Years ago, when I was in high school or junior high school, the mother of a friend opened a book store in the suburb where we lived and called it “The Magic Barrel”. I thought it a strange name for a retail establishment (it was) and quickly learned it was named for a short story by Bernard Malamud contained in a boom with the same title. I don’t remember if I read the story back then but I have read it since. It is about an old world matchmaker who pulled the names of prospective brides from his “magic barrel”. An appropriate name for a book store perhaps.
In truth, I didn’t like the story very much. A young is frustrated with his inability to find a perfect match. The matchmaker offers him several eligible women, all of whom he rejects. And then he finds the perfect match on his own. The matchmaker is not happy. The client has selected the matchmaker’s daughter.
I also read, and enjoyed, two of Malamud’s best known books – “The Fixer” and “The Assistant”. And I have just read “Pictures of Fidleman”, the fourth book assigned for the class I am taking on Jewish-American literature. (The other books have been by Philip Roth, Chaim Potok and Dara Horn.)
The common theme of all of the books is that they deal with art or artists. Arthur Fidleman is an American painter of clearly limited talent. He decides to get a fresh start by spending a year in Italy, first in Rome for a few weeks and then in Florence. The book is composed of six separate stories, related to each other and almost but not really sequential in that they might follow each other in time but they are not otherwise materially connected. They are comic, often raunchy, and and as abstract as a Jackson Pollack painting.
Fidleman has not only failed to master the art of painting, he has failed in the art of living and he is certainly a fish out of water in Italy. The stories take place in Rome, Florence, Milan, and Venice. We meet beggars, prostitutes, charwomen, thieves, and a glassblower and his wife. Fidleman works as a writer, painter, sculptor, glass blowing apprentice and even as a gofer in a brothel. He is both a traditionalist and an experimenter and even an innovator when he becomes a sculptor of temporary holes.
Malamud spent a bit of time in Italy and is obviously familiar with artists’ techniques. Descriptions of artists’ methods and Italian phrasing are strewn throughout the book. The prose itself runs from the relative traditional to the abstract (in the form of stream of consciousness writing, although you can’t be sure whose consciousness it is).
Is it a good book? Well, it is Fun to read. But does it have worth? That’s another question.