The Assistant by Bernard Malamud: A Book Review

assistantTIME magazine considered this as one of the all-time best novels since 1923, but I wonder why it is not included in the 1001 Best Novels of All Time You must Read Before You Die. I wish it were, along with his Pulitzer Prize Winner ,The Fixer , because this book is so compelling.

Since Bernard Malamud was a Jewish-American writer, he may have thought about what best literary devices or styles he would illustrate in a novel the life of Jew refugees in New York City after the WWII . He may have hit upon the common concept in TV dramas and movies of a boy or man adopted by a good family, then they (family) will be attached to him because he makes a difference in their life, and all the lovey-dovey rage is that there is a daughter will fall for him. In the end, the hero will be cast off when they find out his skeleton in the closet. I am not sure if this concept was very common in the 1950’s. Familiar with this kind of story, I as good as lost my interest in the book as though I compelled myself to finish reading it, as though I could guess what was going to happen then.

Nevertheless, if my surmise were right, I would say that Malamud’s idea is ingenious. He turned the concept into an extraordinary novel. He embellished it with the plot that drove me crazy. I was predisposed to hold my breath, to turn the next page, feeling for the characters’ different personality, perfectly suitable for Malamud’s real motives. Appeared to be slapdash and intended to make it not as artful as other novelists’ writing skills, I still enjoyed reading it like a devil.

The novel deals with the abject situations of the Jewish immigrants who ventured to settle down in America from Tsarist Russia. The story centers around the three main characters: Morris Bober, a grocer, who dreads his failing small grocery store. He is an epitome of a good Jew. I look up to his honesty and magnanimity despite the fact that he has been cheated by his clerk many times; Frank Alpine, a young Italian-American hobo trying to get on his right feet by becoming a clerk in Morris Bober’s grocery. His sexual obsession with the grocer’s daughter gives me an impression that he is such a nuisance of someone’s progress. He even appears to be a tomfool. So I tend to distrust him whether he is sincere or not. Nevertheless, his interest in education and literature tickled my fancy. So I buried myself more in this book, keen on what his life will be in the denouement. Helen Bober, the grocer’s daughter is an epitome of a spinster-to-be – the daughter who chooses to give up on her dreams to study, to help her parents out, a woman who restrains herself from loving the clerk who turns out to be intact.

I will never forget this book, because questions arise whether being uncircumcised and having different religion is a big deal for miscegenation. Uh-oh, I tend to be a bigot when Helen Bober says, “Dog , uncircumcised!” I tend to be beside the point when Helen Bober’s parents object to her relationship with Frank , for “Jews are just for Jews”, and “They suffer for the law of Jews”. Eventually, Frank Alpine, obsessed with Helen, had himself circumcised.

To be more specific, I think Bernard Malamud should have turned the title from The Assistant into The Clerk. ^____^

Rating: 3/ 5 stars ( I liked it.)

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Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison : A Book Review

invisible manI  started to read  it in December last year,  but eventually  I found it   too cumbersome and hefty  to absorb since my mind was still saturated with personal concerns at that time, so it wound up  unfinished on my study table , collecting dust  , biding its time to be read  until its leaves are turning crispy. Then , I realized that  it is about time I  cleared out my currently-reading shelf to work up more appetite for  the other to-read books. It is a burden on my part   to put a heap of  unfinished books aside, or it looks like  as though I had a Mahabharata list of currently-reading books.

History has  proven that living in a suppressing  nation where you  have no absolute  freedom , where its  atmosphere restrains  your desires from expressing  your thoughts and feelings, where you are not valued, where you are degraded and debased  as if  you were the  disgusting “invisible”  dregs of humanity, brings about revolution in any manners. Some well-known leaders have stood up  by  means of the iconic Mahatma Gandhi ‘s  principles of civil disobedience or “by any necessary means”  immortalized  by the late  black activist Malcolm X.  In a subliminal or passive way, some   have  channeled  their pent-up  grievances through writing books such as   novels which  could in effect change a particular cause  , and this  is at what Ralph Ellison  must have aimed .

Ralph Ellison is not far different from Richard Wright, the author of the Native Son that astounded me to the bone. Both of them   have in common with   their ulterior  motive  why they wrote a novel about African life: to revolt. The only thing they have big difference is the  instrumental style  they used in  putting  their suppressed feelings into a novel. Richard Wright , on the one hand, wrote a suspense novel which you could feel the psychology of  racism.Consequently, the novel is heart-breaking, appalling, and sympathetic. You could feel the  psychologically  adverse effects of    slavery, discrimination, prejudice, and bigotry. On the other hand, although  Ralph Ellison used the style of R. Wright,  he  attached more importance to  allegories  or  literary devices; he used some situations and materials   in elaborating his suppressed grievances, as appeals to reasons, appeals to emotion, and  appeals to authority.   Thus, reading it was like as though you get  into two dimensions of semantics , and yet you could get at the real climax of the story: You read  the literal passages ; at the same time, they have figurative meanings. That is why I was impressed by this book- it is steeped in awakening passages; every page is worth reading, indeed.

Since R. Ellison grew out of a culture of bigotry and  availed of   his talent in writing to produce this , which he believed could have changed the  incorruptible stereotypes of white Americans about blacks  as well as awakened his fellow blacks to the reality about  divisive dilemma coming into existence among them. In this book, he simply   attached to the very simple dialogues and passages with what the “ real” problems  he  insisted on are the crucial to the desired equality. Ellison wanted to imply figuratively that there  are two groups of  blacks that prevail: one is that believe in the principle of practicality and gentle and gradual  process of raising awareness whereas the second one is consist of the people who believe in the urgent revolution in a manner of  public demonstration .

While reading it, the character,  Brother Jack reminded me of  Martin Luther King Jr. while in the half persona of  the unnamed protagonist and Ras the Exhorter , of Malcolm X. As far as I remember from the book The Autobiography of Malcolm X, King and Malcolm had  unresolved misunderstanding then, for  they had different opinions of means of  revolution against racism. For  King’s, he could get rid of  the  ulcer of society by means of  religion  using his immortal slogan I HAVE A DREAM; Malcolm X’s “ By Necessary Means.” In the other case, I could interpret that the main protagonist could be the persona of Richard Wright. Why not? Ralph Ellison was then close to him. Besides, I learned that Richard Wright once became a spokesperson of  a Communist party  based on his autobiographical novel Black  . Gee,  having read a great deal  of  books  about blacks is now causing me to  have mental bubbles of  analyses.

It is understood that this book  was written as  a revolutionary book   against freedom and equality just the likes of  what I have read :  UNCLE TOM’S CABIN by Harriet Beecher , A PASSAGE TO INDIA by E. M. Forrester, THE FIXER by Bernard Malamud, A NATIVE SON by Richard Wright, and our very own NOLI ME TANGERE ( TOUCH ME NOT )  by Jose Rizal.( I hope you give it a try. )

This is  included on 1001 Best Novels of All Time as well  as on TIME’s BEST NOVELS OF ALL TIME since 1923. I should not give it any sheer shadow of doubt because it is absolutely deserving- deserving of any special literary awards, of   your time to read it, of  being part in American studies, and of your 5 stars. ^^