others. On this definition, it is not an identity or an ethnicity but an ethic, as Malamud demonstrates when he portrays almost every other Jewish character in the novel as living for comfort and pleasure and baffled by Morris’s self-abnegation, even as Morris’s spiritual son is the gentile orphan Frank. (Notably, Morris’s own son, Ephraim, died in childhood.) Malamud’s definition of Jewishness is actually compatible with his implicit praise of his own literary tradition, the novel, even when practiced by non-Jewish writers, as Cynthia Ozick explains in “Toward a New Yiddish” (1970):
The novel at its nineteenth-century pinnacle was a Judaized novel: George Eliot and Dickens and Tolstoy were all touched by the Jewish covenant: they wrote of conduct and of the consequences of conduct: they were concerned with a society of will and commandment.
But according to a 2008 essay called “Why Malamud Faded,” Cheryl Miller explains that Philip Roth judged Malamud’s moral fiction to be anathema to the Jewish-American writer’s postmodern need for freedom:
In Malamud’s portraits of “victimized Jewish men,” Roth sees the valorization of Jewish weakness, the fetishizing of Jewish pain. Are there no Jews, he asks, who desire vengeance, who ever act against their better natures? Are there no Jews whose “secret desire” is “really to give way and be bad—or at the least, if [they] could manage it, worse?”
Compare, Roth suggests, Malamud’s 1957 novel The Assistant with Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro,” an essay published in the same year. The two works involve strikingly similar situations: the robbery and beating of an elderly shopkeeper by two masked hoodlums. For Mailer, the assailants are the heroes, bold men who have broken with convention and who “dar[e] the unknown.” In Malamud’s telling, it is the shopkeeper, the powerless Jewish grocer Morris Bober, who is a model of courage and moral integrity, while his attackers are puny cowards.
More effective than argument is portraiture, and Roth’s portrait in The Ghost Writer (1979) of the Malamud-like E. I. Lonoff as a man whose idealism is a delusive sublimation of all-too-human desire is brilliant considered in its own terms. But while it negates it does not cancel Malamud’s vision. Human beings want and need incompatible goods simultaneously: freedom and community, lust and love, money and charity, the flesh and the spirit. In the world of literature, we can have them by roving among the divergent worldviews of writers and thus clarifying our own values. It is not for me to say who is right about Jewish identity; I only claim to know a good book when I read one, and The Assistant is better than good.
I happened to read Joann Sfar’s wonderful graphic novel The Rabbi’s Cat (2007) concurrently with The Assistant. Sfar’s titular rabbi explains to his co-titular cat:
Western thought works by thesis, antithesis, synthesis, while Judaism goes thesis, antithesis, antithesis, antithesis….
Again, I don’t wish to make religious and cultural arguments, but it was philosophy that made extravagant claims for synthesis, while literature usually, and nowhere more than in the novel, allowed for the permanent antitheses of irony. Along these lines, The Assistant itself seems to end three times in three successive paragraphs:
Frank had only six customers all morning. To keep from getting nervous he took out a book he was reading. It was the Bible and he sometimes thought there were parts of it he could have written himself.
As he was reading he had this pleasant thought. He saw St. Francis come dancing out of the woods in his brown rags, a couple of scrawny birds flying around over his head. St. F. stopped in front of the grocery, and reading into the garbage can, plucked the wooden rose [Frank had given to Helen after the rape, which she threw away] out of it. He tossed it into the air and it turned into a real flower that he caught in his hand. With a bow he gave it to Helen, who had just come out of the house. “Little sister, here is your little sister the rose.” From him she took it, although it was with the best wishes of Frank Alpine.
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.
No doubt because I am an “Italyener” and a “goy,” as the Bobers call Frank, I might have preferred to finish on the note of Frank as author of the Bible, one or both Testaments, the ambiguity itself a testament to the literary. That, I admit—and not Catholicism or Judaism—is my religion. But then we get a Catholic vision, its sensuous romanticism punctured, or severed, rather decisively by a Jewish one. Frank’s penis—cursed by Helen in the aftermath of the rape (“she cried, ‘Dog—uncircumcised dog!'”)—gets its comeuppance as Jewishness receives its validation as the best way to be human in the world. Otherwise, though, the ending is completely open, just like that of Crime and Punishment.
Comparisons to Dostoevsky are hardly misplaced: The Assistant is an intelligent, wise, and suspenseful novel, simply written but masterfully constructed; it would be a terrible shame if it ever faded.