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September 22, 2014 | 27th Elul 5774

The Fixer

by Bernard Malamud


A STUDY GUIDE

 
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The Fixer
Penguin
by Bernard Malamud
Study Guide prepared by Rabbi Scott Corngold

 

Read a review and excerpt
from Reform Judaism magazine

 

INTRODUCTION

Russia, 1911. Yakov Bok, a luckless Jewish handyman, abandoned by his wife, decides to leave the shtetl, seeking improved fortune in the outside world. In Kiev, an opportunity for advancement presents itself, and Yakov, somewhat warily, takes it, leading him into circumstances where politics and history --and possibly an indifferent God as well-- will conspire against him. Yakov is thrown in jail, absurdly accused of the ritual murder of a young Christian boy. Languishing in prison, enduring torture and indignity while waiting for a day in court that may never come, Yakov is left to wrestle with his own haunted memories and to wonder whether he can find any meaning or purpose in his suffering and any justice in a society where Jews have always been made into victims.

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTES

Bernard Malamud was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1914. A graduate of Erasmus Hall High School, he received his bachelor's degree from City College and a master's in English Literature at Columbia. His first stories were published in small literary journals in the early 1940s, while he worked as a census bureau clerk. In 1949, Malamud took a teaching position at Oregon State College, and his stories began appearing in more prominent magazines such as Harper's Bazaar and The Partisan Review. But he destroyed the manuscript of his first novel, "because I thought I could do better."

Malamud's first published book, The Natural, a baseball allegory and one of his few works not to feature any Jewish characters, came out to great acclaim in 1952. It was followed by The Assistant in 1957, the story of a Jewish grocer and his Italian employee, which began sealing Malamud's repute as a "Jewish writer"; and his first short story collection, The Magic Barrel, in 1958, which received the National Book Award. In 1961, he began teaching at Bennington College in Vermont, where he remained for twenty years while continuing to write short stories and novels.

The Fixer, published in 1966, won Malamud a second National Book Award as well as the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and was made into a film in 1968, starring Alan Bates as Yakov Bok. His other works include A New Life (1961), The Tenants (1971), Dubin's Lives (1979), God's Grace (1982), and several story collections. He also served as president of the PEN American Center from 1979-1981, leading protests against the curtailing of First Amendment rights and the repression of writers in the Soviet Union and South Africa. Malamud died in 1986, at age 71.

His work has received a new round of posthumous acclaim with the celebrated publication of The Collected Stories in 1997.

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

The Fixer is based on the notorious real-life Beilis blood-libel case in Russia, which in its day caused as much an international uproar as the Dreyfus affair had. (Not wanting his readers to overdraw the parallels, Malamud claimed, somewhat unconvincingly, that the novel was equally inspired by the Dreyfus and Sacco & Vanzetti cases.)

In March 1911, the mutilated body of Andrei Yushchinsky, a 12-year-old Christian boy who had disappeared eight days earlier, was found in a cave outside of Kiev. He had been stabbed nearly fifty times, and the body had lost a considerable amount of blood. Leaflets began circulating almost immediately accusing the Jews of ritual murder.

The more likely suspects were a local gang of thieves, who police believed murdered the boy to keep him from informing on them. But pressure from anti-Semitic organizations caused the focus of the investigation to shift to Mendel Beilis, a 35 year-old Jewish foreman of a large brick factory halfway between the boy's home and the cave where the body was found. With testimony from a single alleged witness, Beilis was arrested in July 1911, and remained in prison for two years.

The flimsiness of the case against Beilis was recognized from the start, and protests in Russia, Europe, and the United States were spearheaded by noteworthy figures in the Jewish, liberal, scientific, and artistic communities. But virulent anti-Semitic rhetoric in right wing monarchist and religious circles was equally vociferous.

With international pressure on the Russian authorities, the case finally came to trial in September 1913 and lasted one month. The prosecution featured blood libel accusations by a Catholic priest with a criminal record, but the key murder witness folded under questioning by the judge. Defended by a prominent team of lawyers that his supporters commissioned, Beilis was acquitted unanimously by a jury of Russian peasants.

