By LEE SIEGEL
Published: December 9, 2007
A curious passage occurs in “My Father Is a Book,” Janna Malamud Smith’s tender, touching 2006 memoir of her father, Bernard Malamud. In the spring of 1978, when the novelist was in his mid-60s, he and his wife, Ann, had dinner with Philip Roth and Claire Bloom in the latter couple’s London apartment. In a letter to his daughter describing the visit, Malamud affectionately characterizes Claire Bloom — “absolutely unpretentious” — and then, in parentheses, adds this detail about greeting Roth: “We kissed on the lips when I came in. He couldn’t have done that two years ago.” Now wait a minute.
Is this the Philip Roth who by then had put the id into Yid, the writer who had turned Freud’s three elements of the psyche into the Flying Karamazov Brothers? And is the letter writer the Bernard Malamud known for his themes of redemption through suffering, of the burden of conscience that weighs down even the artist-hero? Is it this Bernard Malamud, the creator of the Christlike Jewish store owner, Morris Bober, and also of Arthur Fidelman, a hapless painter forced to choose between the gross imperfection of his life and the complete bollixing of his work, between Fidelman’s mostly fruitless attempts to make a woman and his mostly futile efforts to make art?
By presenting himself as liberated and Roth as repressed, Malamud — who died in 1986 — may well have been taking imaginative revenge on a younger rival. Roth, after all, had at one time publicly scolded Malamud for being narrowly moral and uptight. As Philip Davis recalls in his wise, scrupulous, resolutely admiring biography, “Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life,” in 1974 Roth had contributed a long reflection called “Imagining Jews” to The New York Review of Books in which he disparaged what he regarded as the “stern morality” of Malamud’s second novel, “The Assistant.” In the letter to his daughter, Malamud goes on to surmise that Roth “sought” the kiss “to signify I had forgiven him for the foolish egoistic essay he had written about my work.”
In dismissing what he also refers to as the “moral pathos” and “gentle religious coloration” of “The Assistant,” Roth (complicatedly) preferred Norman Mailer’s notorious essay, “The White Negro.” That bombshell had appeared in 1957, the same year that saw the publication of “The Assistant.” With shocking negative capability, Mailer argued that the murder of a middle-aged storekeeper by two hoodlums was a “psychopathic” person’s way of “daring the unknown.” Davis doesn’t prove that Mailer had read “The Assistant,” but Mailer was certainly familiar with the figure of the long-suffering, virtuous storekeeper from Malamud’s short stories. So it’s perfectly right to suggest, as Davis does, that Mailer’s essay was a challenge to the novel’s depiction of the middle-aged Bober as the saintly victim of a holdup man.
In Malamud’s novel, Bober proceeds to convert the sensitive thug, Frank Alpine, into a Jew who eventually becomes Bober’s successor behind the cash register. The store owner leads his victimizer to Judaism so the hoodlum should know and learn from suffering — this despite the fact that the thug had robbed Bober and later raped his daughter, Helen. Roth wasn’t the only Jewish intellectual to recoil from what he considered Malamud’s Christianizing emasculation of Jewish vitality, from what some regarded as Malamud’s psychologically dubious fetishizing of victimhood and pain.
Davis, however, sees something different, almost fiendish, in the sudden twists and reversals that flicker through Malamud’s fiction. By the end of the novel, Bober has been liberated from the prison that is his store and has virtually incarcerated Frank in his place. After Frank forces himself on Helen, his will and self-respect collapse; Helen shatters his ego and escapes from both the conflicted thug and her decent yet limited father. Morris Bober and his daughter don’t passively succumb to harsh conditions. Modest, humble people, they use humble means to modestly triumph over Frank, and over the harsh conditions of their lives.
Davis is out to remove the slur of moral uptightness and narrow virtue from Malamud’s reputation. Gratifyingly, he wants to restore him to the pantheon of great American writers in which Malamud, in our flash-in-the-pan culture, once belonged.
