“We don’t need to imagine how shocking The Pawnbroker must have been to readers in the early 1960s because it is still that shocking to us. Without a trace of sentimentality, Edward Lewis Wallant wrote the Great American Novel of Redemption. Before anyone else, he showed us that only by recognizing in others the face of human suffering could the individual survivor—whether male or female, Jewish, black, or Puerto Rican—transcend his or her inheritance of trauma and pain.”
—Eileen Pollack, author of In the Mouth and Breaking and Entering
One of the first novels to depict the lingering trauma of the Holocaust; now featuring an introduction by Dara Horn, author of the best-selling books The World to Come and A Guide for the Perplexed and a winner of the prestigious Edward Lewis Wallant Award, named for the author of The Pawnbroker.
For most of us, remembering the Holocaust requires effort; we listen to stories, watch films, read histories. But the people who came to be called “survivors” could not avoid their memories. Sol Nazerman, protagonist of Edward Lewis Wallant’s The Pawnbroker, is one such sufferer.
At 45, Nazerman, who survived Bergen-Belsen although his wife and children did not, runs a Harlem pawnshop. But the operation is only a front for a gangster who pays Nazerman a comfortable salary for his services. Nazerman’s dreams are haunted by visions of his past tortures. (Dramatizations of these scenes in Sidney Lumet’s 1964 film version are famous for being the first time the extermination camps were depicted in a Hollywood movie.)
Remarkable for its attempts to dramatize the aftereffects of the Holocaust, The Pawnbroker is likewise valuable as an exploration of the fraught relationships between Jews and other American minority groups. That this novel, a National Book Award finalist, remains so powerful today makes it all the more tragic that its talented author died, at age 36, the year after its publication. The book sold more than 500,000 copies soon after it was published.
The description above is based, with permission, on text originally included in American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide, by Josh Lambert.
“We don’t need to imagine how shocking The Pawnbroker must have been to readers in the early 1960s because it is still that shocking to us. Without a trace of sentimentality, Edward Lewis Wallant wrote the Great American Novel of Redemption. Before anyone else, he showed us that only by recognizing in others the face of human suffering could the individual survivor—whether male or female, Jewish, black, or Puerto Rican—transcend his or her inheritance of trauma and pain.”
—Eileen Pollack, author of In the Mouth and Breaking and Entering
“Post-Holocaust novel par excellence. Timeless and well ahead of its time. Lose yourself in Wallant’s lyrically imbued world of traumatic memories and its collision with contemporary life.”—Thane Rosenbaum, author of The Golems of Gotham, Second Hand Smoke, and Elijah Visible
His feet crunched on the hard-packed sand. On his left was the Harlem River, across the street to the right was the Community Center, and beyond was the vast, packed city. At seven thirty in the morning it was quiet for New York. In that relative silence, his footsteps made ponderous, dragging sounds that were louder and more immediate in his own ears than the chugging of the various river boats or the wakening noise of traffic a few blocks away on 125th Street.
Crunch, crunch, crunch.
It could almost have been the pleasant sound of someone walking over clean white snow. But the sight of the great, bulky figure, with its puffy face, its heedless dark eyes distorted behind the thick lenses of strangely old-fashioned glasses, dispelled any thought of pleasure.
Cecil Mapp, a small, skinny Negro, sat nursing a monumental hangover on the wooden curbing that edged the river. He gazed blearily at Sol Nazerman the Pawnbroker and thought the heavy, trudging man resembled some kind of metal conveyance. Look like a tank or like that, he thought. The sight of the big white man lifted Cecil’s spirit perceptibly; the awkward caution of his walk indicated misery on a different scale from his own. For a few minutes he forgot about his furious wife, whom he would have to face that night, forgot even the anticipated misery of a whole day’s work plastering walls with shaky, unwilling hands. He was actually moved to smile as Sol Nazerman approached, and he thought gaily, That man suffer!
He waved his hand and raised his eyebrows like someone greeting a friend at a party.
“Hiya there, Mr. Nazerman. Look like it goin’ to be a real nice day, don’t it?”
“It is a day,” Sol allowed indifferently, with a slight, side-wise movement of his head.
As he plodded along, Sol watched the quiet flow of the water. Ironically, he noted the river’s deceptive beauty. Despite its oil-green opacity and the indecipherable things floating on its filthy surface, somehow its insistent direction made it impressive.
He narrowed his eyes at the August morning: the tarnished gold light on receding bridges, the multi-shaped industrial buildings, and all the random gleams that bordered the river and made the view somehow reminiscent of a great and ancient European city.
No fear that he could be taken in by it; he had the battered memento of his body and his brain to protect him from illusion.
Oh yes, yes, a nice, peaceful summer day; quiet, safe, full of people going about their business in the rich, promising heat. A dozing morning in a great city. He looked idly at the intricate landscape, his eyes lidded with boredom as he walked.
Suddenly he had the sensation of being clubbed. An image was stamped behind his eyes like a bolt of pain. For an instant he moved blindly in the rosy morning, seeing a floodlit night filled with screaming. A groan escaped him, and he stretched his eyes wide. There was only the massed detail of a thousand buildings in quiet sunlight. In a minute he hardly remembered the hellish vision and sighed at just the recollection of a brief ache, his glass-covered eyes as bland and aloof as before. Another minute and he was allowing himself the usual shallow speculation on his surroundings.
What was there here, in this shabby patch on his journey to the store each morning, that eased him slightly? Just a large, sandy triangle, perhaps two blocks long, a waste that seemed to wait for some utilitarian purpose,or a spot where something had once existed,whose traces were now covered by the anonymous, thin layer of beach sand. It was a block out of his way, too. Eh, go figure the things a person reacts to! He liked to come this way, that was enough. Maybe it was the lovely scenery, the charming, lovely type of people you might see strewn along the way, like Cecil Mapp. Whatever—the dreams of night lost their sharp edges for him at this particular distance in time from his sleep. He glanced idly at the bright-painted tugs, the weathered, broad barges carrying all manner of things. Gradually, as he walked, he drained himself of the phantoms of his sleep, and the multiple tiny abrasions he got from his sister and her family lost their soreness. Perhaps, then, this brief part of his walk was a bridge between two separate atmospheres, a bridge upon which he could readjust the mantle of his impregnable scorn.
As he reached the apex of the sandy area and turned to the pavement, he allowed himself a moment’s recall of his troubled sleep. Not that he could remember what he had dreamed, but he knew the dreams were bad. For years he had experienced bad dreams from time to time, but lately they were occurring more frequently.
My age, I guess. At forty-five the nerves lose some of their elasticity, he thought. “Agh,” he said aloud, and shrugged, to throw dirt over the introspection; in the diplomatic delicacy of truce there was no sense in displaying your dead.
But when he got to the store, he could not resist a grimace at the sight of the three gilded balls hanging over the doorway. It was no more than a joke in rather poor taste that had led to this. Still, he could never evade the foolish idea, each morning when he first looked at the ugly symbol of his calling, that the sign was the result of some particularly diabolic vandalism perpetrated during the night by an unknown tormentor.
The grimace turned to a wintry smile; he still had a thin sense of humor for certain little vulgarities. So what if the onetime instructor at the University of Cracow could now be found behind the three gold balls of a pawnshop? It was by far the mildest joke life had played on him.
