Sunday, January 26, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 211: Bernard Malamud, The First Seven Years (#211)

Bernard Malamud, "The First Seven Years" (1950) from Bernard Malamud: Novels and Stories of the 1940s & 50s:

It seems to me that there are two great divisions of parents in fiction: there are the supportive and pushy parents who want more for their kids than they themselves had; and there are the criticizing and pushy parents who think that any attempt the kids make to rise above shows disrespect to the parents. In other words: "I want more for you" vs. "What, you think you're better then me!"

Malamud's story concerns a parent in the first category: aging cobbler Feld wants his daughter Miriam to rise in the world, which is why he gives her number to the student Max. Max may not be all that high-minded, as the story hints with his asking for a photo of Miriam and his studies being in accountancy rather than a different field. (Feld isn't thinking rabbinic studies, but maybe a doctor or a lawyer he could be?) And all this time, Feld's irreplaceable, poorly-paid, constantly-reading assistant Sobel sticks around at the store. Feld isn't sure why until the end, when he admits that he knew all this time: the cobbler in his 30s loves Miriam (just 19). Miriam and Sobel read the same books, but, oy, Feld wanted more for Miriam than she should marry a cobbler and have her mother's life over again!

Apologies to those goyische readers who have trouble with Yiddish syntax, though you might get a primer for it in reading Malamud. Curiously, as the LoA headnote tells us, Malamud started writing these stories of immigrants in the New World when he himself moved from the East (natural home of Jews) to Oregon to teach there. I've heard this story and thought on it some ever since I moved to my Texas desert. ("Texile" is too cute and dismissive--but I've thought of it.) There is something to the idea of knowing a place by leaving it.

But what's funny about "The First Seven Years" is how little leaving the old country seems to matter to these people. Feld remarks on the ridiculous sadness of Sobel's situation: escaping Hitler to live out a life of basic toil, falling in love with a 14-year-old girl. (Sobel's worked there for five years and Miriam is 19 now, so... there's a Lolita-ish quality if you do the math--or maybe just an old-world quality.) But how much different would their lives be if they had lived in the old country in the old time? There's talk of subways and college (and college for Miriam), but that's about the only hint that they live in 20th-century America.

In fact, we can go even further back to explain the title, which is a Biblical reference to the marriage of Jacob and Rachel--or maybe Jacob and Leah. Which, if you don't remember, goes like this: Jacob wants to marry Laban's daughter Rachel, works seven years for it, gets tricked into marrying older daughter Leah, and THEN works for seven additional years to marry Rachel. So when the story is titled "The First Seven Years," keep in mind that the guy doing the working may not get what he wants. Is that because in the New World, daughter Miriam has some say in the matter of who to marry? Or because cobbler Feld will pull some Laban-style switcheroo?

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