In Malamud’s best stories (“The Magic Barrel,” “Angel Levine,” “Idiots First,” “Take Pity”) and his best novels (“The Natural,” “The Assistant,” “The Fixer,” “God’s Grace”), you have the uncanny experience of watching people watch themselves as fate couples with aspects of their character behind their backs and before their eyes. In life and in art, Malamud acknowledged the primacy of surprise. He considered the concept of a stable right and wrong a freak of cognition. Rosen, the ill-starred salesman in Malamud’s astringent tale “Take Pity,” says to a woman: “Whore, bastard, bitch. ... Go ’way from here. Go home to your children.” This after she has so self-destructively resisted Rosen’s pathologically kind attempts to save her that she drives him to suicide. Among other things, Malamud elevated the wry Jewish joke to world-class literature.
For Davis, one of Malamud’s aphorisms sums up the obsession driving his work: “There’s more than morality in a good man.” The sentiment is, in fact, almost identical to Norman Mailer’s belief that the best lies close to the worst in people. Malamud believed that the stuff of goodness lay in the education roughly administered by life’s warps and woofs: the fatality of character, the irony of good intentions, the realization that right versus wrong is often a matter of hurt versus hurt. Davis knows that there’s nothing narrowly virtuous about that.
Of course, some Jewish critics never forgave Malamud for his emphasis on rachmones (Yiddish for “compassion”) rather than ego-driven assertiveness and aggression. Alfred Kazin, one of Malamud’s first champions, once remarked that he always thought of Malamud as being “too good to be true,” and then inanely added, “even though he’s had the normal amount of extramarital sex.” Did Kazin need Malamud’s adultery to prove Malamud’s literary puissance? Oh these bygone Jewish intellectuals. Malamud didn’t need to copulate his way to freedom from Mommy. As a little boy, he had saved his own mother from a suicide attempt; she spent the next two years in an insane asylum, where she died in 1929. Later he watched his schizophrenic brother drift from one mental institution to another. Malamud’s fatal impulse, as Davis poignantly shows, was to try to recover his mother — and perhaps his brother too — through the love of women. According to this sympathetic biographer, Malamud’s Christian wife painfully tolerated his unfaithfulness, though she was not above responding with an occasional despairing infidelity of her own.
At Bennington College, where Malamud taught in the 1960s and ’70s, some of his colleagues referred to him as “the master.” They weren’t only alluding to Malamud’s painstaking craftsmanship, to the way he measured every economical word and stripped-down phrase. They were also acknowledging his status as a sage (as well as ironically referring to Malamud’s sometimes sanctimonious consciousness of himself as a sage). If writing was a tortuous process for Malamud — 500 words on a good day — it was because he was writing life, not words. Rather than creating a vision, his words had to fit a pre-existing condition, as if they were the visible pieces of an invisible puzzle inscribed on Malamud’s heart when he was a child.
Though he attended Brooklyn’s legendary Erasmus Hall High School, graduated from the equally legendary City College and went on to get a master’s degree in English from Columbia, Malamud’s real matriculation was in sorrow. Born in Brooklyn in 1914 to an impoverished immigrant shopkeeper and his unstable wife, Malamud came to adulthood during the Depression, burdened by his memories of a household racked with pain. It was a pain not so much brutalizing as heartbreakingly sad: Malamud’s father, Max, was a kind man, beaten and buffeted by hard circumstance.
There’s something greatly touching about Davis’s account of Malamud’s iron determination to become a writer as the young man journeys from brief stints in factories and department stores to a job in Washington as a lowly clerk in the Census Bureau, then back to Brooklyn to teach at Erasmus Hall. In Malamud’s eyes, becoming a person and becoming a writer were the same thing. “I beat myself into shape with a terrible will,” he once wrote, with his characteristic mix of sobriety and high feeling, recalling his early struggles.