And the joke wasn’t entirely at his expense, either, he mused as he unfastened the elaborate series of locks, disconnected the two burglar alarms, and took down the heavy wire screening that protected the show windows during the night. No indeed, he thought, taking a slow, smug look around him. This much-maligned calling had bought him the one commodity he still valued—privacy. He had bought the large house in Mount Vernon in which he lived with his sister, Bertha, and her family, and by continuing to support them (no big houses in Mount Vernon on his brother-in-law Selig’s teacher salary), had earned his own room and bath, decently cooked meals, and best of all, his privacy from them. And, as they owed their sustenance to him, so he in turn owed Albert Murillio. Trace anything far enough and it leads to filth. Even rescuing angels must have some grime on their wing tips. He had been working for the United Jewish Appeal in Paris, and through them had gotten to America on the strength of a job offer by the pawnbroker Pearlman. He had worked two years for that half-decent man when someone told someone else that Sol Nazerman was a man with no allegiances. One day a cold, monotonous voice on the telephone had outlined a plan: one Albert Murillio would channel unreportable income through a pawnshop which Sol would manage, and be the ostensible owner of, at least on paper. The financial arrangements were unbelievably generous for Sol, and he hadn’t hesitated to accept With mechanical ease, the deal had been consummated. Sol had worked out the details with an envoy of the unseen Murillio, an accountant had established a business structure and paid all the bills, and, lo, a new pawnbroker had been established! All in a purely logical progression; from the lofty, philanthropic people of the U.J.A. in Paris, down through the not-so-good, not-so-bad Sam Pearlman, finally to Albert Murillio—a dull, heartless voice on a telephone. And all of it was fine for Sol Nazerman. He wasted no time worrying about the sources of money; let the Murillios of the world do what they wanted as long as they made no personal demands, as long as they left his privacy inviolate. The immediate moment, and maybe the one right next to it, was as far as he cared to go.
Now, in the small, insulated chamber he dwelt in, Sol began his informal morning appraisal of the store. He derived a bleak comfort from just touching and moving the various objects a little, from hefting and studying the great and patternless conglomeration of the things people had pawned.
He plucked the strings of a warped violin, blew the dust from the lens of a Japanese camera, turned the knob of a dead radio on and off a few times. With the furtive air of an adult trying to hide interest in a child’s toy, he played lightly with the keys of an old typewriter for a few seconds before turning to plonk his fingernail against a floral china plate. In a corner under the counter he found a pair of mother-of-pearl opera glasses, and, looking in the wrong end, scanned the store, so that the place looked vast and ancient, like a museum dedicated to an odd history. And all the while, half consciously, he got a perverse pleasure from the sense of kinship, of community with all the centuries of hand-rubbing Shylocks. Yes, he, Sol Nazerman, practiced the ancient, despised profession; and he survived!
At the sound of footsteps he looked up. His assistant, Jesus Ortiz, moved toward him wearing his dazzling, bravo’s smile.
“Guten Tag, Sol, I’m here! You could let the business commence now,” he said, moving with that leopard-like fluidity that made it hard to say where bone gave way to fine muscle.
“If I depended on you . . .” Sol frowned to cover the feeling of awe he always experienced when he first saw the brown-skinned youth each morning. The boy’s face was formed with exquisite subtlety; straight, narrow nose, high cheekbones, a mouth curved and mobile as a girl’s. He always seemed to flaunt the perfection of his face when he spoke, to offer it in a sort of spiteful compensation for whatever it was he had failed at.
“It is past nine thirty already,” Sol said, turning his attention sternly to the pile of bills on the counter.
“I know, I know,” Jesus said regretfully, shaking his sleek, narrow head so that one shiny strand of black hair flopped over his forehead. “I jus’ have the biggest trouble gettin’ out of bed mornings.” He jerked his head back with a practiced movement to toss the strand of hair into place. Then he scowled at one of the multitude of clocks, a grandfather clock that both of them knew was fixed in permanent paralysis at nine twenty. “Well now, I told you I want this all to be real businesslike. That clock say twenty minute past nine, so I gonna insist you dock me for exactly . . .”
“You are a real wise guy, Ortiz.”
“Aw, come on, Sol, you don’t have to worry a bit. I gonna work so goddam hard the next few hours you probably offer me time-and-a-half.”
He was only half joking, because he did feel a strange dedication to the job that his sense of logic told him was a fool’s vocation. Jesus Ortiz had earned three and four times his present salary in riskier and more remunerative pursuits, enterprises that had called upon his wits and his reflexes. For ten months he had sold marijuana cigarettes, and once, two years before, when he had been eighteen, he had shared in the loot from a robbed warehouse. But there had always been a deep-rooted nervousness in him, a feeling of fragility and terror. He had never wanted to account for this feeling, because that would have been like succumbing to it. But if he had, he might have connected it with the memory of being left alone at night as a child while his husband-deserted mother went off to work as a scrubwoman in a downtown office building. She had always left the door of the apartment open for some neighbor woman to “listen in,” but Jesus had known there was no one to hear his heart-cries, so he had practiced a horrid silence amidst the barbaric voices of all the neighborhoods they had lived in. Night was emptiness, dark was nothingness. Later on, that dreadful hollow had come to hide even from his memory, but he had its residue, and it had left him with peculiar mannerisms. He would laugh at the most inappropriate moments, and once, when a group of white boys had seized him, pulled his pants down, and pretended to emasculate him with a harmless little twig, he had shrieked with a sound of such mad glee that they had released him and run away. Now, when he was “restless” (his own word for those strange, dizzying moods), he sometimes went to the Catholic church where his mother was a parishioner, to kneel without prayer before the crucifix and indulge an odd daydream. He would imagine the bearded figure was the father he had never seen, and, kneeling there, he would smile cruelly at the thought of his imagined father’s riven flesh. And yet, strangely, at those times he would feel the anguish of love, too, and his body would seem to contain a terrible, racking struggle. So that when he got up to leave the church, he would be exhausted and listless, and it would appear to him that he had banished the “restlessness.”
Several months before, he had seized on the idea of “business.” He had visualized solidity and immense strength in it and had even, in his wilder moments, begun to daydream a mercantile dynasty, some great store with his name emblazoned in gold on its sign. And so he had answered Sol’s ad for a “bright, willing-to-learn young man to assist in pawnshop. Opportunity to learn the business.” Once there, in the presence of the big, inscrutable Jew, he had become even more obsessed with the magic potential of “business,” for there had seemed to be some great mystery about the Pawnbroker, some secret which, if he could learn it, would enrich Jesus Ortiz immeasurably.
“Meanwhile, I see you still standing there,” Sol said. “You who are going to work so hard.”
But Ortiz wasn’t listening; he was staring raptly at the papers spread out before the Pawnbroker.
“You pay all your bills by check, do you?” he asked. “I mean that’s the most businesslike way, ain’t it? What do you do, just fill out how much and to who on that little stub like and then . . .”
Sol exhaled a deep breath of exasperation.
“Well Christ, man, I s’pose to be learnin’ the business, too, ain’t I? You ain’t done much learnin’ of me, far as I could see.”
“All right, all right, tomorrow, remind me tomorrow. When it gets quiet, late tomorrow afternoon, maybe we’ll go over a few things,” Sol said dully.
“Okay,” Ortiz said, flashing that sudden, almost shockingly irrelevant smile that sometimes affected Sol like a quick painful scratch against his skin. “I gonna rearrange them suits upstairs efficient! I been thinkin’ to break ’em down into type of suit an’ by price. They’s a shitload of summer suits. . . . You waste a good hour just gettin’ to the type suit somebody wants. I got me a bunch of cards an’ I’m gonna label . . .”
“You have a lot of plans. So how come you are still standing with your nose in what I’m doing?”
Ortiz dazed him with the peculiar beauty of his smile again. There was something dangerous and wild on his smooth face, a look of guile and unpredictable curiosity; and yet, oddly, there was an unnerving quality of volatile innocence there, too. He seemed to have some . . . what—a cleanness of spirit? Oh sure, the boy had sold marijuana, according to old John Rider, the janitor, and had probably stolen and pandered and God knew what else. And yet . . . somehow Sol had the vague feeling that there were certain horrors this boy would not commit. In Sol Nazerman’s eyes, this was a great deal; there were very few people to whom he attributed even that limitation of evil.
