Reading Wallace Markfield’s To an Early Grave & Teitlebaum’s Window

Context N°19

by Jeremy M. Davies

Speaking of Wallace Markfield (1926-2002)—the Joyce of Brighton Beach, the great magician of old Brooklyn rhythms—it’s impossible to avoid mentioning that he was Jewish, for Markfield’s books are Jewish to the core: the DNA of every sentence shaped by the inflections of the New York State Diaspora (and a purer strain than that popularized by Woody Allen, once upon a time). The form of his work is itself a result of, and a tribute to, the convolutions of the English language, tortured into beautiful bonsai shapes by the impositions of Yiddish syntax. (As my grandfather is fond of repeating, “You don’t know English till you’ve learned it from an immigrant.”)

But Markfield is no documentarian: his work may contain bits and pieces of what could be considered time-capsule material—Depression-era Brooklyn; the ’50s and ’60s in the Partisan Review-Commentary axis—but, as with the best literature, these are points of departure: the foundations on which another, more personal, and basically fantastic world is created, just as the language—itself already given to parody and hyperbole—is refined and stylized into a gorgeous pidgin of high modernism and low burlesque.

Where others give us measured and precise introspection, Markfield’s novels brim with excess. He gives no quarter for those of us without the Yiddishkeit—in the broadest sense—to keep up with his nonstop references (“Scratch a Litvak [a Lithuanian Jew] and you’re peeling radishes!” Cosa significa?), the stamina to wade through his wonderful lists, the knowledge of pop culture necessary to match his phenomenal mastery of movie trivia (“How I survive, I don’t know, but we’ll say I survive World War III. . . . Then through the vapor I’ll see him. . . . And we’ll walk to each other and we’ll touch and feel and pound on each other’s backs. . . . And he’ll go, ‘Cagney and Robinson played together in one picture and one picture only, and the name of that picture was . . .’ ”), about which Markfield would later mourn that “each chapter lost another ten thousand readers”—but who’d want to be spared even a word of his “splendid nonsense” if given the choice? (Let the “less is more” crowd bail out now.)

It breaks my heart to know that Markfield felt overshadowed by Saul Bellow all his working life—even claiming that he’d dream about Bellow after the publication of every new novel, and once that his own mother was ignoring him in favor of the Nobel laureate, who’d turned up at her house for a visit. So let me take my little life in my hands now and go on record to say that, much as I like Bellow—and I do like Bellow (as did Markfield himself: “I don’t think I especially care to compete with Humboldt’s Gift,” he sighed in an interview)—I’d read Markfield any day in preference. Paragraph for paragraph, page for page, Markfield had the chops. Or, to put it less antagonistically: Markfield was a Bellow for the “other tradition,” a Bellow for the adventurous, for the puzzle-lovers, for the collectors of bric-a-brac and debris: a Bellow who they never noticed, or else studiously ignored (probably because of all the comparisons to Bellow)—and a “Jewish-American novelist” somehow doomed to obscurity at the very moment the categorization was coined.

The rush to fill that vacuum, to profit from the sudden, post-Augie March “marketability” of Jewishness, both opened the door for Markfield’s novels, and then left their author far behind. The ascendancy of his peers (Malamud, Roth)—writers whose versions of this world were by comparison sanitized of “otherness,” packaged for an audience who at worst wanted a tourist’s taste of a charmingly irrelevant, adorably neurotic part of the culture—served to eclipse him completely.

Markfield’s first novel, To an Early Grave (1964), was praised by Joseph Heller, won him a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was adapted for the big screen as Bye Bye Braverman, directed by Sidney Lumet, a few years later. (DVD release, someone?) It’s the most staid, the most buttoned-down and minimal of his great novels, though his verbal precocity—the protean babble that would become manifest in his next book—is already simmering behind its seemingly naturalistic prose. Leslie Braverman, writer, schmuck, friend, philanderer, has passed away at the age of 41, shocking his somewhat dispersed and alienated group of compatriots (critics, professional speechwriters, academics: our protagonist is the redoubtable Morroe Rieff—played by George Segal in the Lumet—whose epithet of choice is “Whoosh!”), now reuniting to organize an expedition to his funeral.

This crew is a gallery of grotesques—lovable at forty years’ distance, but at the time bringing out a tremendous hostility towards Markfield, who in his very first book was taking brazen potshots at the same crowd who could have made him the “next big thing”: the same crowd he knew intimately, and the same crowd he ran with . . . until To an Early Grave put him in permanent exile.

Braverman is no angel himself, but two-bit as he may have been—wasting his life on potboilers and co-eds—his friends (now undergoing one Odyssean delay after another as they try to get out of Manhattan) are still mediocrities by comparison. Though dead from page one, Braverman is already the perfectly formed Markfield hero. Cheerfully amoral in life, he was such a perfect picture of solipsism that he could write the following to his wife, in a fit of goodwill, despite their separation on account of his many affairs:

Such is my state that I will remit all sins, even these:
That you have not read my work in three years.
That you do not utter little cries in sex.
That in company you will not laugh at the second hearing of my jokes.

And in one of his few “in-person” cameos, he confronts Morroe Rieff in a dream, walking out of King Solomon’s Mines in a second-run house off Times Square:

Hey, hey, what are you doing there? Morroe wanted to know.
Here? Here I’m the white hunter.
Am I mistaken or don’t you look shorter? How come you look so short?
How come? How come is I said schmuck to a witch doctor!
[Morroe] sprang from his seat to follow Leslie into the brush, but found himself in [John Ford’s] The Informer. After betraying Leslie he treated half of Dublin to egg creams.

