Thursday, June 29, 2017

"The Magic Barrel" (1954)

Read story by Bernard Malamud online.

Bernard Malamud was taught in my high school. I thought pretty well of him then, but I wasn't sure what to expect after so long. I was happy to find this story engaging and charming. The protagonist (perhaps) is Leo Finkle, a rabbinical student who is about to graduate and be ordained. Told he could get a bigger congregation if he were married, he turns to a matchmaker whose ad he found in the classifieds, Pinye Salzmann, who is the other possible protagonist. Salzmann speaks with a strong and endearing Yiddish accent. They quickly develop a fraught relationship. No candidate that Salzmann turns up is good enough for Finkle. He rejects a widow, a woman in her 30s, for her age (Finkle is 27), and another woman whose father is likely coercing her. Salzmann shares his common-sense wisdom about love and relationships, but Finkle is wary and rejecting. Finally, in exasperation, Salzmann shows up one more time with an envelope of photographs. But the tension between them is so great that Finkle doesn't even look at them for weeks. This is probably a good place to register the spoiler warning. I really don't take Malamud's story as built for the sake of a surprise twist. It's not that kind of story. Nevertheless, there is a twist here. Salzmann has accidentally included a picture of his daughter, whom, he will later tell Finkle, "is a wild one—wild, without shame.... She is not for you." But, of course, that is the woman Finkle wants. He already seems half in love with her from the photo, more interested by magnitudes than anyone that has been offered to him yet. It sets up a wonderful last scene where Finkle meets the young woman. In his first look at her he sees that her eyes are "filled with desperate innocence." Meanwhile, "Around the corner, Salzmann, leaning against a wall, chanted prayers for the dead." The tables are turned in interesting ways. On balance, I take it as a comedy. Finkle has hired a matchmaker and ignored everything he told him. So he goes to his doom. Thus has it ever been, thus shall it ever be. We last see Finkle approaching her "with flowers outthrust." Good one.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

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