“Go already with your big plans, with your labeling!”
“You right, Sol, no question, you got my number. Take me time to get me a start on. But here I go, watch me move, I’m atom power, shh-ht.” And with that he was around the corner and on the steps leading up to the loft, moving with the amazing litheness that so startled Sol. For a moment, as he heard the footsteps ascending and then on the floor over his head, he stared at the last point at which he had seen the boy, his eyes faintly bemused, his face seemingly caught on a shelf of ease. Briefly, he tried to recall the distant sensation of youth. With his head tilted a little, his expression became vapid, loose, and vulnerable looking. All the clocks ticked or buzzed an anonymous time. But then he suddenly wiped at his face as though at some unseen perspiration. A jagged darkness closed around his casting back, and he began frowning over the bills again.
There were only a few business bills; most of them were the personal expenses incurred by his sister’s family. Here was a staggering telephone bill, an electric bill twice the size of the store’s, and a bill for a new rug bought by Bertha. There were, in addition, several clothing bills incurred by his niece, Joan, a dermatologist’s bill and an internist’s bill for Selig, and a bill from the art school his nephew, Morton, attended. His lips hardened as he began making out the checks.
He heard a heavy jingling and looked up to see Leventhal, the policeman, standing and rocking on the balls of his feet.
“What d’ya say, Solly? How’s business?”
“You could be my first customer of the day. You want to hock the badge, or maybe the gun?”
“Can’t do that, Solly; need them to protect you.”
“Oh yes, to protect me,” Sol said sarcastically. Leventhal had been making it increasingly evident that he imagined Sol had something to hide, that he, Leventhal, might be in a position to expect some kind of favors from Sol.
“Speaking of protection, what the hell time were you here till last night?” Leventhal asked, with an expression of affectionate admonishment on his tough, blue-jawed face.
“Why do you ask?”
“Why! I’ll tell you why. Because you’re asking for trouble staying open so late in this neighborhood, all by yourself. All the other Uncles close up at six o’clock. What are you trying to do, get rich fast or what? Maybe you think you’re like a doctor, hah? Gotta be on call in case some nigger suddenly runs out of booze money or needs dough for a quick fix. I mean you got to wise up, Solly. You get some kind of trouble here and pretty soon the department starts poking their nose in your business and . . .” He shrugged suggestively.
“I appreciate your concern. I know what I am doing. Just do not trouble yourself worrying about me,” Sol said coldly, lowering his attention pointedly to the checks again.
“Aw now, don’t take that attitude. That’s my business to worry about you. Where would you be without law and order?”
“Oh yes, law and order.”
“I mean you ought to be more co-operative, Solly. Take my advice in the spirit it’s given. Look, we’re landsmen, got to stick together against all these crooked goys,” Leventhal said with a loose smile.
“Is that a fact?” He stared at the policeman with an icy, inscrutable expression. “Well thank you then. Now if you will excuse me, I have work to do.” A landsman indeed! And where was the heritage of a Jew in a black uniform, carrying a club and a revolver? Sol had no friends, but his enemies were clearly marked for him.
“Okay,Solly,we’ll leave it at that …for now.” Leventhal shrugged, looked slowly around with the pompous, constabulary warning, and walked slowly, insolently out, trailing a toneless whistle behind him.
And then, at ten o’clock, the traffic began.
A white man in his early twenties walked stiffly up to the grille. He had wild soft hair that rose up and was in constant motion from the tiniest drafts and crosscurrents of air, so that, with his drowned-looking face, he seemed to float under water. His clothing was threadbare but showed the conservative taste of some sensible, middle-class shopper. He held a paper bag before him under crossed arms, and he stared with cautious intensity at the Pawnbroker before even entrusting his burden to the edge of the counter.
“How much will you give me?” he asked in a low, breathless voice.
“For what?” Sol twisted his mouth impatiently.
“For this,” the man answered, his black eyes gleaming above the big blade of nose. There was something histrionic and a little mad in his manner, and he clutched at the bag as though against Sol’s attempt to steal it.
“This, this …what in hell is this? All I am able to see is a paper bag. What are you selling? I am no mind reader.” Sol’s voice was harsh but his face was professionally bland behind the round, black-framed glasses.
“It is an award for oratory,” said the wild-haired young man. “I won it in a city-wide oratorical contest nine years ago.”
Sol took the bag, which was greasy-soft and made up of a million shallow wrinkles. He wondered where they got those bags or what they did to ordinary bags to make them feel like thin, aged skin. He opened it with an attitude of distaste. Inside was a bust of shiny yellow metal on a black-lacquered wooden base. A plaque in the same yellow metal was inscribed:
DANIEL WEBSTER AWARD
New York Public School Oratorical Contest for 1949
LEOPOLD S. SCHNEIDER
“It’s gold,” Leopold Schneider said.
“Plate,” the Pawnbroker corrected, tapping Daniel Webster’s shiny skull. “Look, I’ll loan you a dollar on it. The devil what I could do with it if you didn’t come back for it”
“A dollar!” Leopold Schneider pressed his starved face against the bars like a maddened bird. “This is an important award. Why, do you know there were two thousand quarter-finalists out of twenty thousand, only fifty semifinalists. And I won! I recited ‘The Raven,’ and I won, from twenty thousand. I was the best of twenty thousand.”
“Good, good, you are one in twenty thousand, Leopold, maybe one in a million. That’s why I will loan you a dollar . . . because I’m so impressed.”
“But one in twenty thousand. You don’t think I would part with that glory for a miserable dollar, do you!”
“There is a very small market for oratory awards with your name engraved on them. One dollar,” Sol said, lowering his eyes to the checks again.
“Look, I’m hungry. I’m busy writing a great, great play. I just need a few dollars to carry me. I’ll redeem it, I swear it. It’s worth more than money . . .”
“Not to me, Leopold.”
“I’ll give you triple interest. . . .”
“One dollar,” the Pawnbroker said without looking up. He had added one column of numbers three times now.
“What’s the matter with you?” Leopold Schneider shrilled suddenly in the quiet store. Upstairs, Ortiz’ footsteps stopped for a moment at the sound, as though he might be considering coming down to see what was happening. “Haven’t you got a heart?”
“No,” Sol answered. “No heart.”
“What a world this is!”
Sol ran his finger deliberately down the column of numbers again.
“Five dollars at least?” Leopold whined, breathing the sour breath of the chronically hungry on the Pawnbroker.
Sol finally totaled the first column, carried a seven to the second.
“All right, three dollars, at least three miserable dollars. What is it to you?”
Sol raised his gray, impervious face. All the clocks ticked around his unrelenting stare. “I am busy. Go away now if you please. I have no use for the damned thing anyhow.”
“All right, all right, give me the dollar,” Leopold said in a trembling half-whisper.
Sol reached into the money drawer and took out a bill as greasy and battered as Leopold’s paper bag. He tore off a pawn ticket, wrote up the description of the award, and gave the claim ticket to Leopold Schneider. Then he continued his adding of the numbers. Leopold stood there for a full minute before he turned and went out of the store with the awkward tread of a huge, ungainly bird.
Only several minutes later did the Pawnbroker look up to stare at the empty doorway. He rubbed his eyes in a little gesture of weariness. Daniel Webster caught a tiny dart of sunlight, and it disturbed Sol’s corner vision. He picked the award up and shoved it into a low, dark shelf where the light never reached.
Mrs.Harmon might have seemed a relief after Leopold Schneider. She was big and brown, and her face had long ago committed her to frequent smiling; even in repose it was a series of benevolently curving lines. Mrs. Harmon was convinced you could either laugh or cry, that there were no other alternatives; she had elected to go with the former.
