by Bernard Malamud
Malamud’s first novel incorporates elements of the Arthurian legends into the very American, no less legendary, pastime of baseball. Viewed this way, the flawed hero of the novel, Roy Hobbs, represents the Arthurian knight, Perceval, whose quest for the Holy Grail finds him restoring fertility to the lands and person of the wounded Fisher King (represented in the novel by the baseball team manager, Pop Fisher). Roy manages to revive hope in the woebegone Pop Fisher, whose losses make him mournful about his career: “I have that green thumb… and I shoulda farmed instead of playing wet nurse to a last place, dead-to-the-neck ball team.” The instrument of Roy’s prowess is his baseball bat, Wonderboy, with its aura of the magical attributes of King Arthur’s sword, Excalibur. Anyone doubting these mythical references need simply note the name of the baseball team – the New York Knights. Although the 1984 film version, starring Robert Redford as Roy, ends more happily, the novel takes a sterner look at the role which experience and suffering play in a person’s character. Among Roy’s female conquests, it is Iris, the most emblematic of womanly virtue, who explains, “We have two lives, Roy, the life we learn with and the life we live with after that. Suffering is what brings us toward happiness.” The choices which Roy makes in his comeback bid, even after learning things the hard way, leave him somewhat short of redemption. In this respect, the novel reflects similar events in today’s world of professional baseball, in which natural gifts are sometimes sacrificed to more worldly temptations.
For On the Same Page, the Library has purchased the 2003 paperback edition of The Natural, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. It is also available at the Library as an unabridged talking book in audiocassette format, as well as in large print, video and Spanish language editions.
Brooklyn-born, Bernard Malamud was the child of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents who worked 16-hour days in their grocery store. The young Malamud attended Erasmus Hall High School in Flatbush and earned his B.A. from City College of New York in 1936 and his M.A. from Columbia University in 1942. After teaching English night classes at his high school alma mater and in Harlem, Malamud crossed the country with his wife, Ann, to Corvallis, Ore. During 1949-1961, he taught English at Oregon State College (later, University). During this period, he won the National Book Award for his short story collection The Magic Barrel, and also wrote three novels, The Natural, The Assistant (about a gentile hoodlum and an old Jewish grocer) and A New Life (set in a college in Cascadia, doubling for Oregon). Malamud left Oregon to teach at Bennington College in Vermont for over 20 years, except for two years as a visiting lecturer at Harvard from 1966-68. In 1963, he published another short story collection, Idiots First, followed by The Fixer (1966) about a Jewish man falsely accused and imprisoned in Czarist Russia. Based on the true story of Mendel Beilis, victim of the Kiev Blood Libel of 1913, the novel won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Following this, Malamud wrote Pictures of Fidelman, an Exhibition (1969); The Tenants, a novel about the conflict between two writers, one Jewish and the other black (1971); Rembrandt's Hat (1973); and a novel about a biographer in midlife that many critics consider one of his best, Dubin's Lives (1979). Then, as president of the PEN American Center until 1981, Malamud used his pulpit to protest the repression of writers in the Soviet Union and South Africa and the curtailing of First Amendment rights. The last two works published in his lifetime were God's Grace (1982), and The Stories of Bernard Malamud (1983). Posthumously published works include: The People and Uncollected Stories both published in 1989 and The Complete Stories, published in 1997. Malamud was survived by his wife, son, Paul, and daughter, Janna Malamud Smith, the latter whose memoir, My Father is a Book was published this year.
In addition to receiving the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for The Fixer, Malamud won the Rosenthal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters for The Assistant, as well as Vermont's 1979 Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts and the 1981 Brandeis Creative Arts Award. He was a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, which in 1983 presented him its Gold Medal in Fiction. From 1979 to 1981 he was president of the PEN American Center.
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