I could have chosen any number of stories by Malamud, especially those in his marvelous first collection, The Magic Barrel. The title story, featuring Salzman, a ravenous marriage broker (“always in a rush,” he mutters to a client as he takes a smoked herring from an oily paper bag and strips it from its skin), would have made a fine choice. As would ‘The Mourners,’ in which Kessler, a former egg candler no one much likes, refuses to leave the apartment he feels he has wrongly been evicted from. Or ‘The Bill,’ about a man who takes the credit offered him by the proprietor of the corner store across the way (the same kind of store Malamud’s parents owned) without any earthly way to pay it back.
But I had to choose ‘The First Seven Years,’ the story of Feld, a shoemaker, and his assistant, Sobel, a Polish Jew “who had by the skin of his teeth escaped Hitler’s incinerators,” a nebbish who falls in love with the boss’s daughter. ‘The First Seven Years’ has many pleasures: its reworking of the story of Jacob and Rachel; its infusion of Yiddish syntax and diction into its English (Feld, remembering how Sobel came to work for him: “Thinking that with, after all, a landsman, he would have less to fear than from a complete stranger, Feld took him on and within six weeks the refugee rebuilt as good a shoe as he”); its depiction of the American-born Miriam, Feld’s daughter and Sobel’s beloved, who battles lovingly but firmly against her father’s expectations (an unfortunately rare example in Malamud’s work of a fully-realized female character); and its exploration of how selfishness can be mixed with love.
My students and I spend a long time parsing the subtleties of the story’s first sentence: “Feld, the shoemaker, was annoyed that his helper, Sobel, was so insensitive to his reverie that he wouldn’t for a minute cease his fanatic pounding at the other bench.” We note the characteristic Malamud interest in work, such that name and occupation appear as a unit. We consider the connotations of “helper,” as opposed to “right-hand man” or “assistant.” And we think about narrative perspective, the way we inhabit Feld’s point of view. (Who is insensitive, the hardworking helper or the boss who resents the labour being done on his behalf?) And we explore the difference between “reverie” and “fanatic.” The latter sounds worse than the first. But here as elsewhere in the story, Sobel proves to be devoted rather than zealous, while Feld is self-serving instead of dreamy. The pressure to assimilate to American life may be inescapable, but it seems the Old World still has things to teach the New.
First published in Partisan Review, September-October 1950. Collected in The Magic Barrel, Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1958, The Complete Stories, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997, and Bernard Malamud: Novels and Stories of the 1940s & 50s, Library of America, 2014. Read the story here