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Wallace (Arthur) Markfield Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Brooklyn, New York, 1926. Education: Abraham Lincoln High School, New York; Brooklyn College, B.A. 1947; New York University, 1948-50. Career: Film critic, New Leader, New York, 1954-55; worked as a publicist and in public relations for several years. Awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1965; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1966.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

To an Early Grave. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1964; London, Cape, 1965.

Teitlebaum's Window. New York, Knopf, 1970; London, Cape, 1971.

You Could Live If They Let You. New York, Knopf, 1974.

Radical Surgery. New York, Bantam, 1991.

Short Stories

Multiple Orgasms. Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Bruccoli Clark, 1977.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Notes on the Working Day," in Partisan Review (New Brunswick, New Jersey), September-October 1946.

"Ph.D.," in These Your Children, edited by Harold U. Ribalow. New York, Beechhurst Press, 1952.

"The Patron," in Partisan Review (New Brunswick, New Jersey), January 1954.

"The Country of the Crazy Horse," in Commentary (New York), March 1958.

"The Big Giver," in Midstream (New York), Summer 1958.

"A Season of Change," in Midstream (New York), Autumn 1958.

"Eulogy for an American Boy," in Commentary (New York), June 1962.

"The Decline of Sholem Waldman," in My Name Aloud, edited by Harold U. Ribalow. New York, Yoseloff, 1969.

"Under the Marquee," in Jewish-American Stories, edited by Irving Howe. New York, New American Library, 1977.

*

Critical Studies:

"Wallace Markfield Issue" of Review of Contemporary Fiction (Elmwood, Illinois), vol. 2, no. 1, 1982.

* * *

Philip Roth helped enormously, if inadvertently, to make people conscious of Wallace Markfield by referring to him in Portnoy's Complaint. "The novelist, what's his name, Markfield, has written in a story somewhere that until he was fourteen he believed 'aggravation' to be a Jewish word." Roth is referring to "The Country of the Crazy Horse," which sets the tone and milieu of New York Jewish life that carries through all of Markfield's work: the story begins in this way, "As the train began the long crawl under the tunnel to Brooklyn…." Markfield's characters travel by subway or Volkswagen as they negotiate the impossible distances separating the boroughs of New York City and encounter the unique kind of aggravation which is part of their Jewish vantage point.

Stanley Edgar Hyman spoke of Markfield's first novel, To an Early Grave, as a more modest Ulysses and as "Mr. Bloom's Day in Brooklyn." The part of Ulysses it most nearly resembles is the sixth episode, "Hades." Joyce's "creaking carriage" has been replaced by a Volkswagen; Paddy Dignam has turned into a young writer named Leslie Braverman; and the four mourners who attend the Dignam funeral, Martin Cunningham, Leopold Bloom, John Power, and Simon Dedalus, give way to the more literary foursome of Morroe Rieff, Holly Levine, Felix Ottensteen, and Barnet Weiner. The Jew, Leopold Bloom, feels uncomfortable and unwanted among his Christian companions during the ride to the cemetery. Braverman and his mourners are Jews, as are the other characters who figure prominently in To an Early Grave. Their conversation on the way to the cemetery reflects the urban chic of New York City, with its literary quarterlies, its literary critical conscience ("And he hissed softly, 'Trilling … Leavis … Ransom … Tate … Kazin … Chase …' and saw them, The Fathers, as though from a vast amphitheater, smiling at him, and he smiled at them"), its intellectual's obsession with popular culture, its carefully placed Yiddishisms.

