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Natural (Malamud)

The Natural
Bernard Malamud, 1952
Macmillan : Farrar, Straus and Giroux
231 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780374502003


Summary
The Natural, Bernard Malamud’s first novel, published in 1952, is also the first—and some would say still the best—novel ever written about baseball. In it Malamud, usually appreciated for his unerring portrayals of postwar Jewish life, took on very different material—the story of a superbly gifted “natural” at play in the fields of the old daylight baseball era—and invested it with the hardscrabble poetry, at once grand and altogether believable, that runs through all his best work.

Decades later, Alfred Kazin’s comment still holds true: “Malamud has done something which—now that he has done it!—looks as if we have been waiting for it all our lives. He has really raised the whole passion and craziness and fanaticism of baseball as a popular spectacle to its ordained place in mythology.” (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—April 26, 1914
Where—Brooklyn, New York (USA)
Death—March 18, 1986
Where—New York City, New York
Education—B.A., City University of New York; M.A.,
   Columbia University
Awards—National Book Award (twice); Pulitizer Prize


Bernard Malamud was an author of novels and short stories. Along with Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, he was one of the great American Jewish authors of the 20th century. His baseball novel, The Natural, was adapted into a 1984 film starring Robert Redford. His 1966 novel The Fixer, about antisemitism in Tsarist Russia, won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Biography
Bernard Malamud was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Max and Bertha (Fidelman) Malamud, Russian Jewish immigrants. A brother, Eugene, was born in 1917. Malamud entered adolescence at the start of the Great Depression. From 1928 to 1932, Bernard attended Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn. During his youth, he saw many films and enjoyed relating their plots to his school friends. He was especially fond of Charlie Chaplin's comedies.

Malamud worked for a year at $4.50 a day as a teacher-in-training, before attending college on a government loan. He received his B.A. degree from City College of New York in 1936. In 1942, he obtained a Master's degree from Columbia University, writing a thesis on Thomas Hardy. He was excused from military service in World War II because he was the sole support of his widowed mother. He first worked for the Bureau of the Census in Washington D.C., then taught English in New York, mostly high school night classes for adults.

Starting in 1949, Malamud taught four sections of freshman composition each semester at Oregon State University (OSU), an experience fictionalized in his 1961 novel A New Life. Because he lacked the Ph.D., he was not allowed to teach literature courses, and for a number of years his rank was that of instructor. In those days, OSU, a land grant university, placed little emphasis on the teaching of humanities or the writing of fiction. While at OSU, he devoted 3 days out of every week to his writing, and gradually emerged as a major American author. In 1961, he left OSU to teach creative writing at Bennington College, a position he held until retirement. In 1967, he was made a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In 1942, Malamud met Ann De Chiara, an Italian-American Roman Catholic, and a 1939 Cornell University graduate. They married on November 6, 1945, despite the opposition of their respective parents. Ann typed his manuscripts and reviewed his writing. Ann and Bernard had two children, Paul (b. 1947) and Janna (b. 1952). Janna Malamud Smith is the author of a memoir about her father, titled My Father is a Book.

Malamud died in Manhattan in 1986, at the age of 71.

Writing career
Malamud wrote slowly and carefully; he was not especially prolific. He is the author of eight novels and 65 short stories, and his 1997 Collected Stories is 629 pages long. Maxim Lieber served as his literary agent in 1942 and 1945.

He completed his first novel in 1948, but later burned the manuscript. His first published novel was The Natural (1952), which has become one of his best remembered and most symbolic works. The story traces the life of Roy Hobbs, an unknown middle-aged baseball player who achieves legendary status with his stellar talent. The Natural also focuses upon a recurring writing technique that marked much of his work. This novel was made into a 1984 movie starring Robert Redford (described by the film writer David Thomson as "poor baseball and worse Malamud").

Malamud’s second novel, The Assistant (1957), set in New York and drawing on Malamud's own childhood, is an account of the life of Morris Bober, a Jewish immigrant who owns a grocery store in Brooklyn. Although he is struggling financially, Bober takes in a drifter of dubious character.

In 1967, his novel The Fixer, about anti-semitism in Tsarist Russia, won the both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His other novels include Dubin's Lives, a powerful evocation of middle age which uses biography to recreate the narrative richness of its protagonists' lives, and The Tenants, an arguably meta-narrative on Malamud's own writing and creative struggles, which, set in New York, deals with racial issues and the emergence of black/African American literature in the American 1970s landscape.

Malamud is also renowned for his short stories, often oblique allegories set in a dreamlike urban ghetto of immigrant Jews. Of Malamud the short story writer, Flannery O'Connor wrote: "I have discovered a short-story writer who is better than any of them, including myself." He published his first stories in 1943, "Benefit Performance" in Threshold and "The Place Is Different Now" in American Preface. In the early 1950s, his stories began appearing in Harper's Bazaar, Partisan Review, and Commentary.

Most of the stories in his first collection, like The Magic Barrel (1958), depict the search for hope and meaning within the bleak enclosures of poor urban settings. Much of Malamud’s fiction touches lightly upon mythic elements and explores themes like isolation, class, and the conflict between bourgeois and artistic values. His prose, like his settings, is an artful pastiche of Yiddish-English locutions, punctuated by sudden lyricism.

Writing in the second half of the twentieth century, Malamud was well aware of the social problems of his day: rootlessness, infidelity, abuse, divorce, and more. But he also depicted love as redemptive and sacrifice as uplifting. In his writings, success often depends on cooperation between antagonists.

