In commemoration of the centenary of Bernard Malamud’s birth (April 26, 1914), FSG’s Work in Progress will be celebrating this icon of twentieth-century American literature throughout the week.
What’s the difference between a good book and a great book? Good books can be engrossing, insightful, and new. Good books often receive critical praise, and some even stand the test of time. Good books are sometimes better—in the commonly used senses of readability and craftsmanship—than great books. (Just ask anyone who admires a great book without ever having finished it.) Great books are what our world needs, but good books are what our culture desires, so good books are what most authors, most of the time, aspire to write.
Bernard Malamud’s fourth novel, The Fixer, has all the makings of a good book. Its characters evoke empathy, its style admiration. The winner of both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1967, it is still widely read. (And it’s hard to imagine the reader taking more than a day or two to get to its dramatic end.) Yet what makes it a great book, above and beyond its glowing goodness, has to do with something else altogether: its necessity.
Yakov Bok, the hero of the novel, is a fixer. If a window is broken, he replaces the glass. If a stair creaks, he silences it. But his story is one of existential fixing. “If I have any philosophy,” he remarks, “it’s that life could be better than it is.” After his wife leaves him, thereby ending their loveless, childless marriage, Yakov decides to try his luck in “the world.” Maybe his good fortune can be found outside of the provincial shtetl where he has floundered all his life.
“The world” of the book is Kiev of 1911—this is between the 1905 revolution and the overthrow of Russia’s last Tsar—and the precarious political climate has created a culture of paranoia. Latent fears and hatreds have become explicit and aggressive. When a twelve-year-old Russian boy is found stabbed to death and drained of his blood, Yakov—a nonpracticing, unbelieving Jew—is accused of ritual murder. (Such accusations were not uncommon in the Christian milieu of the period.) As the charges against him grow and deform, Yakov becomes a Job-like figure in a Kafkaesque nightmare. And his predicament becomes a symbol—not only of the Jewish epic (which would make for a simple, good book), but of the world itself.
The world is the broken thing.
The fear and hatred that Malamud evokes are familiar. That lack of humanity is not only contemporary, it is our own. It’s hard to read the paper these days without becoming paralyzed.
Good books often remind us of our troubled world.
Great books go a step further: they remind us of our humanity. And it’s only our humanity that can fix the world.
Yakov suffers, but he suffers and thinks, and suffers and struggles, and suffers and challenges his suffering. In prison, Yakov is aided by a noble gentile whose assistance is given at profound personal risk. As a chained Yakov is marched through the streets of Kiev on the way to his trial, some of those watching wave, and a few even shout his name. It’s the most they can do, and it’s a lot. The seemingly ambiguous climax is not ambiguous at all. Regardless of Yakov’s ultimate fate, a few good people have expressed their solidarity with him, and hence their humanity and his.
When I finished reading this novel, I felt castigated and inspired. Grumbling about the state of the world suddenly wasn’t enough. And excusing myself from political activity felt wrong. In light of this book, my inaction felt immoral. While The Fixer isn’t a book about morality, it is a moral book. That is, rather than offering a flimsy directive, it presents the reader with a forceful question: Why aren’t you doing anything?
Novels that imitate sitcoms can be good, but they aren’t necessary.
Novels about heaven can be good, as can thrilling novels that imitate the movies that will be made of them, as can sassy, fashionable novels.
Our world—our desperate, broken world—needs existential novels, novels that give us something more valuable than hope: a call to action. The real fixer isn’t Yakov Bok. (He’s a character in that world.) And it isn’t Bernard Malamud. (He’s the bridge between that world and this one.) The real fixer is each of us. We must do something. That’s what this novel, like all great novels, reminds us.
Jonathan Safran Foer is one of the most acclaimed young writers of his generation, a “certified wunderkind” (Time) whose work has appeared in The Paris Review, The New York Times, and The New Yorker. He has earned a National Jewish Book Award, a Guardian First Book Award, and remarkable praise for his first two novels, Everything Is Illuminated (adapted for film in 2005) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
Bernard Malamud (1914 – 1986) wrote eight novels; he won the Pulizer Prize and the National Book Award for The Fixer, and the National Book Award for The Magic Barrel, a book of stories. Born in Brooklyn, he taught for many years at Bennington College in Vermont.