“Come on, Mistuh Nazerman, smile! You got some more business comin’ at you. Here I is with a load of pure profit for you.” She held up two silver candlesticks, the latest of her diminishing, yet never quite depleted, store of heirlooms. Her husband, Willy Harmon, was a janitor in a department store and came home with occasional delights for her in the form of floor samples, remains of old window dressings, and various other fruits of his modest thievery. Still, their needs were greater than his timid supplying. They had constant medical bills for a crippled son and were trying to put their daughter through secretarial school, so Mrs. Harmon was a steady client. “Genuine Duchess pattern, solid silver-plate silver. I’ll settle for ten dollars the pair.” She had really been fond of the candlesticks; they made a table look like a table. But she was the type of woman who could have cut off her own snake-bitten finger with great equanimity, for she believed mightily in salvaging what you could.
“I can only give you two dollars,” Sol said, flipping over the pages of his ledger, looking for nothing in particular. “You’ve left an awful lot of things lately, haven’t redeemed anything.”
“Aw I know, but Mistuh Nazerman! Why, my goodness, these candlesticks is very high quality, costed twenny-five dollars new.” She chuckled indignantly, shook her head at his offer. “Why I could get fifteen dollars easy down to Triboro Pawn.”
“Take them to Triboro, Mrs. Harmon,” he said quietly.
Mrs. Harmon sighed, still shaking her great smiling face as though in reminiscence of an atrocious but funny joke. She clucked through her teeth, shifted heavily from one foot to the other. Her dignity, that much-abused yet resilient thing, suffered behind her rueful smile as the Pawnbroker kept his face of gray Asian stone averted indifferently from her. Like a child forced to choose between two unpleasant alternatives, she stared thoughtfully through the window, furrowed her brow, tried on a few uneasy smiles. Finally she muttered, “Ah well,” and leaned her plump brown face close to the barred wicket behind which Sol worked on all the papers.
“Les jus’ say five dollars the pair and forget it, Mistuh Nazerman,” she said, breathing hopefully on him.
“Two dollars,” he repeated tonelessly, frowning over a name in the ledger which suddenly intrigued him.
She laughed her indignation, a bellowing wahh-hh that struck the glass cases like the flat of a hand. “You a merciless man for sure. Now you don’t think I is reduce to being insulted by that measly offer. Two dollars! Why, my goodness, Mistuh Nazerman, you cain’t even buy a sinful woman for that nowadays.” She grabbed up her candlesticks and looked craftily to see what response that drew from the cold, gray face. But there was nothing; the man truly was made of stone. She sighed a sad but good-natured defeat. “All right, I jus’ too pooped to haggle.” She plunked the candlesticks down and exhaled noisily. “Make it foah dollars.”
Sol took a deep breath and looked up with an expression of mild surprise, as though he hadn’t expected her to still be there.
“The devil, Mrs. Harmon, I’ll give you three dollars just to get this over with.”
“Three fifty?” she tried timidly.
He just looked at her without expression.
“Sold,” she said tiredly. Then she giggled her fat woman’s laugh and cocked her head to one side.“You a hard man,Mistuh Nazerman, no two ways about it. Well, God pity you . . . he d’ony judge after all.” She took the silently proffered money and tucked it delicately into her huge, cracking plastic pocketbook, shaking her head and with a pensive grin on her wide lips. “Ohh my, hard times, always hard times. Well . . .” She brightened her smile for farewell. “I see you again, Mistuh Nazerman, that for sure. Take care now, hear?”
“Goodby, Mrs. Harmon,” he said, tying a ticket to the candlesticks and sliding them under the counter next to Daniel Webster. After she was gone, he stole a furtive look at the clock nearest him. “Ten forty-five,” he murmured in irritated surprise; it disturbed him to be so tired that early in the day.
Several customers came and went, but they remained anonymous to him because they were disposed of quickly and easily.
He began studying some of the more recent additions to his stock. There was an old Kodak Autographic, a zither of ancient make, an almost new electric traveling iron. The things people lived by! But it was no use trying to recall the owners by the shapes of the things they had pawned. The objects were dead and characterless, had been unique and part of life only while they were in use. Oh, he was so tired, and it wasn’t even eleven o’clock. Forty-five wasn’t old . . . but he was old.
The young Negro wore gaudy clothes whose vividness was obscured by the grime and grease that made it look as though he had been wearing them without letup for years. He had the terrified, twitching face of a jackal, with pupils like tiny periods in his ocherous eyes. Under his arm was a small white table radio.
“Whatta you gimme, Unc, how much? Hey, dis worth plenty rubles. Dis a hot li’l ol’ radio, plenty juice. Got short wave, police call, boats from d’sea. Even get outer space on a clear night. Yeah, space, real-far space like from satlites an’ all. C’mon, Unc, make a offer. Hey, dis a hundred-dollar radio. How much you gimme? C’mon, dis powaful, clear tone, clear like a . . . a mother-f—n ol’ bell.” The saliva flew from his mouth as from a leaky old steam engine, and he kept snuffling through his nose and making queer jig steps for emphasis.
Sol took the radio and plugged it into the socket under the counter. He watched the light glow brighter as it warmed up, his face impassive while the young Negro in his filthy Ivy League cap twitched and muttered encouragement, as though the radio could redeem him.
“C’mon, baby, show d’man you power . . . blast him . . . Give him dat tone! Man,dat radio …O, dat mother …”
There came a few whistles, a loud electrical gibberish, and then the nerve-racking sound as of stiff cellophane being steadily crumpled by many hands. The youth stopped twitching and aimed his pin-point gaze at the radio. His mouth dropped open at the sound of his betrayal.
“Give you four dollars,” Sol said. Ah, our youth, the progenitor of our future. Maybe the earth will be lucky, maybe they will all be sterile.
“Hey, dat dere radio always play better dan dat,” he accused. “It mus’ be ‘count of d’weather. Make it eight bucks. I mean, man, dat my mother’s radio!”
“Four dollars, take it or leave it.”
“Oh say, you tryin’ to bleed me, you suckin’ a man’s guts. I takin’ a awful chance hockin’ my mother’s radio. She sell me when she fin’ out.”
She ought to sell you. Sol massaged the bridge of his nose as he fumbled in his mind for the profit to all this. “Six bucks?”
“C’mon, at least five skins, you bloodsuckin’ Sheeny!”
Sol felt a dangerous blue flicker behind his eyes. He began to move menacingly toward the little gate that led from behind the counter. “All right, animal, get out of here! Come on, out! Go peddle your junk in the street!”
“Okay, okay, mister, don’ go gettin’ all hot like. Gimme the four rubles, I take the four,” he said, his hands trembling and flying around with his need. “Hurry, hurry up, man, please.” His face showed the agony of some inner burning, an unbearable expression that filled the Pawnbroker with rage.
“Go on now,” Sol said, pushing the money at him. “And don’t go bothering me with your foul mouth any more. This is a place of business. I don’t have to have human rubbish in here.”
“Yes, man, O yes,” the youth said, not even hearing the Pawnbroker’s words. He took the money and gave it a quick kiss before stuffing it into his pocket. Then he cool-stepped out of the store with a beatific, lost smile on his writhing face. He left the pawn ticket on the floor behind him.
Sol felt the throbbing start of a bad headache. “It is getting hot,” he said aloud, as though to excuse the pain. He began rolling up the sleeves of his shirt for the first time that summer, disturbed at this first concession to the heat.
Jesus Ortiz came downstairs with a pair of suits on hangers. All morning he had sorted and stacked and labeled. He had looked at the clothing stacked in dusty hundreds to the ceiling of the stifling loft and each suit had seemed a building block for some odd edifice he was erecting without conscious design. Now he had reached a point where he was obsessed with perfection, and two ordinary suits had seemed to mar the aesthetic daze he worked in.
