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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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.