"Broke What Breaks"

Bernard Malamud was born in Brooklyn on this day in 1914. Malamud’s father was an impoverished grocer, and Malamud grew up among hard-luck, shoulder-shrugging Jewish immigrants. In a fond recollection published when Malamud died in 1986, Philip Roth notes that, through their decades-long friendship, Malamud had said very little about his childhood, but “I imagined that he’d had no choice but to forgo youth and accept adulthood at a very early age.” Roth cites Malamud’s story “Take Pity” as “perhaps the most excruciating parable that he ever wrote about life’s unyieldingness even to — especially to — the most unyielding longings.” The story contains this inquiry about the death of a poor refugee grocer:

“How did he die?” Davidov spoke impatiently. “Say in one word.”
“From what he died? — he died, that’s all.”
“Answer, please, this question.”
“Broke in him something. That’s how.”
“Broke what?”
“Broke what breaks. He was talking to me how bitter was his life…but the next minute his face got small and he fell down dead…. I am myself a sick man and when I saw him laying on the floor, I said to myself, ‘Rosen, say goodbye, this guy is finished.’ So I said it.”
“What happened then?”
“Happened what happens.”

Janna Malamud Smith’s recent memoir, My Father Is a Book, reflects on her father’s upbringing as a poor Jew, which left him feeling both “fundamentally deprived” and “entitled to make up for the loss.” This could create a push-pull effect that took her father, sometimes more than vicariously, out beyond his depth:

He taught Hemingway’s stories to his students and not only deeply admired the older writer’s clean prose but also appreciated the macho live-hard writer template. He knew it was not remotely who he was, but its braggadocio caught him. Later, in the 1970s in New York, he got interested in Helen Frankenthaler [the Expressionist painter] and took her out to dinner occasionally. One slushy winter night, he knocked at her door. When she opened it, she glanced at his shoes and ridiculed the rubber galoshes — “rubbers” — he had stretched over them. Whatever his desire, it seems that evening he flunked her standard. Real men never yield to weather — JFK in January at his Washington inauguration. Deep down, however lusty, Malamud was a galoshes kind of guy.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.