“These here suits, Sol,” he began, and then stared in puzzlement at the crudely tattooed numbers on his employer’s thick, hairless arm. “Hey, what kind of tattoo you call that?” he asked.
“It’s a secret society I belong to,” Sol answered, with a scythelike curve to his mouth. “You could never belong. You have to be able to walk on the water.”
“Okay, okay, mind my own business, hah,” Ortiz said, his eyes still on the strange, codelike markings. How many secrets the big, pallid Jew had! “I mean, like these here suits is like brand new,” he went on in an absent voice, no longer concerned with his mission. “They worth thirty-five, forty bucks easy. Got Hickey-Freeman labels inside.”
“I leave it to you, Ortiz. Be creative, use your own initiative,” the Pawnbroker said sardonically.
Ortiz just looked steadily at him for a minute before turning away with an equally secluded expression. He had secrets, too; secrets gave you a look of vast dignity, a feeling of power.
Just before twelve, as was his habit, Ortiz went out. He ate his own lunch in the cafeteria diagonally across the street and then bought Sol’s never-varying cheese sandwich and coffee, and brought them back to the store. He handled the traffic alone for some fifteen minutes while Sol sat in the little windowed office eating and staring out sightlessly through the glass like some exhibited creature from another clime. And while Ortiz worked, treating the predominantly Negro customers with a show of better-humored hardness than his employer’s, he was constantly aware of the odd, blind gaze on his back. He felt tense with a mysterious excitement, for the sense of his apprenticeship assumed an unfathomable importance then, seemed to possess the key to Sol’s buried treasure.
At least half the clocks hovered near one when three men came in pushing a motorized lawn mower. Sol stared at it for a moment, reminded of how incredible and silly his atmosphere was. Then he nodded in mild disgust, as though bowing to some nasty omnipotence. “Oh yes, here’s an item, fine, fine.”
He had seen two of the men around the neighborhood; the gaudy little Tangee in a wide-shouldered, checked suit, and Buck White, with his majestic tribesman face of almost pure black, who appeared elemental in his dignity until you noticed the foolish, childish dreaminess of his eyes. But it was the third man who took Sol’s attention. He was an oddly plain-clothed Negro in a shapeless, ash-gray suit and with a battered, styleless hat square on his head. With his clean white shirt and drab brown tie, he might have been some poor but discreet civil servant of decent education who was determined to avoid the Negro cliché in dress. Until you looked at his face, which was bony and gaunt and dominated by blue eyes filled with restless, darting menace. And in the presence of that face, the ridiculous transaction suddenly became oppressive out of all proportion.
“What’s this here worth, Uncle?” Tangee asked with a smile that was all flash. “Brand new, never been use. S’pose to have a real strong engine. I mean what do they get for these?” As he talked, his eyes, like those of his companions, roved over the vast assortment of merchandise with an insolent and covetous look.
“Where’d you get it?” Sol asked, rubbing his cheek.
“What kind of question is that? Why, it was a gift, man, a gift! I woulda return it to the store my friend bought it, on’y I was embarrass to ask him where. Didn’t want to let on I had no use for it, hurt his feelin’s and all. Can’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” Tangee’s tiny mustache twitched over the ivory display of smile. “Yeah, this here friend give it to me for housewarmin’ present like.”
“Amazing how stupid some people can be, isn’t it?” Sol said. “I mean that he shouldn’t have noticed that there wasn’t a blade of grass within two miles of your house. Your friend, that is.”
“Oh well, yeah,” Tangee agreed, beginning to tire of the badinage, his eyes licking more hungrily at the great collection around him, darting occasionally toward his companions as though for some agreement. “You know how it is.”
“Yes, I know very well,” Sol said flatly. “Where did you get it?”
“Hey, man, I don’t see where you come off askin’ like that. I got it, that’s all. I mean that there my business, ain’t it?”
“Look, my friend, the police have lists of stolen merchandise. I am obligated to list all the items taken for pawn. For myself, I don’t give a care if you stole it from Macy’s window. All I am concerned with is that I would be out my money if they appropriated it.”
Three other customers came in while he struggled with Tangee and his silent companions. He pressed the little signal button that called Ortiz down from the second floor.
“I ain’t stole it, man; you don’t have to worry. Some guy give it to me, figure I make some use out of it.”
“A lawn mower?” The Pawnbroker’s sarcasm was a bland poison that acted only on himself. He had a faint sensation of suffocation as he watched the loose rubbery lips of Tangee and the nightmarishly blue eyes of the Negro in the ash-gray suit.
“Sure, a lawn mower! I hock the friggen thing and get money. That useful enough, ain’t it?” Tangee said with a roving, marble-eyed study of the Pawnbroker’s face, an expression of cold appraisal, as though he were figuring how to go about taking Sol’s face apart.
Buck White stared at Sol’s tattooed arm, and the blue-eyed Negro kept his gaze on the rear of the store, his face like a burned bone. There was, in their idle patience, the murderous quality of hunting dogs so sure of their prey that they rest, panting, in a confident circle around it. Sol held himself motionless, trying to be as patient and cool as they. Across the store, Ortiz was crowded with customers, moving busily, waiting on two or three at once, disposing of them quickly and efficiently. And he stood there before the three strange men, imprisoned in their mood of menace, the silly lawn mower in the middle of the floor like some grotesque totem they were urging on him.
“Even if it isn’t stolen . . . a lawn mower! No one comes in here for a lawn mower. Even at auction . . .”
“Take it, Pawnbroker, take the goddam thing,” the blue-eyed Negro said suddenly, his voice amazingly low, subterranean even, like an echo from a distant depth.
Sol looked at him bleakly for a moment, went on to the inhuman ox-glance of Buck White, the insolent appraisal of Tangee. Suddenly he just wanted them out of there; they were like bands around his chest. He nodded.
“I’ll give you seven dollars,” he mumbled. “Take it or leave it.”
“Why sure, man, sold! See, I ain’t no trouble . . . pleasure to do business with, ain’t I?” Tangee turned to his two companions like a performer. Buck White grinned, a shy expression forming as he shifted his huge, powerful body. The blue-eyed man just bent his mouth and took his eyes reluctantly from whatever they had been fixed on at the rear of the store.
Tangee took the money and then, his eyes mockingly on the Pawnbroker, crumpled up the pawn ticket and tossed it lightly against the Pawnbroker’s hands.
“We be in again, Uncle. I like to do business with you,” he said, and then walked out with his retinue like one of those strange little chieftains who are so impressive because they do not see anything ridiculous in their air of power.
All afternoon Sol’s head pounded. It seemed very important for him to keep busy. Tangee’s quiet, haggard wife came in like her vivid husband’s drab shadow. She pawned some of her husband’s castoff finery without attempting to bargain, took the money with the trace of a polite smile, and walked out stiffly, as though she feared she might be called back for some reason. Cecil Mapp’s wife came in, covering her shame with righteous scorn for all men, Sol included. She offered a silver-plated tray. “You can be happy to know, Mr. Pawnbroker, that you is at least helpin’,” she said sourly, waving the money he had just given her. “You’re feedin’ the children that Cecil Mapp’s whisky is robbin’ of food!” With that, she stalked out like a huge avenging angel, and Sol could see her take a small child’s hand and move off like a liner with a tug; she wouldn’t corrupt her child with the air of the pawnshop. One of the prostitutes from the masseur-fronted brothel down the street brought in a fancy sterling-backed brush and hand mirror. She was a handsome, light-skinned girl named Mabel Wheatly, and she had a surprisingly clean and unsullied look. But she wore boredom like armor and didn’t look at Sol once during their brief transaction. A plumber with dented, cheerful features and battered ears came in to redeem the shiny nickle-plated Stillson wrench on which Sol had been loaning him money for almost three years; two dollars to him when he brought it in, something more than that to Sol when he redeemed it—a cycle as pointless as the following of the surface of a metal ring. A laborer, a schoolgirl, a sailor, a swarthy gypsy woman with shiny pots. An old man, a young man, a man with a hook for a hand. A dim-witted ex-fighter, a student, a deadpan mother. In and out, and back again in another guise. And all the while the Pawnbroker maintained that long-mastered yet precarious equilibrium of the senses. It was as though his nerves and his brain held on to the present and the immediate like some finely balanced instrument. If it ever broke down . . . he murdered that thought at birth for the thousandth time.The shop creaked with the weight of other people’s sorrows; he abided.