When Morroe wakes up, however, it turns out he’s been slumped against the shoulder of one of his fellow mourners in the car:

“Your grandma should one night pine for you and decide to come down and pay a visit from heaven, and she should want to kiss you and you should drool and dribble on her the way you drooled and dribbled on me.”
“Eifelsleep,” Morroe said through his yawn.

But good as it is (and To an Early Grave’s subtle accumulation of weight, of sadness and loss—and this through a pretty much exclusive use of comedy—ought to be studied in every writing program in the land), it’s Teitlebaum’s Window (1970)—Markfield’s “big book,” his Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses all in one—that makes him a giant. Superficially, it’s about one Simon Sloan, coming of age in the 1930s: growing up, going to Brooklyn College, and marching happily off to war to escape both a prospective marriage and his violently off-kilter parents, Shmuel and Malvena the Orphan; but no one reading Teitlebaum for the first time could possibly mistake the book for a mere slice of Depression life. Its first chapter—which ideally I could quote in full—is one of the best, most astounding, harrowing, and hilarious openings of any novel in the English language. It’s the sort of performance you want to put your book down and applaud after reading.

It begins in earnest after a brief digest of recent life in Brighton Beach, a litany that seems to hark back to some nonexistent preface (the book begins, “Then in June, 1932 . . .”), and which gets repeated every few chapters with updated information presented in roughly the same order—what Teitlebaum the grocer writes on the window of his little shop, which celebrity Stanley the taxi driver is claiming to have picked up in his cab. Thus briefed, we’re thrown headlong into the hot and stuffy Sloan apartment, where Shmuel is, for the moment, asleep (he mutters things like “Pogrom” and “Piecework” through his “agonized snoring”), and little Simon is getting Malvena the Orphan to tell him the story of her early years again, being worked to the bone and generally exploited by Cousin Phillie out in Hartford, Connecticut.

She’s sitting in a man’s undershirt so as not to bind or chafe her “dropped stomach,” reading to him from her journals and scrapbooks, even though, as she says, her autobiography, The Truth of My Life, is still in the “drafty stage.” It’s an encyclopedia of petty complaint, with chapters like “Cousin Phillie: How He Tried to Hire Me Out to Schvartzers,” and all the while Simon sings snatches of songs, crawls around on her lap, and brazenly pokes her barely covered breasts through her shirt (“When they jiggle, you know what they look like Mommy? Heh? . . . Just just just like Betty Boop’s eyes!”). When Shmuel wakes up, we get his stories of being in basic training during World War I (“‘It’s worth teh-hen armies to hear how they talk. . . . Shee-yut!’ he cried. And as Simon and his mother whinnied and swelled with mirth he gave them a ‘Fah-hark you! . . . In my company alone I must have had—I had—ho-boy!—three, four kinds goyim’ ”), and a few rounds of his ongoing fight with his son, with whom, as he says, “I try and I try and still I don’t get close to him.”

Simon sobbed out the Pledge of Allegiance.
“Get killed for Jackie Cooper!” his father told him.
Simon, planting an elbow on the table, made believe his was doing Palmer penmanship, throwing in also the closing hours of the library and the number of books he was allowed on a children’s card.
“Get killed with Jackie Cooper.”
Simon recited the holiday prices at the Lyric [Theater], the day for the changing of bills at the Miramar and the Surf.
“Get killed by Jackie Cooper.”

I could keep going: there’s more happening in this first chapter than in any three novels—Jewish-American or otherwise—you’d care to mention. By the time chapter two comes around, we’ve been so completely immersed in Markfield’s world that he can cover vast narrative distances with only a bit of shorthand. The book wastes no time with the verities of realism—we get most of our information from here on in through Simon’s journals, and we learn exactly what kind of a filthy kid he is, firsthand. What he and his friends get up to might make modern parents thankful for the relative innocence of video games—but as the book progresses, there are hints that Simon might one day redeem himself, grow up to be the sort of person who could write a kind of Teitlebaum’s Window of his own . . . and, thankfully, hints are all we get. ***

Markfield’s timing is a thing of wonder—how he makes dead words on a page sizzle and hiss, how he makes us hear his dialogue: not as lines recited by imaginary people behind a little proscenium in our heads, but as meter, as rhythm, as set-up and punch line. Teitlebaum and To an Early Grave are nominally comedies, but they get at everything that literature is for: they renew the language, and in the process, quite by accident, they renew us readers as well.

So, an old story: a writer done in—to his mind—by the very idiosyncrasies that make his work unique, that make it sublime. Markfield was never meant to chisel out the kind of stolid prose that would have won him Bellow’s following—however finely crafted, however elegant, however insightful. His muse was pricklier, sillier, and more melodic than Bellow’s. Its precocity could barely be contained, and maybe was a little too Jewish for readers who could only take so much exotica in their diet. Of course, losing out to the likes of a Saul Bellow is nothing to be ashamed of—but Markfield even lost out to his lessers, and seeing them enshrined now on curriculums and chockablock in bookstores, I have to wonder: why is there no room for him?

Even the great Stanley Elkin—the closest stylistic analogue to Markfield, and a writer who used to joke that he knew all his readers by name—has enjoyed a greater popular and critical success; and even Elkin had no time for Markfield, because Markfield had a genius for alienating exactly the people who could do him the most good, or else were most likely to appreciate his work. I hope that the audience he was really writing for—whether he knew it or not—will find him now that the dust has cleared. And should you chance to run into him in Olam HaBah, here’s your “in”: the answer is Smart Money (1931).

___________________________

Selected Works by Wallace Markfield:

To an Early Grave (1964). Dalkey Archive Press, 2000. $12.50.
Teitlebaum’s Window (1970). Dalkey Archive Press, 1999. $13.95.
You Could Live if They’d Let You, 1974. Out of Print.
Multiple Orgasms, 1977. Out of Print.
Radical Surgery, 1991. Out of Print.

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