After his release, he emigrated to Palestine, then settled in the United States in 1920, where he self-published his memoirs, The Story of My Sufferings, in 1926. Beilis died in 1934.

OVERALL QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

"I like imaginative interpretations of my books, whether I agree with them or not."
--Bernard Malamud

"From the small crossed window of his room above the stable in the brickyard, Yakov Bok saw people in their long overcoats running somewhere early in the morning, everybody in the same direction." (Page 8)
The word "bok" is Yiddish for "goat." How is that significant? Does the novel reveal anything new about the Jew as scapegoat in Western society?

"'...some call me "common" but the truth of it is few people know who is really common.'" (page 10)
What is "common" -- and uncommon -- about Yakov Bok? He has been called both a Job-like figure and a Jewish everyman. Which details of Yakov's life, before the arrest as well as after, sound more like common Russian Jewish experience and which make him seem more uniquely plagued?

"'The shtetl is a prison...It moulders and the Jews moulder in it. Here we're all prisoners...'" (page 14)
Are there any ways that Yakov will be "freer" in actual prison than he was in the shtetl?

"'I'm a man full of wants I'll never satisfy.'" (page 15)
...and then Yakov goes on to describe what it is he wants from life. Does he wind up getting any of it?

"'I am not a political person,' Yakov answered." (page 45)|
Can you pinpoint the moment that he becomes one?

"I am in history...yet not in it," Yakov writes while working at the brickyard. "In a way of speaking I'm far out, it passes me by." (page 58)
How does Yakov's thinking on this evolve over the course of the novel?

"'I'm a fixer but all my life I've broken more than I fix." (page 96)
So what broken things, if anything, does Yakov Bok, the fixer, fix in the course of this novel?

"'In fact to tell the whole truth, I'm not a religious man, I'm a freethinker.'" (page 123)
Yakov makes this claim repeatedly. What does he think is exonerating about this assertion? Does he regain any religious belief by the end of the novel?

"Yakov nearly went mad trying to figure out what was happening to him. What was a poor harmless fixer doing in prison? What had he done to deserve this terrible incarceration, no end in sight? Hadn't he had more than his share of misery in a less than just world?" (page 139)
What answers and responses do you know from Jewish tradition that speak to such questions about the suffering of the innocent? What kind of conclusions does Yakov himself reach, and how do they change over the course of the novel?

"'In my cell I'm alone. In my thoughts I'm alone.'" (page 159)
When is Yakov not alone?

"He sighed, he wailed, called to the sky for help." (page 206)
Why are there so many intense descriptions of Yakov's howling anguish?

"[God] punishes the suffering servant for being godless." (page 217)
Is Yakov God's suffering servant? Do you think someone who is "godless" can be God's servant, suffering or otherwise?

"...after hours of walking back and forth past Yakov's cell door, knowing the prisoner is awake, the guard stops and sighs through the spy hole, 'Ah, Yakov Bok, don't think you're the only one with troubles. They're piled on my head like snows on a mountain top.'" (page 242)
What do you think Yakov's guards represent? How are they different from one another and what parallels do you see between Yakov's life and theirs?

"Yakov placed the paper on the shelf before him and wrote in Russian on the line for his name: 'Every word is a lie.'" (page 262)
What are the most important motivations that keep Yakov from making a false confession, or even accepting a pardon?

"To my great regret some of our people shiver in every weather," the attorney Ostrovsky says. "We have organized a committee to help you but their caution is excessive. They're afraid to "meddle" or there'll be another calamity. That's in itself a calamity.'" (page 272)
Do you think that hesitance can be reasonably defended? Is Malamud deliberately making other references here as well?-- Is this a fair indictment of other Jewish communities at other times and places in this century?

"'You suffer for us all,' the lawyer said huskily. "I would be honored to be in your place.'" (page 273)
How much of a hero do you think Yakov Bok is?

CLOSE READING

Pick a section of the novel on which to focus, or simply choose from among the quotations and questions below those which you think might provoke some interesting thought and conversation:

Part One
"His nose was sometimes Jewish, sometimes not..." (page 12)
Read the description of Yakov. What do his appearance and manner tells us about him?

