Wednesday 5 July 2017

The Great and the Good

Having been hugely impressed by The Assistant, I've continued my reading of Bernard Malamud with the obvious next (or perhaps first) step, The Fixer. This was the author's most successful novel, winning not only a National Book Award but also a Pulitzer. There was a film version, starring Alan Bates, and The Fixer even turned up in Don Draper's hands in an episode of Mad Man (fifth season, At The Catfish Ball, fact fans).
  I read The Fixer in an edition furnished with an introduction by Jonathan Safran Foer, largely devoted to distinguishing between good books and great books (which took me back to my schooldays, when I made just such a distinction while discussing Beethoven's symphonies with a teacher - No 5 best, No 9 greatest, I opined). Anyway, Foer identifies The Fixer as a great book because, like all great novels, it reminds us that 'We must do something'. Really? Must we? Don't great novels rather remind us, in the fullest, most immediate and intimate way, what it is to be human in this world, what it feels like, what it means? Something like that, and by that measure I'd rate The Assistant a richer work of fiction than The Fixer.
  The Fixer (to some extent a fictionalisation of a real-life case) tells the story of Jakov Bok, a Jewish handyman who in Kiev on 1911 finds himself falsely charged with the ritual murder of a Christian boy - the old blood libel - and imprisoned awaiting a trial that may never come. We are left in no doubt of the violent endemic antisemitism of Tsarist Russia (early on, a chatty Russian casually advocates the Final Solution) and the brutality and degradation of prison life. Malamud draws us with wonderful skill into Bok's world as he undergoes a succession of misfortunes and hideous torments and remains, by sheer force of will, unbroken and determined to live long enough to prove his innocence.
 The author's problem is to maintain tension as things go from bad to worse to yet worse and Bok's life becomes a relentless catalogue of sufferings. Malamud succeeds, by a skilful deployment of events (few though they are) and clever modulations of pace and voice, of rising and falling hope, from the depths of despair to dreams of freedom, from placid acceptance to the borders of madness. He inhabits Bok's mind completely, and thereby ensure that we do too. I was gripped throughout, avidly turning the pages, but increasingly uneasy as those pages got fewer and the problem of an ending became ever more acute. How could this story possibly reach a satisfactory conclusion? Well, I'm not sure it does - but it's the right ending, perhaps the only possible ending.
  The Fixer is a wonderful piece of writing - a masterpiece of a kind - but for me it just doesn't have the deep multiple resonances of The Assistant, a book that strikes me on reflection as the nearest thing to a great novel I have discovered in quite some while.


  1. Excellent distinction, Nige, between the 'liberal' ("We must do something") and the conservative approach to literature.

  2. Yes, I guess that's so, Guy - and I know which side of that divide my sympathies lie...