One indelible novel

On the 50th anniversary of Edward Lewis Wallant’s untimely death, some advocates again argue for his reappraisal and elevation

The Pawnbroker 521 (photo credit: courtsey)
The Pawnbroker 521
(photo credit: courtsey)
Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud... Edward Lewis Wallant? By the early 1960s the first three of those four writers were established as the unassailable triumvirate of American Jewish literature’s current generation.
Yet some critics were greedy: why limit the constellation to a mere three stars? The sky’s the limit, they insisted, and the floor remained open for nominations. Norman Mailer? Largely unconcerned with Jewish topics.
Herman Wouk, Meyer Levin, Irwin Shaw, Herbert Gold, Leon Uris? Such writers might do some creditable work, but overall they seemed lacking in gravitas – or to put it more crudely, they were too popular. Bruce Jay Friedman, Joseph Heller, Wallace Markfield? In that pre-Portnoy era those comic novelists appeared, well, too comical to be taken too seriously. Other names occasionally arose from the critical convention floor.
But arguably no name was ever in such serious contention as that of Edward Lewis Wallant.
Wallant, however, was a contender more for his promise than for his output. In his lifetime he published only four short stories and two slender novels, “The Human Season” (1960) and “The Pawnbroker” (1961).
But by all accounts he was well on his way: many excellent reviews, a National Book Award nomination, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Harry and Ethel Daroff Memorial Fiction Award. Then quite suddenly, 50 years ago this past December, at age 36 Wallant died of an aneurysm.
Two more novels, “The Tenants of Moonbloom” (1963) and “The Children at the Gate” (1964) were published posthumously.
These in the main also received admiring reviews. If nothing else, they underscored the notion of great promise unfulfilled.
Claims, accordingly, continued to be made for Wallant’s elevation to the forefront of American Jewish letters.
Some claims were less parochial. The British literary critic Martin Seymour-Smith flatly declared that Wallant was “a novelist whose premature death was a major loss to literature.” Similar praise came from Time, The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Los Angeles Times. Critics of all stripes repeatedly found Wallant’s prose “beautifully poetic.”
Immediately after the writer’s death the University of Hartford renamed its annual Daroff award for Wallant: recipients would eventually include Cynthia Ozick, Allegra Goodman and Jonathan Rosen. Scores of critical essays and at least three doctoral dissertations on Wallant followed. Wallant’s work periodically fell out of print but was just as often brought back.
The writer’s reputation was greatly enhanced by Sidney Lumet’s 1964 film version of Wallant’s most acclaimed novel, “The Pawnbroker.” Like the novel, the movie was among the first Holocaust stories to reach a large American audience. Indeed, with its excellent casting (Rod Steiger earned an Oscar nomination for his eponymous role), its gritty black-and-white cinematography and its jolting intercuts of concentration camp horrors, the film is arguably as good as the book – and perhaps even better.
Wallant’s “Pawnbroker” holds up quite well today. I would hesitate however to make similar claims for the other novels. Heaven knows what the writer might have achieved had he lived longer. After all, he had the life experience on which to draw.
Wallant had an uneasy childhood in his native New Haven, where his father, a disabled World War I veteran, had died when the boy was just six. Wallant himself served on a destroyer in World War II, had bounced around academia, traveled abroad, labored in the advertising jungles of Madison Avenue, and at his death was still new to married life and parenthood. But we – and posterity – can judge only by what the writer actually produced. And I fear what he produced, while never entirely uninteresting, was in and of itself insufficient to establish an enduring reputation.
The chief protagonists of Wallant’s quartet of novels are all pretty much variations on the same character. These men are victims – isolated, suffering, emotionally shut down, enslaved by daily routine, sexually cold and incapable of improving their lot. They petition the reader for sympathy, but do not always earn it. Indeed, they often try the reader’s patience.
This is not t rue of Holocaust survivor Sol Nazerman (“The Pawnbroker”), who, having suffered a veritable catalogue of Nazi horrors, is consistently sympathetic, no matter how frosty, nasty and exploitative he may often appear. But such is not the case in the other Wallant novels. The inarticulate plumber Joe Berman (“The Human Season”) has lost his beloved wife to illness, and all he can do is stagger along, bitter and standoffish with friends and family. Pharmacist’s assistant Angelo DeMarco (“Children at the Gate”) lacks a father, lives with a nagging mother, an overbearing uncle and a retarded sister, hates his family’s Catholic religion and is stuck in a dead-end job. Rent collector Norman Moonbloom (“The Tenants of Moonbloom”) is a failed scholar, a social misfit and an otherwise amiable goofball. All three (and to some extent even Nazerman) are rendered in flat, one-dimensional tones.
This is only the first of three reasons why Wallant never achieved the level of Bellow, Roth or Malamud. Those writers generally avoided writing about victims, losers, passive figures or shmeggies, favoring instead characters who were active, assertive, intellectually alert, even aggressive. This is entirely true of Roth. It is almost entirely true of Bellow, with the exception of his “Seize the Day.”
Malamud, the leg of the triumvirate with whom Wallant has the most in common, of course did explore victimhood, and with great emotional depth, in such books as “The generally avoided writing about victims, losers, passive figures or shmeggies, favoring instead characters who were active, assertive, intellectually alert, even aggressive. This is entirely true of Roth. It is almost entirely true of Bellow, with the exception of his “Seize the Day.”
