The Magazine

More in Sorrow

For Bernard Malamud, fiction was the hard road to Truth.

Feb 18, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 22 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Bernard Malamud

A Writer's Life

by Philip Davis

Oxford, 388 pp., $34.95

Saul Bellow used regularly to refer to himself, Bernard Malamud, and the considerably younger Philip Roth as the Hart, Shaffner, and Marx of American literature. The comment, as often with Bellow, is a loaded one: Loaded with suspicion about the acceptance of Jewish writers in America, with contempt for those critics and readers who tended to lump the three distinctly different writers together, and with resentment for his being reduced to the status of a writer of chiefly ethnic interest.

Certainly, the three writers are easily enough distinguished. Saul Bellow was the virtuoso of the sentence, the comical physiognomical detail, the brilliant cityscape, the high philosophical schmooze, and less than strong on plot. One doesn't read Bellow for the story; at the end one is never quite sure what the story was. One reads him for Bellow himself, in the same way that one didn't go to a Yehudi Menuhin concert to hear Mozart but to hear Menuhin. Philip Roth has always been a writer most happy when épaté-ing Jews, Gentiles, and whoever else happens to be free at the moment; in his fiction, sex is always waiting in the wings, ever ready to present itself center stage, which sooner or later it generally does. He is the man, as he put it in Portnoy's Complaint, who has attempted to put "the Id back in Yid."

The fiction of Bernard Malamud is quite a different dish of kreplach. His fiction possesses greater gravity than that of either Bellow or Roth. His themes--guilt, redemption, the urge for the beginning of a newer, fuller life--are more in the line of the great 19th-century Russians. In My Father Is a Book, a memoir of her father, his daughter Janna Malamud Smith compares Bernard Malamud's fiction to that of another Russian, the painter Marc Chagall. "Like the painter born a generation earlier," she writes, "the writer also, at a greater remove, carried tales of the shtetl, had familiarity with Yiddish folk literature, found freedom in fables, and could capture in a short story a seemingly naïve moral complexity in which studiedly simple words evoked deep feeling."

"How much feeling have you got in your heart?" Malamud claimed was the question that a serious writer must always ask of himself. He seems to have had a vast quantity. Much of Malamud's feeling was acquired through his own difficult upbringing. Born in 1914 to Russian immigrant parents, he lived upstairs of their Mom and Pop grocery store in Brooklyn. Max and Bertha Malamud's life in America was the reverse of an immigrant success story: Everything his father touched turned to sawdust; his mother, diagnosed as schizophrenic, died at 41, in a mental hospital, when Malamud was 15. When he was 13 he returned one day from school to find her on the kitchen floor, her mouth foaming from poison she had just swallowed. His younger brother later turned up schizophrenic, and he, too, died, in a mental hospital.

Such was Bernard Malamud's early life: scarred by mental illness, poverty, sad immigrant ignorance, with a major economic depression looming in the background. Malamud's wife Ann said that her husband's "leitmotif" was that "Life is sad." The title of one of his darkest stories, "Take Pity," could stand as a rubric over much of his fiction. A relentless worker, Malamud revised and polished and burnished his stories and novels. He believed in revision as a form of truth seeking: find the precise words, cut away all that is extraneous, put enough pressure on each sentence, and with luck the truth, filtered through the powerful lens of storytelling, will emerge.

Along the way, Malamud developed an unmistakable style, a use of language sometimes referred to as Yinglish, a combination of English words and Yiddish syntax and sentiment. "Where would he drag that dead cat, his soul?" runs such a line from the story "The Girl of My Dreams." From the same story: "He stared unbelieving, his heart a dishrag." A character in "Take Pity" says: "Kiddo, this is a mistake. This place [a grocery store like Malamud's father's] is a grave. Here they will bury you if you don't get out quick."