He faced the depraved and the deprived, the small villains, the smaller victims. And his battlements were his hard assaying eyes, his cool voice that offered the very least. Through the hours, others besides Jesus Ortiz found time to wonder at the peculiar ragged numbers etched like false veins under the skin of his arm, or to speculate on the graven cast of his fleshy, spectacled face. But the Pawnbroker kept his secret, for while some of them might surmise some of the facts of his history, none of them could know its real truth. And as he plied his trade, each of them took away only a feeling of something quite huge and terrible.
At six forty-five in the evening the phone rang, and Sol answered, knowing who it was.
“Murillio?” he said with only the slightest intonation of question.
“You got to spend five thousand bucks, Nazerman.” The voice in the receiver had the depthless timbre of a recording. “A contractor comes over tomorrow. He gives you an estimate of five thousand for general repairs. Give him a certified check on the store account.”
“I see. What is his name?”
“Yes, very well.”
“How is business, Nazerman? Are we making money?” A dry chuckle had the same recorded quality as the spoken word.
“As always, we spend more than we make.”
“Very good, Uncle. Pretty soon Uncle Sam will have to pay us money. Subsidize us, hah? Can’t expect taxes from a losing business, can they? Hey, that’s a good idea, subsidize. Sponsor us. Like they use to do in Italy durin’ the Renaissance. The Medici, you know. They was patrons to the artists, Michelangelo, da Vinci. Hey, how about that. Why not us, too! The hell, Uncle, we’re artists, too, ain’t we? Gyp artists!” The dehumanized, mirthless chuckle sounded again. “Okay, okay, partner, I’ll talk to you in a day or so. You take care of that little matter then. And keep your nose clean, hah?”
He looked up from the phone to see Ortiz studying the engraved plaque under Daniel Webster’s bust. The store was dim even with the lights on, so it seemed the quality of light was at fault, not the intensity. Outside, the evening sun made the street shimmer in a golden bath through which the passers-by moved like dark swimmers in no hurry to get anywhere. He breathed, with his assistant, the dust of the much-handled merchandise, the imaginable odors of sweat and pride and weeping; and it was an indefinable yet powerful atmosphere, which gave them an intimacy neither desired.
“All this junk,” Ortiz said musingly. “Still an’ all, it’s business. A solid thing, oh a real solid thing—business. You got records an’ books an’ papers, everythin’ down in black an’ white. Take like you people, how it carry you along no matter what.”
“What people?” Sol asked, numbly admiring the almost poreless skin over his assistant’s delicate features.
“Jews, all the Jews.”
“Yes, yes, certainly, you have it all figured out,” Sol said dryly, as he drew his eyes from the young man’s face to fish for more substantial catches among the brass tubas, the cameras and radios and silver trays.
“Niggers suffer like animals. They ain’t caught on. Oh yeah, Jews suffer. But they do it big, they shake up the worl’ with they sufferin’.”
“You tell them, Ortiz, go spread the word. You have it all figured out, a regular professor is what you are.”
“I know, don’t worry, I know,” Ortiz said smugly. “I know the way things is.”
“You know nothing, absolutely nothing.”
“That’s all right, jus’ don’t worry about what I know.”
“Nothing, nothing, nothing.”
“You go around with that poker face, think you the only one what know. Don’t fool yourself. I got eyes and ears, I figure, I know.”
“Nothing,” the Pawnbroker hollowed out of himself in a sigh.
“An’ what I don’t know, I find out.”
Sol turned cold, denying eyes on his assistant. “You’re a pisher, that’s all you are,” he said. “It’s after seven; why don’t you go home now?”
“All right, sure, boss,” he said sourly. He put Daniel Webster down regretfully, a calm anger on his dark, ivory face. “Good night, boss, a very good night to you.”
“Gay in draird!”
Ortiz bowed himself out with a mocking smile, his shiny black hair bobbing over his forehead with each bow.
“Good night, good night, good night . . .”
Sol hissed at the empty store. What is it, what is it? He was shaken with a minute trembling, like an aspen in an almost invisible breeze. A fever, could I have perhaps a fever? Oy, the season; every year it gets like this. Some people have hay fever, I have my anniversary! What, it’s about two weeks away, the twenty-eighth. I’ll get through it like always. Maybe I’ll go to Tessie tonight? No, too tired. I’ll go home and read in my bed. Oh yes, I have a wonderful two weeks ahead of me. Oh what nonsense, what nonsense this all is!
After a while he began readying the store for the night. He closed the safe and twirled the dial a few times. He turned on the one light in the little glassed-in office and flicked off the fluorescents one by one. Then he put up the heavy screens over the windows and switched on the two burglar alarms. Finally, with a brief look around at all the conglomerated stock, lying submerged in the dimness he had brought about, like some ancient remains half buried in the muck of an ocean bottom, he closed the door and locked it.
His mouth widened in a grimace that a passing man took for a smile and returned. He closed his eyes for a moment and leaned against the coarse metal screen that covered the window. The warm evening air played over his blinded face and the mingled homely smells of a poor neighborhood assaulted his nose. He stood there as though dead while the world continued its Babel-like conversation in car motors and boat whistles from the river, in distant shouts, in laughter, in the frayed yet gaudy music from some jukebox. Finally he touched the bridge of his glasses in a habit of adjustment and began walking toward the river, to his car, and ultimately to his cool, immaculate bed.
“Although actor Rod Steiger played opposite such Hollywood greats as Marlon Brando, Jack Palance and Humphrey Bogart, he considered his best work was in Sidney Lumet’s 1964 film ‘The Pawnbroker,’ where he played Holocaust survivor Sol Nazerman, the pawnbroker of the title.”
“It’s been less than a year since Fig Tree Books was launched as a publisher of books on ‘the American Jewish Experience,’ but it is already performing invaluable work. In addition to bringing out new fiction on Jewish themes, the publisher has committed to republishing lost classics, and these books have turned out to be especially eye-opening.”
The Pawnbroker is an honest, serious work of art about the human experience, with fascinating complexity and haunting sorrow. Wallant proffers an amazing exhibition of human power, weakness, tenderness, and grace in the characters he writes about.
“Arguably one of the greatest fiction treatments of Holocaust survivors ever written, The Pawnbroker was the second of Edward Lewis Wallant’s two novels published in his lifetime.”
How many lousy Holocaust novels have you read?
If you read much, or really any, contemporary American fiction, the genre of lousy Holocaust novels is surprisingly difficult to avoid. The telltale signs of a lousy Holocaust novel are many, and in most respects they resemble those of all other lousy novels: one-dimensional characters, cardboard backdrops, implausible plot twists, unambiguous conflicts—and most of all, the absence of any challenge to the reader, whose expectations are gleefully enforced at every turn. Adorable child? Check.
Hardhearted villain? Check. Feisty heroine? Check. Dramatic setting? Check. Conflict where we know who to root for? Check. Uplifting ending? In most American Holocaust novels, check!