Malamud, the leg of the triumvirate with whom Wallant has the most in common, of course did explore victimhood, and with great emotional depth, in such books as “The Assistant” and “The Fixer.” But that certainly was not the only theme to emerge in his eight novels and in his numerous short stories.
I’m not suggesting that writing about the loser, the depressed or the downtrodden is an unworthy pursuit. I am arguing that it is not the kind of thing on which to base an entire and lasting writing career. This view is certainly debatable. It remains true, however, that of the three champions of American Jewish literature, Malamud is the one who has pretty much fallen off the radar. This may well be attributed to that underdog sentimentalism that infected some of his work. Whatever the case, such sentimentalism – a kind of sympathy-mongering – certainly damaged Edward Lewis Wallant’s novels.
A second defect I find in Wallant’s novels is in the prose. I confess I’ve found little in the four books that I would call beautiful poetry. What I found much more frequently was a mannered, even strained effort for effect that may have passed muster in the early 1960s but that hardly does today.
I’m referring to tropes like “And yet, and yet, his grief came out in a shape like beauty” (“The Human Season”). Or “The length of his consciousness was like that of a long, long steel string, and his striking of it made the deepest, most resonant note Norman had ever heard” (“The Tenants of Moonbloom”). Or “And a blade twitched into his heart, beginning that slow, massive bleeding he would never be able to stop, no matter what else he might accomplish. He was surprised and puzzled as he walked with that mortal wound in him, for it occurred to him then, although the wound would be the death of him, it would be the life of him too” (“The Children at the Gate”). I suggest that rather than poetic writing, this is simply bad writing, and such image-mongering (to accompany the sympathy-mongering) is rife throughout the three novels quoted.
Interestingly, the novel most free of such affectation is “The Pawnbroker” and the reasons for this seem clear. Of the four volumes, “The Pawnbroker” is the one that has at its core the most evocative, challenging and specific source of existential despair – the Holocaust. (With the exception of such novels as John Hersey’s “The Wall” (1950) and Elie Wiesel’s “Night” (1960), the Holocaust was still largely unexplored in American literature when “The Pawnbroker” appeared in 1962.) “The Pawnbroker” is the novel in which Wallant allows the narrative and its furniture, past and present, to speak directly to the reader, without relying on any boiling up of the language. Perhaps also not coincidentally, “The Pawnbroker” has the most fully realized central character, a wide-ranging cast of reasonably well-drawn supporting characters (gangsters, whores, multi-ethnic pawnshop customers, other Holocaust survivors), and a specificity of time and place.
In short, “The Pawnbroker” comes off as the truest, most convincing of Wallant’s novels.
Yet even “The Pawnbroker” is marked by another feature ofWallant’s writing that, if not necessarily a weakness or a flaw, remains somewhat problematic and discomforting. I refer here to Wallant’s plundering of Christian symbolism, an appropriation that appears, at the very least, inappropriate, unnecessary and distracting.
Beyond the pawnbroker’s peculiar surname, suggestive of the Nazarene, we see in all the novels a recurrent motif of a supporting character dying so that the main character may live. In “The Children at the Gate,” a Jewish hospital orderly is fatally impaled on an iron spike right in front of Angelo DeMarco. In The “Tenants of Moonbloom,” the title character is shaken out of his isolation by a child’s death and a suicide or two. And most famously, in “The Pawnbroker,” Sol Nazerman’s assistant, unsubtly named Jesus, leaps in front of his employer during a robbery and takes the fatal bullet. In all of these cases, we are to accept the idea that these sacrificial deaths have some sort of redeeming impact on the suffering main characters.
Just why Wallant resorted to such Christian imagery is unknown. Of course, the notion of self-sacrifice for the sake of others is so immediately identifiable as a Christian concept that it would be hard to write about it without evoking such theology. The psychologist and critic Stephen Karpowitz goes further, arguing that Wallant “humanizes the symbols of Christianity. What he has done is turn the Eucharist on its head. We are to give up consuming ourselves or our gods in order to redeem with joy the community.”
Possibly. But just as likely, the incorporation of Christian imagery, like the shift to a non- Jewish protagonist (“The Children at the Gate”), may be seen merely as an attempt to widen the appeal of what might otherwise be ghettoized as Jewish literature.
To be sure, Wallant was hardly the only American Jewish writer to engage in such tactics. Bernard Malamud, as noted the member of the triumvirate whom Wallant most closely resembles, clearly sidled along the Way of the Cross in a number of his stories.
Such appropriation of Christian vocabulary is neither a crime nor a misdemeanor; these are, after all, American Jewish writers, composing their works in English and evoking and reflecting the American landscape and culture for an American, as well as for a Jewish, audience. But “cross-mongering,” if I may call it that, hardly enlarges a writer’s standing as a Jewish writer. (Sholem Asch, anyone?) And in any event, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and many other American Jewish writers managed to earn their places as both American writers and Jewish writers – without in any way “Christianizing” their characters and themes.
At the 50th anniversary of Edward Lewis Wallant’s untimely death, some advocates again argue for his reappraisal and elevation.
I can only say he was a contender of considerable promise. In a cruelly shortened career, Wallant left us one indelible novel.
No small achievement, that, and no telling what else he might have achieved. But we shouldn’t allow sorrow and regret to inflate our appraisal.