Venturing into unfamiliar emotional and geographical places helped the work of self-creation. Marrying Ann de Chiara in 1945, after a mutually tentative and ambivalent courtship, perhaps lifted from Malamud the feeling of inexorable family and tribal doom. The outer, un-Jewish world embraced him in the form of de Chiara’s (initially reluctant) cosmopolitan clan. A teaching position at Oregon State College in Corvallis continued to complete him. Twelve years in Oregon, two novels, one collection of short stories and a National Book Award later, Malamud could settle into a more comfortable sense of self as a professor at Bennington College.
Paradoxically, the farther he traveled from his familiar environment, the more confidence he seemed to acquire in returning to it in his fiction. And the more deeply he returned to his past in his imagination, the more confident he felt in strange new places. Though narrowly identified with “Jewish” writing, Malamud seemed to consider his own Jewishness as less an inherited tradition than a portable ethos, a means of accommodating the larger world outside his inherited traditions.
Malamud was an exceedingly complex person: earnest and insufferably, self-consciously decent; genuinely generous and kind; imaginatively far more adventurous than people often give him credit for. The last novel published in his lifetime, “God’s Grace,” wryly has a fornicating man and chimp creating a new, not-so-super race.
Davis strives to present all this complexity in a comprehensive fashion, though he seems to have paid for the Malamud family’s full cooperation with an excess of discretion, as well as something like defensiveness about Malamud’s foibles. Awkwardly trying to justify Malamud’s affair with a much younger student when he taught at Bennington, Davis writes: “He still could not get writing and living into relation.” Unlike who, exactly? St. John of the Cross? Seinfeld?
Yet sometimes Davis isn’t defensive enough — particularly when it comes to Malamud’s faded status among the Jewish writers and critics who made the reputations of Bellow and Roth. Like an embarrasing old uncle, Malamud is barely referred to these days. On those few occasions when he is publicly admired, tribute usually comes in the form of sentimental commentary from younger, self-consciously Jewish writers, whose parochial picture of Malamud ironically confirms the denigrating comments Roth made a generation ago. Far more frequently, however, you find critics celebrating Bellow and Roth, above all, for their intelligence, and never mentioning Malamud. And indeed, instinct, not intelligence, is what is most salient in Malamud’s work. His writing struggles with the permanence of irrational forces and the necessity of arriving at some kind of reckoning with them. For Malamud, the obligation to be moral isn’t rational. It occurs all of a sudden, sprung from within. For Malamud, the rational justification of morality is, on the contrary, often the stuff of moral vanity and outrageous hypocrisy. From feeling, a Malamud character might say, you don’t escape.
There’s a sadness that accompanies Malamud’s recognition of the primacy of irrational forces. Not even a valiant and loyal biographer like Davis would attempt to argue that Malamud’s stories and novels aren’t often grim — even when he was writing about baseball in “The Natural” or picaresque capers in “Pictures of Fidelman” or nothing less than the ethical origins of consciousness in “God’s Grace.” As the saying goes, “Life is a tragedy filled with joy.”
Yet his works of fiction are joys filled with tragedy. “God’s Grace,” for example, is an exuberantly imaginative assimilation and transformation of the “new” fiction of a writer like Donald Barthelme. The novel is all the more remarkable because Malamud was a relatively traditional writer working in the vein of the great Russian realists. He believed in the credibility of the psychological novel. He never seems to have doubted the novelist’s ability to capture the thick particular impasto of a person’s — a person’s, not merely a character’s — inner life on the page. What some people designate as his “magic” realism was actually his invention of a style ultrasensitive to the suprarational forces working on us from within and without. Malamud’s realism was unique in the way it infinitely, and flexibly, encompassed the unreal.
Malamud was “traditional” in precisely this sense: He believed that art expressed a profound knowledge of life and that all of the novelist’s tricks of the trade were submerged in the service of making sense of life. His triumph was to submerge, clarify and fulfill his life in his work. As a result, Malamud’s own existence was not, by any public measurement, outwardly interesting. In her memoir, Malamud’s daughter describes him as “a smallish man, physically undramatic, sometimes funny, often subdued, measured, decent, generous, rarely casual.” Philip Roth he wasn’t. But, then, neither is Philip Roth.