Bernard Malamud (1914–1986)
From Bernard Malamud: Novels and Stories of the 1970s & 80s
Bernard Malamud was born 109 years ago, on April 26, 1914.
When he gave talks or presented new work at readings, Malamud often spoke about how the ideas for his stories came about. He considered two types of writer—those whose works are often semi-autographical and based on life experiences and those who find inspiration in the smallest items or incidents. “The second category—sources other than oneself—will center around people whom one has observed in the world outside the family, at work or in society; people one has not become much involved with, to whom one responds as a sort of listener, if confidante is too formal a term.”
Henry James, he often noted, “much liked this sort of thing—the donnée whose kernel only he wanted to hear so that he could work out the rest.” Malamud would sometimes relate the story of how James came upon the idea for The Spoils of Poynton. He was at a dinner on Christmas Eve when, as James himself related, a woman at the table made “one of those allusions that I have always found myself recognising on the spot as ‘germs.’ . . . Most of the stories straining to shape under my hand have sprung from a single small seed.” Unfortunately for James, the woman kept elaborating and analyzing her story, and he worried to himself, “It’s the perfect little workable thing, but she’ll strangle it in the cradle, even while she pretends, all so cheeringly, to rock it.”
Malamud also found his own “données” in the smallest seeds. “The Silver Crown,” for instance, got its start from a short item in The New York Times about a rabbi under arrest for operating scam faith-healing rituals in the Bronx. We present Malamud’s tale as a Story of the Week selection, along with an introduction describing the crime behind the story, as well as how Cynthia Ozick heard Malamud debut the work at a reading—and proceeded to “steal” it from him.