"He had kept his tools and a few books: Smirnovsky's Russian Grammar, an elementary biology book, Selections from Spinoza, and a battered atlas at least twenty-five years old." (page 11)
What significance do you find in this list of books?

"Yakov didn't look back. The nag moved along a crooked road between black ploughed fields with dark round haystacks piled up here and there, the peasant's church visible on the left in the distance..." (page 16)
What is telling about the details of the town and people described as Yakov departs from the shtetl?

"They skirted the old woman, prostrate at the cross." (page 25)
Yakov's encounter with the pilgrim woman (pages 23-25) and the boatman (pages 26-29) are clearly portentous episodes. How? What other foreboding moments do you see in the novel's early pages?

Part Two
"So the fixer went looking for luck..." (page 34)
...and finds Nikolai Maximovitch Lebedev, member of the "Black Hundreds" no-so-secret antisemitic czarist society. What does this event signify? Besides being an anti-Semite, what else does Lebedev represent? And what role does his daughter, Zina, play?

"What can she see in a man like me, whose advantages are all disadvantages if I have it right?" (page 46)
What does Zina see in Yakov?

"'You must learn to have confidence in your natural ability, Yakov Ivanovitch.'" (page 53)
What is ominous about the fixer becoming an overseer, and about his work and life while at the brickworks?

"Yakov offered him bread and a glass of sweetened tea but the Hasid would not accept food." (page 62)
Do you see any significance that it is during Pesach that Yakov helps the beaten hasid? What else is significant about the sudden mention of that holiday?

Part Three

"Yakov, alone in his cell, wringing his hands, cried out, 'My God, what have I done to myself? I'm in the hands of enemies.'" (page 68)
What are the some of the unfortunate coincidences, pieces of circumstantial evidence, and facts about Yakov's background that cast suspicion on him? What does he say in the initial interrogations that hurts -- or helps -- his case?

"'First let me ask you what brought you to Spinoza," Bibikov the magistrate inquires during the interrogation (page 70).
Why does Spinoza keep coming up, especially at this point? What connection does Spinoza's philosophy, as least as outlined by Yakov and Bibikov, have to the story?

"'When a Jew wishes to harm a Christian...he goes to the "tzadik" and gives him a "pidyon"...'" (page 92)
What are the various Jewish traditions brought up by the prosecuting attorney during his interrogation and how are they misinterpreted?

"'If they knew me, could they say such things?'" (page 96)
Do you think the authorities know from the start that Yakov is innocent?

Part Four

"'They had said some magic words from a Zhidy book, I'll swear to God, and upstairs where this one here had lived before they arrested him, the flames turned an oily green such as I never saw before...'" (page 106)
What does the testimony of Proshko, the foreman, demonstrate about czarist Russian anti-Semitism? How about the prosecutor Grubeshov's accusations (pages 124-125) and Father Anastasy's description of Jewish blood guilt (pages 119-122)? What is especially insidious about the argument that the priest lays forth?

"'Excuse me,' Bibikov said gently, 'but how is it you waited six or seven days before thinking to report that your son was missing?'" (page 112)
What are some of the other holes, improbable particulars, suspicious details, and outright lies in Marfa's account?

Part Five

"'Tell me the honest truth, Yakov Bok, didn't the Jewish nation put you up to this crime?'" (page 128)
What new possibilities arise as to why the authorities picked Yakov to accuse?

"'I didn't know you were a Jew. But if I had I wouldn't have hit you,'" (page 138)
the prisoner Fetyukov tells Yakov. What sympathies (and antipathies) do Fetyukov and the other prisoners have towards him?

"'I was thinking maybe you want to leave me a letter to send to somebody,'" (page 145)
advises Gronfein, the first Jew Yakov meets since his arrest, who turns out to be a stool pigeon. What does Gronfein represent? Are Yakov's hopes for help from the Jewish community unrealistic? If so, why is the warden so angry at Yakov's attempts at contact? "'I would like you to know, Yakov Shepsovitch -- if I may -- that your case hold an extraordinary interest for me...'" (page 151)
What are Bibikov's reasons for wanting to help Yakov? What else do you think is motivating him? Does he wind up accomplishing anything at all?