I have nothing against lousy novels. (Without them, how would producers get ideas for lousy movies?) But lousy Holocaust novels are something else: the exploitation of an utterly unredemptive historical catastrophe for the sake of yet another love story or coming-of-age tale or journey of self-discovery, with all the hard work of developing conflict and creating a moral universe done by the historical backdrop alone. I fault The Pawnbroker for unleashing over fifty years of lousy Holocaust novels on the American reading public. It accomplished this, of course, the only way it could: by being an absolute masterpiece.
Why do we read Holocaust novels? To remember, the pious secularists will intone. But what does that mean? If it means remembering the lives of the victims, their individual and collective passions and commitments, then such novels in English have done a particularly poor job. 80% of Jews murdered in the Holocaust were Yiddish speakers, for instance, yet most American readers who could name four concentration camps couldn’t name four Yiddish writers, or even identify Yiddish as a language rather than a dialect. Moreover, most of these novels—the present volume included—don’t even attempt to present any meaningful semblance of prewar European Jewish life, focusing instead on the details of its destruction. This raises a question: Why should we care how these people died, if we don’t care how these people lived?
If our sanctified remembering has nothing to do with remembering people’s lives, then the next logical assumption would be that we are meant to remember their revolting deaths—and that exposing ourselves to the degradation these people suffered will somehow sensitize us to such suffering in the future. But while required readings of Holocaust literature have hopefully primed a few generations of high school students to appreciate the depths to which humanity is capable of sinking, the premise of “never again” has unfortunately succeeded more as a rhetorical flourish than a guide to public policy. And unlike, say, the Civil War, or even the larger context of the Second World War, the Holocaust is not a human tragedy with a conceivably redemptive ending, or one where lives lost could at least be counted, however cruelly, as contributing to some worthwhile cause. In light of this, there seems to be something almost sadomasochistically prurient about the constant literary revisiting of such suffering— something that needs to be explained.
The uncomfortable truth is that Holocaust literature makes the most sense when understood not as Western but as Jewish. While secular Western culture often regards the Holocaust as somehow magically “outside of history,” the Jewish perspective is exactly the opposite: the Holocaust, while exponentially larger in scale, is part of a continuum of horrific events going back to the Hebrew bible, and which in Jewish literary tradition are always recounted in detailed lyrical laments. The Yiddish word for the Holocaust is khurbn, a Hebrew word meaning “destruction,” used to refer to the destruction of the ancient temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. From the origins of Jewish literature in the Hebrew Bible, and continuing through rabbinic literature’s recounting of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its second temple in 70 CE, and the subsequent Roman massacres after a second failed Jewish revolt in 135 CE (to mention only the destructions most fundamental to Jewish liturgy), Jewish tradition has a preexisting and religiously meaningful literary template for understanding trauma. Its vast psychological resources include not only expressions of grief and mourning, but also a necessary dose of rage and cries for justice, an awareness of a larger national immortality, and a sense of spiritual purpose for one’s own endurance in the wake of destruction.
Everyone knows the lines of Psalm 137 about those who taken as slaves after surviving the burning of Jerusalem: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept as we remembered Zion…If I forget thee, Jerusalem, let my right hand wither…” But in Western culture, few continue to cite the psalm’s more graphic verses: “Daughter of Babylon, you predator: happy is he who repays what you have inflicted on us. Happy is he who seizes your babies and dashes them on the rocks!” Lines like this don’t play well in Hollywood, but they go a long way toward an honest understanding of trauma. Trauma never disappears, but its endurance is a reminder of what else can endure. The prophet Isaiah knew this, and said so, in God’s voice: “Can a woman forget her baby, or disown the child of her womb? Though she might forget, I never could forget you. See, I have engraved you on the palms of My hands.”
The book in your hands, modern and secular and American in every sense, bears the marks of that ancient engraving.
Yes, you are about to read a masterpiece. Like lousy novels, masterpieces meet a set of criteria: multidimensional characters, ambiguous moral situations, and challenges to the reader’s expectations, to name a few. Of course, you could also read The Pawnbroker just for the plot. It does have one, and it will leave you in suspense. Yet its plot is not just a device to keep the reader turning pages. As the great American novelist Cynthia Ozick argues in her essay “Innovation and Redemption: What Literature Means,” plot in fiction is a deeply moral element of the work itself, the means by which the writer exposes and questions profound assumptions about how the world is or might be. “Suspense seems to make us ask, ‘What will happen to Tess next?’,” Ozick claims, “but really it emerges from the writer’s conviction of social or cosmic principle. Suspense occurs when the reader is about to learn something, not merely about the relationships between fictional characters, but about the writer’s relationship to a set of ideas, or to the universe.”
So, the plot. Sol Nazerman is a man in his forties moving comatose through life, doing the bare minimum to make it through each day. He works in Harlem as a pawnbroker—a profession that in the age of credit cards almost requires footnotes. In Sol’s pawnshop, poor people parade through the door all day carrying their most valuable possessions, hoping to use these items as collateral on high-interest cash loans. The store is a treasure house of dashed hopes, as each customer brings in something that once meant a great deal to them—a wedding ring, a musical instrument, even a trophy with the recipient’s name on it—only to see it transformed into junk. The same can be said of Sol, who, we slowly learn, has had his most treasured possessions—his home in Cracow, his career as a university professor, and ultimately his son, his daughter, and his wife—taken from him as well, in increasingly sadistic humiliations that readers will find familiar from the thousands of Holocaust books that followed this one. The reader experiences these gruesome scenes—and they are truly gruesome, at a level of nauseating realism which today’s Holocaust novels typically avoid—just as Sol does, as invasive flashbacks into an existence that Sol strives to keep as emotionally detached as possible.
Sol’s assistant in the pawnshop, an ambitious young man named Jesus Ortiz, mistakes Sol’s catatonic approach to life for calculating business acumen, especially when he notices that the store seems to be a financial success. Hoping for a foothold in the middle class, and sensing something otherworldly about his employer, he tries mightily to break through Sol’s shell. This is the part where a post-Pawnbroker Holocaust novel would have the young man succeed in uncovering Sol’s hidden humanity, in a redemptive arc ending in mentorship and hard-earned wisdom.
That’s not what happens. Instead, the pawnshop is revealed to be a money- laundering operation for a gangland empire, and it’s a matter of time before co- conspirator Sol winds up with a gun in his mouth. Things get worse from there.
Wallant was often compared in his brief lifetime with his contemporary Saul Bellow, and when it comes to his style, the comparison is apt. His Sol Nazerman feels like a Moses Herzog or a Tommy Wilhelm; the story’s naturalistic descriptions are interlaced with Sol’s own distinct cynical voice, all undergirding a larger philosophic vision: “Sol had an idea it would be quiet that day. Clairvoyance? Well, not to dignify it with scientific jargon, but there were things you anticipated with illogical confidence. Never important things, useful things, just little moods and colors. You walked down a certain road and as you approached a farmhouse you knew there would be a smooth- skinned beech tree heavy with leaves. Things like that, never things that saved you any pain.” It must be said that the only reason Wallant is not as renowned as Bellow is that Wallant died of an aneurysm at the age of 36.
But Wallant surpasses even Bellow in creating a pantheon of empathy. Most 20th century American writers focused exclusively on their protagonist’s point of view (and usually a protagonist similar to themselves). Yet Wallant takes on the voices and perspectives of every person who walks into Sol’s shop—not merely filtering them through Sol, but letting them speak for themselves. 21st century readers might wince at the African-American and Latino dialects that Wallant puts in his characters’ mouths, but we also immediately sense that he knows what he’s doing. The host of minor characters are among the novel’s many triumphs. Like Sol’s, their dignity is often crushed by circumstances far beyond their control, but we see their choices in responding to those circumstances and respect them enough to judge them. Each is like a portrait by Vermeer, dark and luminous and more believable than life.
