Malamud’s New Life

By Jonathan Lethem

Published September 03, 2004, issue of September 03, 2004.
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In conversation with a friend, I once tried to account for my particular fascination with Philip Roth’s early novel “Letting Go.” In attempting to characterize the book and how it stood apart in Roth’s oeuvre, I blurted out: “‘Letting Go’ is Roth’s Richard Yates book.” What I meant, I guess, was that for one book Roth had tried to write a normatively autobiographical novel of postwar American life, outside any conjuration of the mythic or absurd; he tried to paint within the lines. In order to confront the suffocating fullness of American life in the 1950s, Roth had run his character up against the possibilities of marriage and children and a conventional career, and by doing so tried to isolate the theme of freedom-versus-responsibility that was so deeply implicit in the life of those times. Richard Yates wrote that book over and over again; Roth and Bernard Malamud, only once.

I don’t mean to suggest any possibility of direct influence. In fact, “Letting Go,” “Revolutionary Road” (Yates’s debut), and Bernard Malamud’s “A New Life” were all published within months of one another in 1961. Rather, I wonder if it might be some kind of principle — that many writers had felt they had to try writing such a novel, that the moment determined the necessity of such books. So, call “A New Life” Malamud’s Yates novel.

Certainly it is his most traditional, and least mythic. Though I don’t mean to point to biography (I honestly don’t know the facts of a life story about which Malamud was famously reticent, and don’t think it important to know them), the book is tonally autobiographical. The story is archetypal, but for a change Malamud doesn’t emphasize archetype. Samuel Levin, formerly a drunkard, as the first sentence beautifully informs us, takes a teaching job in a rainy Western state, not understanding why he’s been chosen from among hundreds of candidates, too grateful to care or look closely enough to discern he’s coming to teach at an agricultural college, not a liberal arts school. Levin’s a definitive Eastern outsider, flinching from past failure and eager to make the new life that migration westward has always promised.

The genre is the Western, but the nearest Malamud can bring himself to the genre is in its refusal. For Levin, a tenderfoot with a tender heart, is also a schlemiel, prone to absurd crises, so ill-suited to his adopted landscape that he’s not yet a driver of cars. Decorous in his own mind, in outward behavior he nearly always commits too much, blurts his thoughts, stays too long, makes Hail Mary passes into a end zone full of players from the opposing team. This pattern proliferates in comic miniatures in the picaresque first half of the book. Then farce mires, and Levin lurches into tragic inextricability in his affair with an English Department colleague’s wife. Tragic or comic, Levin’s a reverse Zeno. While he pictures himself a slow beginner advancing on his future by half steps, in truth each time he lifts his foot he takes a step and half, at least.

“A New Life,” seemingly the least Jewish of Malamud’s books, plays at being secular. The word “Jew” is only mentioned once, practically on the last page. When it comes it’s nearly as a sigh of acceptance: yes, of course there’s also this, I am one of the Chosen People, if things weren’t already bad enough. There’s an Irish red-herring, too: Joyce is quoted in an epigraph, and the book fools with Joycean streams and puns (Life, Lev, Love) a few times. The elderly grammarian who dies in Levin’s arms mumbling about the mysteries not of the infinite, but of the infinitive, is a jape worthy of Flann O’Brien.

More intimately, Levin is haunted throughout his year of teaching by a precursor-ghost at the college, the dissident Irishman Leo Duffy. Inheriting Duffy’s office, and his role as faculty agitator, Levin becomes fascinated and intimidated by the strong impression left by Duffy’s flameout (though he’ll far outdo Duffy by the end). And Duffy’s suicide note, with its own abrupt, Beckettian pun, seems to move Levin to an ultimate commitment to his fate. How many characters who fail to appear in the novel in which they are named have such vivid life?

Then there’s Gilley, Levin’s grating, grinding pedant of a rival, with his pathetic compulsion to photograph what he doesn’t understand. And Fabrikant, the dour mysterious scholar on horseback, who with his odd Germanic name may perhaps be another image of the Jew, one assimilated to the dark side of the moon. But Levin refuses all these images of a possible alternate self, or of a defining antagonist, in favor of the affections of his Olive-Oylish girlfriend.

Here is finally why the book refuses to be any kind of Western: Because unlike a Western hero, whose primary engagement is with other men, Levin is in his lonely heart a lover of women. Not an incompetent one, either. In the end “A New Life” commits itself, with beautiful discomfort, to being a love story, full of private feeling made into the most passionate sort of art. When the schlemiel drives his family out of the frame of Gilley’s camera, and into the future, the book’s title is revealed as absolutely sincere. Malamud’s Yates novel is also his funniest, and most embracing, an underrated masterpiece.

Jonathan Lethem is the author of six novels, including the best-selling “The Fortress of Solitude” (Faber, 2003) and “Motherless Brooklyn” (Doubleday, 1999), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. His other books include a new short story collection,” Men and Cartoons,” to be published in November, and a book of essays, “The Disappointment Artist,” forthcoming in March 2005. His writing also has appeared in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Esquire, The Paris Review and elsewhere.

Introduction copyright © 2004 by Jonathan Lethem. All rights reserved.

The essay on the left is from Jonathan Lethem’s introduction to the new edition of Bernard Malamud’s “A New Life” published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Other titles in the series, which join Malamud’s “The Complete Stories,” introduced by Robert Giroux:

‘THE ASSISTANT’ introduced by Jonathan Rosen


introduced by Thomas Mallon

‘THE FIXER’ introduced by Jonathan Safran Foer

‘THE MAGIC BARREL’ introduced by Jhumpa Lahiri

‘THE NATURAL’ introduced by Kevin Baker

‘THE TENANTS’ introduced by Aleksandar Hemon

‘GOD’S GRACE’ introduced by Dara Horn (forthcoming in April 2005)

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