Part Six

"He dreamed he had come upon him in the woods, a child carrying his schoolbooks, and had grabbed and choked him unconscious on impulse..." (page 170)
How would you interpret this nightmare of Yakov's? Compare it to his nightmares described on pages 223 and 244-245.

"In December frost appeared on the four walls in the morning. Once he awoke with his hand stuck to the wall. The air was dead icy air. The fixer walked all day to keep from freezing. His asthma was worse..." (page 177)
What purposes are served by these long descriptions of of Yakov's mistreatment and the awful conditions in jail?

"He examined the phylacteries, then put them aside, but he wore the prayer shawl under his greatcoat to help keep him warm." (page 186)
Why have these items been given to Yakov? If nothing else, given his extreme tedium, does it surprise you that he doesn't put them to davening use?

"He could, in a sense, smell the Psalms as well as hear them." (page 188)
What does that mean? Does the psalm that Yakov pieces together from remembered verses offer him any comfort or satisfaction? How could he be considered like -- and unlike -- the original psalmists?

"I scratch at memory. I think of Raisl." (page 189)
Do any of the details about Yakov's courtship and marriage surprise you? What new insights and perspective does Yakov seem to have about their relationship?

"You sink into your thoughts and try to blot out the prison cell." (page 193)
What thoughts and mental exercises are liberating to Yakov?

"'Excuse me,'" Yakov responds to the prosecutor's offer of a deal,"'but how will you then explain to the Tsar that you let a confessed murderer of a Christian child go?'" (page 203)
Describe the difference between Yakov's inward and outward defiances.

Part Seven

"Yet the story of Jesus fascinated him and he read it in the four gospels." (page 209)
What meaning does Yakov derive from that story, and how does it differ from Christian interpretation?

"The purpose of the covenant, Yakov thinks, is to create human experience, although human experience baffles God." (page 216)
Do you agree? How does his own experience help him arrive at this conclusion?

"He turned often to pages of Hosea and read with fascination the story of this man God had commanded to marry a harlot." (page 218)
Why does Malamud give such an extended quotation from the prophetic book?

"The excitement of receiving the letter had increased in the reading and Yakov's head throbbed at the questions that ran through his mind." (page 222)
What do you make of Marfa's strange letter to him?

"He strove with himself, struggled, shouted at him to hold tight to sanity, to keep in the dark unsettled centre of the mind a candle burning." (page 224)
Are there any more to Yakov's hallucinations other than delusion and fear?

"'Don't talk to me about God,' Yakov said bitterly. 'I want no part of God.'" (page 230)
But he and his father-in-law, Shmuel, do continue to talk at length about God. Do you think Shmuel holds his own in the argument?

Part Eight

"Yakov thought about how it used to be before he was chained to the wall?" (page 239)
What does this strange nostalgia tell us about a person's capacity for and response to suffering?

"He had secret, almost pleasurable thoughts of death?" (page 240)
What strengthening, even heroic resolve does Yakov gain from wishing for his death? And from reaffirming his will to live (pages 245-247)?

"It seemed to him that the story had changed from how he read it yesterday," Yakov notices as he reads the indictment, "but then he realized it had changed from how he knew it as he had pieced it together from the questions he had been asked, and the accusations that had been made." (page 248).
What are the key differences and what has brought them about? Why is Yakov's perception of the weakness of the case against him discouraging to him?

"'Yakov,' she wept, 'come home.'" (page 262)
Do you think Raisl really wants a reconciliation? If so, for any other reason than to provide a father for her son?

Part Nine

"...he had discovered at once what he had expected: that the blood murder charge had been violently revived." (page 264)
Why do you think the prosecutors keep going back and forth on this issue?

"'Don't think just because an indictment has been issued,'" Grubeshov the prosecutor tells Yakov, "'that your worries are over.'" (page 268).
And what is worrying Grubeshov?

"'The worst is that we don't know the worst,' Ostrovsky had answered. "We know you didn't do it, the worst is they know it too but say you did.'" (page 271)
Why is that worse than if the authorities really did believe in Yakov's guilt? Do you agree?

