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A Life Torn Between Myth and Fact

Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life

BOOKISH: Bernard Malamud emerges in the pages of this new biography as a diligent worker who sacrificed much for his craft.

By Philip Davis

Oxford University Press, 400 pages, $34.95.

A writer both of the real and of great fantasy, Bernard Malamud was a man whose biography can be read in those two not necessarily contradictory ways:

Realistically, he was a stooped, myopic, Brooklyn-born professor of literature who wrote various and meticulously worked novels about academics-in-crisis, baseball players and Russian pogroms. Fantastically, he was a Jewish genius, an existential folklorist and fireside storyteller of mystical power, who wrote tales in which birds can be Jewish, horses can talk, and gorillas named George wear yarmulkes and learn to pronounce the Kaddish prayer for the dead. Malamud, the name, is a version of melamed — in Yiddish meaning “teacher,” indicative of a ghetto’s lowly, homely instructor of Hebrew. Rigorously lowly, studiously homely, Malamud taught himself. Though he’d become a rabbi of prose, he’d retain the humble teaching title. “We need some sort of poverty in our lives,” he once wrote.

Malamud, more than most, seems a different writer to every reader who loves him: To some, he’s the writer of the quintessential book on the Jewish experience in tsarist Russia, while to others he’s the writer par excellence of the American baseball novel, having struck the pulp out of Ring Lardner & Co.; to some, Malamud wrote tragically of Jewish low culture (the death of Yiddish theater, the operatic travails of a matchmaker, the caricatured sorrows of a schnorrer and his idiot son), while to others he shaped the most incisive of stories about modern visual art in his Fidelman cycle. “Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life,” the first biography of its deceased and yet still unwilling subject, countenances the many drafts that went into the making of a life unwitting in its diversity.

Malamud was born in 1914, the spring before the First World War, the son of Yiddish-speaking Russian immigrants: a tough yet tired father, Max, and a schizophrenic mother, Brucha (later Bertha), who would die in the hospital two years after a suicide attempt in which she swallowed disinfectant; Malamud, age 13, discovered her body. The writer’s birthplace was a nowhere Brooklyn street called Gravesend Avenue, which name Malamud’s biographer, Philip Davis, professor of English literature at the University of Liverpool, thinks pertains to the end of graves, as in the termination of the nearby cemetery in which Lady Deborah Moody (1586-1659), one of Brooklyn’s founders, is buried, but is actually a name borrowed from Gravesend, England, east of London. Today, Gravesend Avenue is called McDonald Avenue. But though the name has changed, and Gravesend as a neighborhood has been swallowed up by Bensonhurst to the north and Coney Island to the south, the loneliness remains. Thought is impossible there, due to the noise of the El tracks arching above, the clatter of the F train, formerly the IND, which was itself formerly the Culver Line of the streetcar. That car would have stopped just outside Max Malamud’s sundries store, where Bernard’s imagination grew up, between the promising shelves and the depressive till. After Malamud’s schooling at Erasmus Hall, City College then Columbia University; his refusal by the Army, and his marriage to a Roman Catholic woman (Ann de Chiara), along with an impoverished stint teaching high school and living in Greenwich Village, his life lost interest — or, rather, the writing and the daily obsession with its failure took over.

Then, during a biblical sojourn amid the deserts of Oregon, teaching freshman composition at Oregon State, Malamud remade himself: Ars longa, vita brevis — “Long Work, Short Life” — as he phrased it in a valedictory lecture at Bennington College, Vermont, where he arrived to teach in 1961 after a decade of adjunct insecurity. In those formative years out west, Malamud wrote “The Natural” (1952), later filmed by Barry Levinson and starring Robert Redford; “The Assistant” (1957), and the story collection “The Magic Barrel” (1958; it earned him the first of two National Book Awards; the other would be for “The Fixer” in 1967, the same year that novel won the Pulitzer Prize). On both coasts and in every semester, bibliography will trump biography, only to become narrative in and of itself.