A magical realist avant la lettre, Malamud combined fantasy with realism in writing that was both comic and heartbreaking. Black Jewish angels show up, and just as mysteriously disappear. Census-takers are treated to stories of human tragedy. A man very far down on his luck prays: "My dear God, sweetheart, did I deserve that this should happen to me. .  .  . Give Fanny back her health, and to me for myself that I shouldn't feel pain in every step." Characters have faces "whiplashed with understanding." A woman has a left eye that "also looks sadder than her right eye." A character in the story "A Choice of Profession" to himself says, "It's not easy being moral"--which may be the chief message of all Bernard Malamud's fiction.

Malamud's wife and children--along with his daughter, he had a son--quickly enough grasped that his work came first. Janna Malamud Smith didn't title her memoir My Father Is a Book for no reason. She reports that the moral instruction offered chez Malamud was: "Read, value art, seek education and experience, attend to others, shelter the vulnerable, and try to treat each person fairly. The underlying big message was, 'Work to overcome yourself.'" Disciplined work was Malamud's religion.

So much was Malamud at his desk that Roger Straus, his publisher at Farrar, Straus, thought a biography of him wasn't merely impossible but ridiculous. "Everything was up here, in the head," Straus said, "nothing down there. .  .  . As a life it was unexciting." Malamud's biographer Philip Davis, who quotes Straus saying this, gets around the publisher's objections by living up to his biography's subtitle and producing "A Writer's Life." This is above all a book about a man working at his writing: About the frustrations, the subtleties, the rewards of working at storytelling. "My own view," writes Professor Davis, a literature don at the University of Liverpool, "is that any biography that seeks to 'see in' and thus do justice to Malamud should learn from the fiction, from its methods as much as its contents, and then direct its readers back to it."

Malamud thought half-a-page not at all a bad day's work. He wrote in longhand, leaving space for his inevitable rewriting. He began each morning reworking what he had written the night before. He viewed every sentence as a sculpture. He had longhand pages of a completed story or chapter of a novel typed by his wife or a hired secretary.

"Then," according to his daughter, "he would rewrite. And rewrite. Usually two or three times, occasionally into the double digits of drafts. His sentences and paragraphs were hard won, the result of considered thought and constant revision. He understood that his success had come from 10 percent talent and 90 percent hard work."

Professor Davis writes out of deep admiration for Malamud's fiction, which doesn't blind him to his human flaws: clogged feeling, an artist's selfishness, vanity. He senses (correctly, I believe) that Malamud's reputation is in decline, his popularity waning, and he writes to change this unjust condition. He seeks, as he writes, "more recognition and more readers for Malamud in the future."

"Too often where Malamud is still remembered," Davis writes, "it is for a handful of great short stories; but, wonderful as many of those stories are, I want most of all to make the case for the novels." The problem with this case is that it is tied directly to the very reasons for the decline of Bernard Malamud's reputation. Malamud's last three published novels, The Tenants (1971), Dubin's Lives (1979), and God's Grace (1982), were books that didn't really come off. Reviewers felt this, and so did the best of all critics, ordinary readers. People who loved--not in this instance too strong a word, I think--Malamud's earlier novels and brilliant stories were beginning to give up on him, thinking he had lost the magic that was earlier his. I was myself among them.

I wonder if, perhaps, a more accurate description of the trajectory of Bernard Malamud's career than Philip Davis's wouldn't be one that attempted to explain how so good a writer as Malamud wrote three such off-the-mark novels late in his artistic maturity? If I am correct about this falling-off, Malamud's last good novel--I happen to believe it is a great novel--is The Fixer (1966).

For the young Bernard Malamud, as for the children of so many immigrants of that time, education was the only way out. Fortunately, he was good at school; even more fortunately, he had a few teachers who saw something extraordinary in him. He went to Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, one of the superior public schools of its day. He socialized easily enough with his middle-class schoolmates, but at night it was back to the dreary apartment above the hopeless grocery store. In a nice detail, Janna Malamud Smith notes that her father acquired his first bathrobe and slippers at the age of 26.