Posthumous tributes
Philip Roth: "A man of stern morality," Malamud was driven by "the need to consider long and seriously every last demand of an overtaxed, overtaxing conscience torturously exacerbated by the pathos of human need unabated."

Saul Bellow's 1986 eulogy (in which he also quotes Anthony Burgess):

Well, we were here, first-generation Americans, our language was English and a language is a spiritual mansion from which no one can evict us. Malamud in his novels and stories discovered a sort of communicative genius in the impoverished, harsh jargon of immigrant New York. He was a myth maker, a fabulist, a writer of exquisite parables.

The English novelist Anthony Burgess said of him that he "never forgets that he is an American Jew, and he is at his best when posing the situation of a Jew in urban American society."  "A remarkably consistent writer," he goes on, "who has never produced a mediocre novel .... He is devoid of either conventional piety or sentimentality ... always profoundly convincing."

Let me add on my own behalf that the accent of hard-won and individual emotional truth is always heard in Malamud's words. He is a rich original of the first rank
. (From Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews
An unusually fine novel...Malamud’s interests go far beyond baseball. What he has done is to contrive a sustained and elaborate allegory in which the ‘natural’ player, who operates with ease and the greatest skill without having been taught, is equated with the natural man who, left alone by, say, politicians and advertising agencies, might achieve real fulfillment.... Malamud has made a brilliant and unusual book.
New York Times


What gives the novel its liveliness is Malamud’s inspired mixture of everyday American vernacular (it’s reminiscent of Ring Lardner) with suggestions of the magical and the mythic. He tucked a lot into that mixture, [including] a sense of mystery—the kind that charms you and you don’t need explained. And he makes it all seem easy. The novel is in the pink—it’s fresh.
Pauline Kael - The New Yorker


[Malamud is] one of our greatest prose writers—and one of our keenest and most disturbing moralists.
Philadelphia Inquirer


A preposterously readable story about life.
Time

Malamud has done something which—now that he has done it!—looks as if we have been waiting for it all our lives. He has really raised the whole passion and craziness and fanaticism of baseball as a popular spectacle to its ordained place in mythology.
Alfred Kazin - Author and Critic



Discussion Questions
1. Why is The Natural is divided into two sections (“Pre-Game” and “Batter Up!”). What sets the two sections apart, and what has occurred between them?

2. What do we learn about Roy Hobbs in the book’s opening pages? What is he carrying in his bassoon case? What do learn about Hobbs’ past—his boyhood and background—over the course of the narrative? And what aspects of Hobbs remain mysterious throughout the book?

3. Why does Hobbs reject the locker-room lecture and accompanying hypnotism of Doc Knobb, the pop-psych guru who “pacifies” the New York Knights? How do the other Knights regard Doc Knobb? (p. 66)

4. When Hobbs replaces Bump Baily as the premier hitter for the Knights—if not in the entire league—some of his teammates start wondering (and, behind his back, talking) about “whether [Hobbs is] for the team or for himself.” (p. 85) Which is it, in your view? Is Hobbs ultimately playing for the Knights or himself? Or does his allegiance change over the course of the book? Defend your answers by citing key passages from throughout the text.

5. Some time after Bump’s accidental death while chasing a fly ball in the outfield, Memo tells Hobbs that Bump “made you think you had been waiting for a thing to happen for a long time and then he made it happen.” (p. 112) Could the same be said of Hobbs himself? If so, who might say it? And where else in the book do we see ballplayers rendered in a majestic, larger-than-life, or deity-like manner?

6. When Memo and Hobbs take a long night’s drive out to Long Island in his new Mercedes-Benz, Hobbs is at one point certain that they have hit a boy or his dog. He wants to turn back and investigate. Memo, who is driving, refuses. But later Hobbs thinks differently, as we read: “It did not appear that there ever was any kid in those woods, except in his mind.” (p. 123) Is this boy-and-his-dog image merely a figment of Hobbs’ imagination? Or is it real? Discuss.

7. What link(s) do you recognize in Hobbs’ disastrous hitting slump and his decision to visit Lola, the fortune teller in Jersey City? What does Lola predict for Hobbs? Is she accurate? Also, what other baseball-oriented superstitions are depicted in The Natural? How do such rites and practices get started? Why do they remain popular?

8. On his first and only date with Iris, Hobbs tells her a secret. What is it? What does Iris mean when she says, shortly thereafter, that people have “two lives” to live? (p. 152) Identify the “two lives” at the core of this narrative. Finally, why does Hobbs eventually dismiss his affection for Iris? Do you think his dismissal is fair, given Hobbs’ own age and background? Discuss.

9. When Hobbs eventually regains his hitting ability, winning games for the Knights anew and reviving their chances in the pennant race, we gain various insights into what Hobbs the slugger thinks and feels. We read, for example: “Sometimes as he watched the ball soar, it seemed to him all circles, and he was mystified at his devotion to hacking at it, for he had never really liked the sight of a circle. They got you nowhere but back to the place where you were to begin with.” (p. 163) Looking at our protagonist in a more personal or philosophical way, explain why Hobbs dislikes circles. Also, who or what causes him to start hitting again in the first place? (And if possible, talk about how and why this
happens.)

10. What is a “Rube Goldberg contraption”? (p. 170)
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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