Here, Malamud’s writing is taken as part of what the author himself called “The Human Sentence,” and this biography parses the life of that sentence, or the sentence of that one particular life, into four parts: “The First Life,” covering the Brooklyn days, and coming of age; “The Second Life,” which takes on those hard-won 1950s; “The Third Life,” chronicling the famous middle years culminating in that singular synthesis of fantasy and historical nightmare, “The Fixer” (based on the case of Menachem Mendel Beilis, a Kievan Jew wrongly accused of blood libel in the year before Malamud was born); ending with “In His Last Life,” which follows Malamud’s health and heart in decline even as a novel of his became, for the first time, theologically audacious — “God’s Grace” takes on evolution, and nothing less than thermonuclear Apocalypse — and his stories factual, fragmented, exquisite; conceptually peaking with the so-called “capsule biographies,” fictionalizations of the lives and times of Alma Mahler and Virginia Woolf, two brilliant feminists and occasional antisemites, both of them married to Jews.

The practicals are handled well here. They are handled as “handled” can be Yiddishized: In the language of small-time storekeepers and notions shops, “to handl” is, through the German handeln, “to bargain,” or “negotiate.” Davis handls and haggles by the page with boring “Bern” or “Bernie” (apparently, Ann Malamud disliked the latter nickname) and his outwardly fusty “Writer’s Life” — with handfuls of discreet affairs but one wife, Malamud never broke the law or caused scandal; his politics were pristine — by getting into the writer’s head and, thus, into the full life of the prose.

As in the instance of Spinoza, another Jew of austere work habits and mien, where there is no or little body there must be mind, and much of it. Davis finesses the Cartesian split with a fine nib, sundering mens from weak-willed corpore, then following that cleave further: Malamud is asserted as a writer constantly pulled and pushed, between the concrete and abstract, between the practical real and the impractical irreal or surreal. He will write gritty, nose-to-the-grindstone stories about grocers, then turn around and write sentences, and entire novels, that require from the reader a commitment to myth that can be characterized only as childlike, or fantastically God-fearing:

‘What kind of angel is this?’ Manischevitz gravely asked.
‘A bona fide angel of God, within prescribed limitations,” answered Levine, ‘not to be confused with the members of any particular sect, order, or organization here on earth operating under a similar name.’

Levine, from the story “The Angel Levine,” is both Jewish and black, and an angel sent down to help heal the sick wife of Manischevitz, who has himself “suffered many reverses and indignities.” Manischevitz refuses to believe that Levine is a Jew, let alone an angel, and rebuffs him, only to later seek his aid in another’s ghetto, Harlem. This story was written at the same time that Malamud wrote his novel “The Assistant,” in which Frank Alpine, a Roman Catholic, arrives in New York, apprentices himself to a Jewish shopkeeper and sentimentally educates himself in how to be a man, a mensch — essentially, a Jew. A circumcision and observant life for Alpine will incredibly, and yet credibly, follow. Malamud never actually published what has become his most famous line: “Everybody is a Jew but they don’t know it,” which was, in interviews and conversation, reduced and bettered by the author to, “All men are Jews.” Davis tells us that the line had been in the first draft of “The Assistant” but Malamud cut it. The ending of “The Angel Levine” retains such sublimity, with Manischevitz telling his recovered wife, “‘Believe me, there are Jews everywhere.’”

While Davis is admirable for finding sources, and for commenting on the agonies that went into Malamud’s style, what’s carefully missing in his telling is an explanation of the disconnect at the soul of its subject — the disconnect not between the writer’s body and mind, but between a writer able and willing to think realistically, and a writer able and willing to let imagination fly free. What such a confusion of talents suggests is a Malamud not only constantly lost between childhood innocence and adult disabuse, but also continually adrift between continents, or worlds: between American explanation or Realism and European or Jewish insinuation, or magic; though because Davis focuses so intensely on Malamud’s prose, ignoring psychological grandeur, we find instead a writer between only adjectives, rethinking between edits not his soul but his nouns.

