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The Magic Barrel

by Bernard Malamud

Original and Current Publisher:
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Liz Rosenberg writes:


Bernard Malamud was my first creative writing teacher, and I must have been a sore disappointment. He admitted me as a freshman, and I was terrified. The first day he informed us he could make more money selling a single story to Esquire than from teaching our class, so I wondered why he didn’t just write the story. But I am sure my memory is wrong. I was such a nit-wit, and stunned into speechlessness. What’s more, from week to week I could never remember what he looked like, so I was always surprised whenever he came into class. I am sure I expected Salzman, that abject hero of his title story to appear chewing on dried herring.

The voice of The Magic Barrel is one I hear only among my most elderly friends. The world will never again hear a Jewish American English so fragrant with Yiddish. Some view I.B. Singer as the inheritor of Sholom Aleichem’s mantle, but to me, it passes through Bernard Malamud’s line, for they share heartbreaking comedic brilliance. How remarkable to find in one story collection “The Angel Levene” and an early incarnation of “The Assistant,” and “The Jewbird” and, as if that weren’t enough, “The Magic Barrel.” What a masterpiece of compression—yet with the lightness and swiftness of a Rembrandt sketch.

Salzman, the matchmaker, studies Leo’s face and finds it good—perhaps good enough for his own doomed and disowned daughter, “noting with pleasure the long, severe scholar’s nose, brown eyes heavy with learning, sensitive yet ascetic lips, and a certain almost hollow quality of the dark cheeks...” Similarly, Leo recognizes the eyes of his bershert—“hauntingly familiar, yet absolutely strange.” If G-d is the ultimate matchmaker, then Salzman is god-like in his manipulation of Leo, his “wild, without shame” daughter, and himself. At the story’s end, when the lovers meet (she shows up wearing “white with red shoes...although in a troubled moment he {Leo} imagined the dress red, and only the shoes white”). Salzman stands nearby chanting “prayers for the dead.” But the actual words of Kaddish are praise: “Blessed, praised and glorified, exalted, extolled and honored...” –it is a prayer of thanks, trepidation and hope. Malamud was the last great Jewish American tale teller; with talking birds, African American angels; magic barrels. The Magic Barrel is a piece of American history, and a perfectly accomplished work of art.

Liz Rosenberg’s most recent book is Home Repair, a novel published in spring, 2009 by HarperCollins. She has been a National Book Awards judge twice, in 1998 and 2005.

Harold Augenbraum writes:


Reading The Magic Barrel reminded me of a story my father used to tell me when I was a kid. My father and his mother only spoke to one another in Yiddish. One day, when he was in his early twenties, he and a friend were discussing how to say "disappointed" in Yiddish, and neither could figure it out. So they came up with a plan. They went over to my grandmother's house and my father said to her "Ick ken nisht kumen tzu seder" (I can't come to the seder, in his anglicized syntax). She replied, "Oy, ick bin zeyer disappointed." They never did figure it out, but I always wondered if Yiddish actually lacked a word for disappointed because disappointment is the general condition of the Ashkenazi Jew, so to use the verb "to be" would be sufficient. Years later I looked it up (antoysht) but for a long time I just figured that to say that a Jew from the Shtetl is disappointed is just redundant.

Everyone in The Magic Barrel is either already disappointed when the story opens or becomes disappointed by something that occurs in the story. They also read. Maybe they are disappointed because their lives are not as exciting as their reading. And what un-modern lives: a shoemaker, an egg candler, a rabbinical student, an Italian countess, a beautiful Jewess pretending to be an Italian aristocrat, a baker. Each story is an artistic gem about gobbedy people.

And such small portions!

Harold Augenbraum is Executive Director of the National Book Foundation, an editor and translator.


Fiction Finalists that Year:

  • J.P. Donleavy for The Ginger Man
  • William Humphrey for Home from the Hill
  • Vladimir Nabokov for Lolita
  • John O'Hara for From the Terrace
  • J.R. Salamanca for The Lost Country
  • Anya Seton for The Winthrop Woman
  • Robert Travers for Anatomy of a Murder

Fiction Judges that Year:

John MacKenzie Cory, Ralph Ellison, Harry Hansen, Alfred Kazin, Alice Morris

The Year in Literature:  

  • The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters by Robert Lewis Taylor won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Salvatore Quasimodo won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

  •  The Magic Barrel is a collection of thirteen short stories.
  • The short story Angel Levine was made into a 1970 film starring Harry Belafonte and Zero Mostel and directed by Ján Kadár.

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