City College of New York, the famous CCNY, home of nascent Trotskyites, Shachtmanites, and Stalinists, was Malamud's next stop, though he seems not to have been greatly caught up in politics. After CCNY, he worked as a substitute high school teacher and also taught nightschool; he did a master's degree at Columbia. He moved to Washington, where he earned a meager living as a census taker. During this period, he published some prose sketches in the Washington Post and also sold a few radio scripts to the Bulldog Drummond detective series. After a lengthy courtship, he married Ann de Chiara, whose Italian parents weren't pleased with her choice; his own father, meanwhile, ceased to speak to him for marrying a Gentile, and only relented years later when presented with the news of a grandson.

Ann Malamud helped Bern, as she and his friends called him, send out some 200 letters seeking a college teaching job. The only one that struck a positive response was that sent to Oregon State College in Corvallis, where he was hired to teach freshman composition. This most Brooklynite of men, intellectually intense, passionate for art, must have seemed anomalous, to put it gently, at what was then a school that specialized in agriculture. One of his students, reminiscing, reported: "I think he felt Oregon was a foreign country." Malamud's father, in good New York fashion, seemed to confuse Oregon with Oklahoma. Malamud himself tried to colonize Corvallis through culture, helping to form a foreign film society, a Great Books discussion group, an arts theatre. He taught creative writing courses in the evenings to local residents.

The years he spent in Oregon, 1949-1961, despite all the cultural deficiencies of the college and the town, were to prove decisive for Malamud's literary career. He wrote his first published novel The Natural (1952) in Oregon; during this period some of his most memorable short stories were printed in Partisan Review, Commentary, and The New Yorker, later to be collected in The Magic Barrel (1958); he completed The Assistant (1957), his novel based on the honorable sadness of his father's life in his hardscrabble Brooklyn grocery store. He began to win the awards--a Yaddo fellowship, the National Book Award, a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship that permitted him and his family to live for a year in Rome--that brought him to national prominence.

Soon after leaving Oregon State for a much cushier teaching job at Bennington, he wrote A New Life (1961), a brilliant comic novel about a wild Jewish loser teaching English at a cow college in the northwest who gets a new start in life when he runs off with the wife of his department chairman. A New Life sounds like a novel with a strong anchor in autobiography. It is, and it isn't. Malamud was no S. Levin, as the book's hero is named: He wasn't, like Levin, a former alcoholic, nor did he run off with anyone's wife, as does Levin. But, here as elsewhere, what Davis's biography helps us understand is how Malamud made use of his life's experiences: It deepens one's appreciation of his stories and novels by demonstrating how he transmuted his experience into art.

Malamud's experiences were not wide--he often expressed the wish that they had been--but he wrung everything out of them for his own artistic purposes. Unlike other writers--Bellow comes notably to mind here--Malamud didn't put close facsimiles of actual people in his novels in order to repay old (sometimes imagined) injuries by destroying them in print. Of contemporary writers, Malamud may have relied on invention, on pure imagination, more than any other. His stories are filled with invented widows, relentless matchmakers, miracle-working rabbis. Two of his novels, The Natural and The Fixer, are entirely imagined, even though the latter is based on the imprisonment in czarist Russia of a Mendel Beilis, a Jew who was superintendent of a brick factory, falsely charged with the ritual murder of a Christian child.

Life changed decisively for Malamud when he moved to Bennington College in Vermont. Bennington was one of those radical schools of the 1940s and '50s--Bard, Antioch, Reed were some of the others--where, as a wag (me, actually) once put it, students spent the months of January and February off campus as members of the opposite sex. Bennington was different from these other schools in having all female students. Bennington girls were thought to be rich, neurotic, and libidinous as all outdoors. Bennington was hard on family life, and it would prove to be so for the Malamuds.

Malamud completed The Fixer during his first five years at Bennington. In the novel a relatively simple man named Yakov Bok, a Jewish handyman, spends three years in a czarist prison cell alone with his imagination, trying to work through the questions of human existence, not least among them why there is so much suffering and injustice in the world. The Fixer is a book that requires the utmost attention on the part of its readers, but richly repays it. Malamud believed that suffering can make one wiser, and so Yakov Bok, through lonely hard-won lucubration, becomes. "There's no such thing as an unpolitical man," the hitherto unpolitical Bok concludes, "especially a Jew. You can't be one without the other, that's clear enough. You can't sit still and see yourself destroyed."