"'They can't prove a ritual murder but they won't stop trying, and the longer they take the more dangerous the situation becomes. It's dangerous because it's irrational, complex, secret.'" (page 275)
The lawyer Ostrovsky goes on, at last, to place the case within the context of contemporaneous Russian history and politics. What lessons relevant for today does this cause-and-effect string of events teach?

"If he had stayed in the shtetl it would never have happened. At least not this. Something else would have happened, better not think what." (page 281)
What does Yakov mean?

"He had learned, it wasn't easy; the experience was his; it was worse than that, it was he. He was the experience. It also meant that now he was somebody else than he had been, who would have thought it?" (Page 283)
In what ways does Yakov consider himself different now?

"'I don't want to eat,' said the fixer, 'I want to fast.'
'What the hell for?' said Kogin.
'For God's world.'
'I thought you didn't believe in God.'
'I don't.'"
(page 288)
What is Yakov distinguishing between?

"'My head aches,' Kogin muttered. He sank to his knees with blood on his face. The Deputy Warden had shot him." (page 292)
Why might the prison guard's murder -- and the bombing on the street (pages 294-296) -- actually give Yakov reason for hope? And why else are they reason for despair?

"'After all, it isn't as though you yourself are unaware of what suffering is,'" Czar Nicholas "tells" Yakov in his imaginings. "'Surely it has taught you the meaning of mercy.'" (page 298)
How does Yakov's response demonstrate that he has changed over the course of the novel? What answer is given in his imagined assassination of the czar?

"Among those in the street were Jews of the Plossky District. Some, as the carriage clattered by and they glimpsed the fixer, were openly weeping, wringing their hands."
Do you think Yakov will wind up being convicted or acquitted? Or will there be a verdict at all?

ARGUE WITH THE CRITICS

Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley has commented: "Such is the nature of Malamud's gift that a fiction rooted in the celebration -- yes, celebration -- of suffering is in no way joyless." Can that be said of The Fixer?

In The Christian Science Monitor's original 1966 review of the novel, critic Melvin Maddocks wrote: "In discussing The Fixer, it is easy to turn the book into a moralistic abstract. That would be a misinterpretation." Would it or wouldn't it?

"Mendel Bellis [sic] was himself acquitted," New York Times reviewer Eliot Fremont-Smith noted. "The fact acts as a disturbing and undermining counterpoint to the novel, and it robs Yakov's lengthy and sometime slightly preachy wrestle with life's meaning of much of its power." Do you think so? How would you expect knowledge of the historical background to impact on a reader's understanding and appreciation of the book?

Novelist Robert Stone has written: "[Malamud's] characters live in a world made of twists and turns and reversals. Absurdity is relentless, sometimes tragic, even fatal, at other times almost a salvivic principle." What do you find salvivic in the absurd world experienced by Yakov Bok?

Countering those who would limit and label Malamud as a "Jewish writer" author Cynthia Ozick affirmed: "Is he an American Master? Of course. He not only wrote in the American language, he augmented it with fresh plasticity; he shaped our English into startling new configurations." How does the writing style of The Fixer, even with much of the text in the voice and mind of its Russian Jewish protagonist, show it to be a quintessentially American work?

Bernard Malamud said of The Fixer: "The drama is as applicable to the American people as it is to the Russian." Do you agree?

TANAKH TEXT STUDY

"'To win a lousy bet with the devil [God] killed off all the servants and innocent children of Job. For that alone I hate him, not to mention ten thousand pogroms. Ach, why do you make me talk fairy tales. Job is an invention and so is God. Let's let it go at that'" (page 232)

Scholars, critics, and everyday readers alike have called Yakov Bok a Job-like figure. Malamud himself refers to the biblical character in the novel and even quotes from the book of Job. Add to your discussion of The Fixer by reading the book of Job as well, considering the similarities and noting the inferences and allusions to the biblical story that Malamud made, even as he was careful not to belabor the parallels (or does he indeed belabor them? That is another point to discuss!). And to add further to the discussion, read another Malamud work on a similar theme but in an American context: his great short story, "Angel Levine" (found in the collection, The Complete Stories).


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