Markfield has been fascinated by Joyce since his early story "Notes on the Working Day"; there are nods here toward the Joyce of Finnegan's Wake ("There Goes Everyman, Here Comes Everybody, the H.C.E. of our culture-lag") and toward the Joyce of Ulysses ("Leopold Bloom of the garment center" and "Leopold fat-belly Bloom"). When the Volkswagen of To an Early Grave arrives at a chapel, Braverman's four friends are treated to an elaborate funeral oration by a rabbi, which seems indeed to be the Jewish equivalent of the terrifying sermons which dominate chapter three of Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Here is a sample of the rabbi's language: " That on the Day of Judgment in the Valley of Jehoshaphat you'll be called up. Either to everlasting life or to such a shaming there's no imagining how terrible." Markfield manages to turn this into a wonderfully comic scene when the four mourners discover on examining the corpse that they have attended the wrong funeral. The novel ends with the most sympathetic of the four mourners, Morroe Rieff, finally breaking into tears—the only genuine tears shed in all of To an Early Grave—but the humorous and satirical effects in character and situation linger on; the comic survives the fleeting attempts at tragedy.

Teitlebaum's Window is the Brighton Beach-Coney Island version of the Bildungsroman, the Jewish boy, Simon Sloan, coming of age between the Depression years and the beginnings of World War II. To an Early Grave takes place during a single day, a Sunday, while Teitlebaum's Window covers a ten-year period. Joyce continues to be very much on Markfield's mind in this novel, especially in the use of certain impressionistic techniques and symbolic patterns. The narrative proceeds in a vastly complicated way, with traditional storytelling methods giving way frequently to diary notations, letters, classroom notes, and snatches of monologue. Many of the chapters begin with a single convoluted sentence which may go on for several pages: dating the events, reintroducing characters, referring to celebrities in the political, film and comic book worlds, and quoting the signs in Teitlebaum's store window (for example, "There will always be an England but there will not always be such a low low price on belly lox"). These long sentences act rather like the interchapters in Virginia Woolf's The Waves. The references to Teitlebaum's window offer the novel a symbolic design and supply the reader with a useful point de repère.

Teitlebaum's Window is a vintage American-Jewish novel. Here the mother-son confrontation is quite as convincingly realized as it was in Portnoy's Complaint. Markfield's Jewish mother, with her "dropped stomach," gargantuan stutter, constant aggravation, and dislocated syntax, is quite as believable in her own way as Sophie Portnoy.

You Could Live If They Let You continues Markfield's concern with Jewish subjects, but is less closely plotted than either of the previous novels. It offers what is probably, according to reviewers, another version of the Lenny Bruce saga, following closely on the heels of Albert Goldman's book Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!! and Bob Fosse's film Lenny. The Lenny Bruce character appears under the name Jules Farber and he has a Boswell in the person of Chandler Van Horton (whom one is tempted to think of as a non-Jewish Albert Goldman). The novel is dedicated to "the wisest men of our time—the stand-up comics" and indeed its narrative procedures often remind us of the staccato verbal habits of a Lenny Bruce or a Woody Allen.

Farber's stand-up comic delivery favors the incongruous, the unexpected: 'Plehnt hah treee in Eretz Yisroel for Norman Vincent Peale"; "Readings from Kierkegaard, Kafka and Julia Child"; "it's Bobby Fischer's end game and Thomas Aquinas quoting from William Buckley and Bella Abzug buying two-and-a-half pounds of the best flanken…." It is consistently irreverent as it takes on such formidable adversaries as the Anti-Defamation League, American rabbis, the Modern Language Association of America, and the world of popular culture. There is seemingly no end to the literary echoes and allusions: "cold, iron-hard epiphany which Farber favored"; "because every carhop and every checkout girl and every chippy and every cellar-club thumper is Molly Boom and Madeline [sic] Herzog." (Joyce is unmistakably a presence here as he was in Markfield's earlier fiction!)

We not only hear the voice of Farber, the "vertical monologist," but also that of Chandler Van Horton and that of Farber's sister, Lillian Federman. Farber's life story is eventually fleshed out in bits and pieces as we find out about his autistic son, Mitchell, and his Christ Therapist estranged wife, Marlene. We find Markfield's latest hero to have the same Jewish awareness and identity as the characters in To an Early Grave and Teitlebaum's Window. He shares with them the assurance that "there are certain things only a Jewish person can understand" and that "when you're in love the whole world is Jewish; and perhaps, in fact, even when you're not in love." We recognize the Markfield touch most emphatically when Farber proclaims: "I got a terminal case of aggravation."

—Melvin J. Friedman

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