The Fixer is a book of the sort for which the Nobel Prize was designed. The novel didn't win it, but it did win a Pulitzer and Malamud's second National Book Award. The reviews were ecstatic. The Fixer was made into a movie directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Alan Bates. Malamud was earning serious money. Studies of his fiction began to appear in academic journals. Bernard Malamud was now regarded as a major writer.

And yet, somehow, he never regained his stride. Earlier, he had said, "I have not given up on heroes. I simply use heroic qualities in small men." Nor did he like it when his characters were thought schlemiels, bumbling losers, without dignity, meant only to suffer. The reason so many of his characters are put to such suffering, he claimed, was that "in suffering the self is contemplated as it had never before been contemplated." A student of Malamud's during a summer session he taught at Harvard recalls his teacher's distaste for what he, the student, calls "the Delmore Schwartz syndrome, the Herzog syndrome, certainly the Portnoy syndrome." He told this student, apropos of writing stories, "Have the insight to recognize the neurotic patterns, and the integrity to break them."

Soon after the 1960s were underway, Bernard Malamud lost his way and gave up writing about the kind of small-scale heroes that gave his fiction its magic. The sixties generally was not a good decade for him. He had a love affair with a Bennington student nearly 30 years younger than he; and Malamud, being the earnest man he was, took the affair with great seriousness. He must also have felt under the false commandment for writers to change, expand, grow, cut loose, let 'er rip.

In his novel The Tenants, written during the last part of the sixties, Malamud took on the subject of race. A black and a white novelist are the last tenants in a building about to be torn down, and their rivalrousness, as writers and over a woman, is at the center of the book. But the black writer doesn't ring true, the woman in the novel feels tonally wrong; the novel just doesn't come off.

Neither did Dubin's Lives, Malamud's account of the affair of a married biographer with a woman 33 years younger than he. Played as comedy, this might have been a rich novel. But Malamud couldn't have played it any straighter. Now that, through the offices of Davis, we know about Malamud's love affair with his student (Malamud's daughter, too, writes about it in her book), Dubin's Lives reads like an apologia, though not a very persuasive one. "Middle-age," William Dubin thinks, "is when you pay for what you didn't have or couldn't do when you were young." Dubin's Lives reads as a self-pitying novel, heavily laden with clichés about youth: "With this girl I know the flowering pleasure beneath innocence, of the natural life," Dubin thinks. And: "One recovers of youth only what he can borrow from the young." How sad--not the plight of the book's hero but the descent of Bernard Malamud, that most conscious of artists, into unconscious pathos.

God's Grace (1982) was Malamud's last published novel. A fantasy, it is about life after nuclear war between the Djanks and the Druzhkies (the Yanks and the Russkies, one supposes) has killed every human being but a paleontologist named Calvin Cohen who was in a bubble at the bottom of the sea with a chimpanzee when the weapons were fired. Once on land, Cohen encounters other chimpanzees and apes and sets out to reestablish a new community of the peace-loving on earth.

"There is nothing so fatal as a good vast subject," says a character in -Sybille Bedford's novel A Legacy, and so this one proves for Malamud. A writer whose wonderful stories so often suggested fable now writes a fable without an interesting story to go with it. Four years after this novel Malamud died, at age 72, of a worn-out heart, but he seems to have died as a literary artist long before.

The received opinion about Bernard Malamud is that he was best as a writer of short stories, and this opinion is probably correct. He himself defined the short story as "dramatizing the multifarious adventures of the human heart." Not many writers--Chekhov, Isaac Babel, Isaac Bashevis Singer--did it better. In his stories, no matter how dark his subject, his comic genius came alive, and when it did, so did his characters, whereas in the longer form of the novel his innate glumness seemed to win out.

Philip Davis calls Malamud "great" because he understood the struggle of limited men who discovered themselves in limitless difficulties, and chronicled their struggle to play--one does not speaking of winning--through against impossible odds. Malamud was such a man, and his struggle with his art turns out to be no less poignant a story than one he himself might have written.

Joseph Epstein is the author, most recently, of Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy's Guide.