September’s book choice was The Magic Barrel a collection of short stories written by Bernard Malamud and published in 1958. The book was well received when it was published, and Marilyn Monroe herself owned a first edition.

As with many books Marilyn Monroe owned, the thematic elements are bleak and the protagonists are often left unsatisfied or unsuccessful. Because of this, the collection of stories do not provide a real form of escapism, so while it was well-written an is an important work for post World War Two anxieties, I cannot recommend it to everyone universally without some caution. The main characters in each story (all of whom are cis-men) have an unlikable trait that is keeping them from finding happiness. Themes of fearing death, the psychological aftermath and negotiating Jewish identity after World War two, and domestic violence in “The Prison” (from the perspective of the abuser), all make this an emotionally challenging read.

While the stories mainly take place in urban settings (mostly New York and different places in Italy) and feature daily life, many of the stories end with symbolic surrealism that coincide with the main character’s anagnorisis. “Angel Levine” tells the story of a man who meets someone claiming to be black Jewish angel, and at the end of the story we see feathers. My personal favorite story in the collection, “The Lady of the Lake,” follows a man who denies his Jewish identity when meeting a young woman he wants to marry. In the end, she tells him she is Jewish and a survivor of The Holocaust, and will only marry a Jewish man. She then becomes a statue, while the main character realizes that his denial of who he is has resulted in losing the woman he wanted to marry.

Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller,
Married 1956-1960

I do wonder how Marilyn Monroe reacted to the stories. She is actually mentioned in one of the stories (“Behold the Key” about a man who brings his family to live in Rome, and is unable to find an apartment). The book provides insight into Jewish identity and struggles in the decades following the Holocaust. Marilyn Monroe herself converted to Judaism in 1956 before marrying playwright Arthur Miller (and there are even notes of hers in a Jewish prayer book she owned). She was still married to Arthur Miller when the book was published, and it is possible that the collection of stories were read as part of her own personal exploration of Judaism and Jewish identity.

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