Sunday, November 30, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 254: Bernard Malamud, The Mourners (#254)

Bernard Malamud, "The Mourners" (1955) from Bernard Malamud: Novels and Stories of the 1940s & 50s:

The LoA headnote to this story talks about how Malamud wasn't just writing about Jews, but about the human experience--through Jews. And, look, Malamud even said as much, so that proves it, right?

Which feels a little odd as the intro to a story where one of the central interactions is one Jew asking another if he's a Jew or Hitler. See, Kessler is a horrible old man who started out as a horrible young man: he quarrels too much to hold a job (not such a problem with Social Security), is too dismissive to have any friendships with his neighbors, and, oh yeah, he abandoned and forgot his wife and children.

So when Kessler fights one more time with the janitor/super, the landlord Gruber decides to throw him out. Which, predictably, doesn't go quite as planned. Kessler refuses to move; and when he's thrown out physically, he doesn't move from the pile of his junk. (The LoA headnote makes a "Bartleby the Scrivener" comparison, understandably.) Eventually, his neighbors move him back in, and even Gruber is moved by some notion of something being mourned.

"Ah, Kessler! Ah, humanity!"

(Sorry for the "Bartleby" paraphrase, but it's a running joke since college to end long perorations with "Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!")

The big split between this and "Bartleby"--besides the super-Jewish characters and setting--is how the narrative wanders between characters. So we see the world from Gruber's POV, where everything is a disaster waiting to happen: take the stairs and you'll break your neck; buy an apartment building and the front will fall off; fight with a tenant and you'll have a stroke.

Alternately, we see the world only a little from Kessler's POV, getting more info about him rather than through him; though we do get a glimpse of him at the end, a man who has already faced all the disasters of the world--and brought them on himself.

Which may be why his question to Gruber--"Are you Hitler or a Jew?”--is both sensible and ridiculous. To Kessler, all disaster comes from outside and is part of history, unavoidable. At the same time, all this started because Kessler is a mean old man, not exactly an innocent.

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