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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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).