Here, for instance, is George Smith, the would-be scholar who schedules his pawnshop visits solely for the fleeting opportunity to talk philosophy with Sol, the neighborhood’s rare educated man—an intrusion Sol deeply resents. But George is no innocent victim of poverty. “George Smith had the face of an old Venetian doge,” Wallant writes, “the features drawn with a silvery-fine pencil, the excesses reproduced in the shallowest, most subtle of creases.” For another writer this would be flowery description, but for Wallant, every phrase counts—though only later do we learn why. “At one time,” Wallant explains in what seems like a throwaway line, “he had attended a Negro college in the South, but too many twistings and turnings had been engraved in him and he had been expelled from there after a discreetly hushed outrage.” Wallant builds our sympathy for George in his repeated encounters with Sol, who no longer has patience for the world of ideas or for anyone at all, and we feel George’s suffering as Sol dismisses him. It is only then that Wallant carefully and privately reveals George’s complication: he is a pedophile who fights his own predatory urges by self-medicating through books and fantasy. Our feelings about this character, brilliantly manipulated, challenge every expectation we have as readers about where our sympathies belong. Those challenges further magnify our experience of Sol, the Holocaust victim and survivor, forcing us to examine once more the interplay of free will and circumstance and to consider what makes us who we are. Did I mention that George Smith only appears on five pages of this book?
The real foil for Sol’s emotional detachment is his assistant Jesus Ortiz, a young man whose very body responds to the world exactly as Sol’s doesn’t. While Sol stands forever still, doing his best to move and be moved as little as possible, Jesus is constantly “moving with that leopard-like fluidity that made it hard to say where bone gave way to fine muscle.” He is young but far from innocent, immersed circumstantially and through his own choices in an urban underworld defined by crime. “But there had always been a deep-rooted nervousness in him,” Wallant writes, “a feeling of fragility and terror. He had never wanted to account for this feeling, because that would have been like succumbing to it.” This inexpressible inner dread, which he senses in Sol, draws him to his employer. His dream of learning a respectable business from Sol is deeply connected to Sol’s Jewishness: “Once there, in the presence of the big, inscrutable Jew, he had become even more obsessed with the magic potential of ‘business,’ for there had seemed to be some great mystery about the Pawnbroker, some secret which, if he could learn it, would enrich Jesus Ortiz immeasurably.” Jesus’s obsession with the Pawnbroker begins almost as an anti-Semitic caricature, but soon transcends it and ultimately vaults into tragedy—a true classical tragedy, with the protagonists bringing misfortune upon themselves.
In Wallant’s hands, even the caricature is rich with meaning. Sol taunts Jesus’s obsession with him (their names are hardly accidental), “explaining” to Jesus how to become a pawnbroker:
“You begin with several thousand years during which you have nothing except a great, bearded legend, nothing else. You have no land to grow food on, no land on which to hunt, not enough time in one place to have a geography or an army or a land-myth. Only you have a little brain in your head, and this bearded legend to sustain you and convince you that there is something special about you, even in your poverty. But this little brain, that is the real key. With it you obtain a small piece of cloth…You take this cloth and cut it in two and sell the two pieces for a penny more than you paid for the one. With this money, you buy a slightly larger piece of cloth…You repeat this process over and over for approximately twenty centuries. And then, voila, you have a mercantile heritage, you are known as a merchant, a man with secret resources, usurer, pawnbroker, witch, and what have you….”
“Good lesson, Sol,” Jesus said. “It’s things like that that make it all worthwhile.” All right, you are a weird bunch of people, mix a man up whether you holy or the worst devils. I figure out yet what’s behind that shit-eatin’ grin.
The scene plays like parody, but it is much more than that—though the reader only gradually appreciates what it means. Later, in bed with his prostitute girlfriend, Jesus tells her: “Nazerman say to me one day, ‘You know how old this profession is?’…I say no, how old? And he say thousands of years. He say one time the Babylon…some crazy tribe, they use to take crops and even people for pawn. A man make loans on his family—wife, kid, anything. I mean you see what a solid business that is—thousands of years. Hard to think on thousands of years, people back then…” And thus Wallant catapults this novel out of the world of today’s uplifting Holocaust fiction and into the canon of Jewish literature and its twenty-five centuries of artistic responses to catastrophe.
Jesus, of course, is unknowingly invoking the biblical book of Lamentations and its descriptions of the exiles of Jerusalem: “They have bartered their treasures for food to keep themselves alive…Behold my agony, my maidens and my youths have gone into captivity!…The precious children of Zion, once valued as gold, alas, they are accounted as earthen pots, work of a potter’s hands…” The young man has no tools to understand it, but there is a truth to the timelessness he perceives in his employer. This is a novel about not only the Holocaust, but about responses to trauma, which in Jewish history is ultimately a theological subject, one that is posed as a question rather than an answer.
The Book of Lamentations gives us as much gore as this novel does, and in fact exactly the same kind of gore: young women are raped, bodies are piled in open air, babies are eaten by their own parents, children starve, young men are worked to death as slaves. Yet it is also a book full of promises—“But this do I call to mind, therefore I have hope: The kindness of God has not ended; His mercies are not spent”—and the recurrence of this lament in Jewish history is itself a promise of an immutability beyond what any mortal can perceive. That place in the continuum of history, evoked in the subtle humanity of these many flawed characters and their inability to transcend their own histories, transforms the novel’s stunning climax into an astonishing and unexpected moment of earned redemption.
If you must, go ahead and call The Pawnbroker an American novel, a Holocaust novel—or worst of all, a novel about “the human condition.” But know that these terms will turn a treasure into cheap collateral on a short-term loan. This book is a link in a burning chain. Take hold, and feel it burn into your hands as it pulls you toward eternity.
Would you like some questions to help kick off discussion in your club or group? Please feel free to avail yourself of the following. (We’d love to hear how they work out for you. Please tell us on Twitter or Facebook.)
1) In some ways, Sol Nazerman is a challenging protagonist: although his circumstances make the reader want to pity him, it becomes clear early on in the novel that he certainly does not want and may or may not deserve our pity. How might this have affected your reading of the novel? Did you sympathize with Sol? If not, what drove you to care about his story? How does Wallant challenge our notions about the nature of sympathy, the nature of pity, and the distinction between them?
2) When this novel was published in 1961, there were few American cultural markers of the Holocaust: no Holocaust miniseries, no Schindler’s List, no U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Imagine (and discuss) the impact of this novel on a readership that may not have had much awareness of the experiences of European Jews deported to concentration/extermination camps. (If your group includes members who recall the book’s original publication, imagining may not be necessary.)
3) What kinds of tensions within American Jewry at the time—circa 1960—does Wallant suggest in his portrait of Sol’s relationship with his sister and her family? Has anything changed today?
4) What do you make of the novel’s multicultural cast of characters and the relationships between characters who hail from different races/religions/ethnicities?
5) If this novel were being published for the first time now (2015), how might you read/react to it differently?
6) Have you seen the Sidney Lumet’s 1964 film—starring Rod Steiger as Sol Nazerman—that was based on this novel? If so, what do you think of the modifications that were made to The Pawnbroker from page to screen? What may have been lost (or gained) in the “translation”?
7) How is this novel different from other “Holocaust novels” you may have read?
8) What do you make of the fact that Sol’s last name is “Nazerman” (perhaps invoking Nazareth) and the extent to which the novel’s climax depends on a key event involving a character named Jesus? What do you think Wallant is trying to do here with Christian symbolism in this Jewish book?
9) “[Edward Lewis] Wallant was often compared in his brief lifetime with his contemporary Saul Bellow,” notes Dara Horn in her foreword to this edition of The Pawnbroker. How might you compare Wallant’s work in The Pawnbroker with that of Bellow? Of other major American Jewish writers?
10) If you could ask Edward Lewis Wallant one question directly, what might it be?