There are some errors and omissions, mostly minor: Erasmus Hall was not “the best school in the five boroughs of Brooklyn,” because Brooklyn is itself one of the five boroughs of New York; Czechoslovak dissident, playwright and later president “Vaclev Havel,” whom Malamud helped through his presidency of the PEN American Center, should be Václav Havel; “Mike Seide,” his name casually condensed and not identified with work, should be Michael Seide, a friend and mentor of Malamud’s and the author of the masterpiece collection of stories “The Common Thread” and the intensely felt, forgotten novel “The Common Wilderness”; “those who had come to America from the same town or village” are not “landsmen,” as Davis would have it, but are, or comprise, an immigrant’s “landslayt.”

Most disturbingly, there is Davis’s insistence on representing Malamud as the model for a figure in another writer’s fiction. Malamud served as father for many, and for none more so than Philip Roth, who alternately paid him great homage and publicly scorned him in a manner so psychologically revealing, and embarrassing, that were one in need of the world’s longest and most literary definition of “Freudian,” one would have to look no further than Roth’s careerist sniping both in critical print and in the Malamud-Roth correspondence. Davis here reiterates the conventional wisdom that Malamud was the model for E.I. Lonoff, mentor to Nathan Zuckerman in Roth’s novel “The Ghost Writer” (1979), where Lonoff, per Malamud, is turned into a symbol of scrupulous and stern artistic commitment. It should be obvious that details of Lonoff’s story, including his New England hermitage and the embarrassing secret said to be buried or repressed in his past, point in external facts as much to another Roth, namely Henry, as they do to Malamud in description of character and habit. While Lonoff, then, might be comparable or composite, he might also be an ideal or purely created — as what Philip Roth did directly model on Malamud was an American Jewish response to Europe’s silent, Holocaust-silenced dictum: invent. Malamud’s imagination made “The Ghost Writer,” with its intimations of a survived Anne Frank, possible. Malamud, with his creation of a Lower East Side Jewish bird that both extended and extenuated Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” enabled Roth to turn an uptown academic named Kepesh into a breast a decade later.

Indeed, the fabulous inheritance of today’s Jewish American writers comes almost entirely from Malamud — a writer fleeing toward English, burdened with baggage stuffed with the language of the ghettos: the Yiddish of writers I.L. Peretz and Der Nister, and their secular aspirations to the heights of Kafka and Gogol, too. In 1986, Malamud didn’t die as much as disappear into the works of others, absorbed as father (to Roth, Cynthia Ozick) and grandfather (Michael Chabon, Steve Stern) into the legacy of every Jewish writer born in America who sought an affinity with European magic to be founded and sustainable on home soil. Isaac Bashevis Singer was ours, but he was ours only as an interloper. Malamud was definitively ours: a Singer who sang his dark-haired, dark-eyed Muse on these shores, as American as Augie March and as Jewish as the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, whose Hasidic Tales of Mezbizh and Mezritch Malamud’s own tales of Brooklyn often recalled.

In the requisite 10 generations, Roth’s work will still have penis problems, and Saul Bellow’s ebullience and appetite for excess will politically grate and date, but Malamud’s stories and novels of the quietly small and holy will survive. The stories “Idiots First,” “Take Pity,” “The Jewbird,” “Talking Horse,” “The Silver Crown,” the novel “God’s Grace” — they are the greatest American representation of what it means to limit life and art through subcultural allegiance, and to interpret them through religious tradition: They teach as both Judaically classic and Classic. Just as we are told that Sinai was a neglected mountain, and merited the giving of the Law only by its meekness, Malamud’s work is the Sinai’s summit of our literature; it is a map of the world with Brooklyn as its capital, a tenement as the silver crown of the cityscape — as though nothing could seem more workaday or minor, nothing could be more awesomely transformative of how we see, hear, think and live.

Joshua Cohen is a literary critic for the Forward.

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