Bat­ting for the un­der­dog

A new bi­og­ra­phy of one of Amer­ica’s grit­tier but emo­tional fiction writ­ers is in­for­ma­tive, in­struc­tive and per­cep­tive BERNARD MALA­MUD: AWRITER’S LIFE By Philip Davis Ox­ford Univer­sity Press, £18.99 RE­VIEWED BY LAWRENCE JOFFE

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts & Books -

THE TERM “JEWISH Amer­i­can au­thor” is used so of­ten it has al­most be­come a cliché. Does it re­fer to au­thors who write about “Jewi s h” t hemes, o r merely State­side scrib­blers who hap­pen to be eth­ni­cally Jewish? In Bernard Mala­mud: A Writer’s Life, Philip Davis, Pro­fes­sor of English at Liver­pool Univer­sity, shows his sub­ject in both senses.

Some­times Mala­mud ad­dressed Jewish is­sues di­rectly, as in The Ten­ants, a pre­scient 1971 short story about black­Jewish schisms, filmed last year with rap artist Snoop Dogg in a co-lead role. “Ev­ery man is a Jew,” he wrote, “though he may not know it.” But Mala­mud can­not be pi­geon-holed. His core sub­ject mat­ter is the uni­ver­sal ev­ery­man caught up in the tu­mul­tuous 20th cen­tury; part-hero, part- sh­lemiel, as the au­thor once joked.

Mala­mud trav­elled a great dis­tance in his 72 years. Born to Yid­dish-speak­ing im­mi­grant par­ents in 1914, he be­came a recog­nised Amer­i­can lit­er­ary voice, yet his fa­ther never re­ally mas­tered English. Now Davis has ably re­deemed a lit­er­ary rep­u­ta­tion un­til re­cently al­most taken for granted.

Mala­mud wrote co­pi­ously, both much-loved short sto­ries and nov­els like The Nat­u­ral (1952), Du­bin’s Lives (1979) and God’s Grace (1982). Vis­its to Is­rael and Europe, per­haps in­formed his 1968 work, The Fixer. In it, a young man named Yakov Bok yearns to es­cape the “prison” (Mala­mud held sim­i­lar feel­ings to­wards Brook­lyn) of his Tsarist Rus­sian shtetl but he is ac­cused of rit­u­ally mur­der­ing a gen­tile boy in Kiev and bat­tles to re­gain free­dom for him­self and his peo­ple.

Mala­mud knew no He­brew — hence his botched bar­mitz­vah — and mar­ried a Catholic wo­man, Anna di Chiara, which shocked Bernard’s fa­ther Max (Men­del), an athe­ist who sold ham to make a liv­ing. Yet Jewish themes suf­fuse his work, and he used bib­li­cal texts to in­spire his 1960s com­po­si­tion classes.

Of­ten, lit­er­a­ture was Mala­mud’s way of re­solv­ing life’s com­plex­i­ties; as Davis writes, “writ­ing came out of the fail­ure of speak­ing”. In The As­sis­tant, writ­ten in 1957, a shop­keeper, Mor­ris Bober, mod­elled in part on Max, takes in a young Ital­ian boy who pre­vi­ously robbed his shop. The boy be­comes his helper and fi­nally con­verts and mar­ries Mor­ris’s daugh­ter — pos­si­bly an echo of Mala­mud’s own yearn­ing for res­o­lu­tion with his fa­ther.

Like his near con­tem­po­rary Philip Roth, Mala­mud fre­quently sparked con­tro­versy. Jews felt The As­sis­tant, for ex­am­ple, ven­er­ated suf­fer­ing and was “too Chris­tian”. (Chris­tians felt its con­clu­sion was too tri­umphantly Jewish.) Asked what he thought of suf­fer­ing, Mala­mud mor­dantly replied: “I am against it, but when it oc­curs, why waste the ex­pe­ri­ence?”

Mala­mud’s de­fault id­iom was the harsh ar­got of the in­ner city, even in fa­bles like his first novel, The Nat­u­ral, an all-Amer­i­can base­ball epic filmed in 1984 with Robert Red­ford. He could also sur­prise with breath­tak­ingly sur­re­al­is­tic vi­sions as in the short story, An­gel Levine, in which a trou­bled tai­lor, Manis­che­witz, prays to God and re­ceives as an un­likely saviour a drunken black an­gel who re­cites the ber­acha on bread in flu­ent He­brew.

Bernard Mala­mud made “big things hap­pen in small places”, says Davis. His aus­tere prose and cel­e­bra­tion of the com­mon­place of­ten con­ceal pro­found in­sights. His fa­ther called him a “bluffer” when he re­galed class­mates with fan­ci­ful sto­ries; yet with­out such bluff- ing, asks Davis, would any­one know of the thank­less, back-break­ing 16-hour days that Max and his gen­er­a­tion en­dured? Even as a “sixty-year-old smil­ing pub­lic man” in the 1980s, Mala­mud still ac­knowl­edged that the past never leaves you: “As you are grooved so you are graved.”

The young Mala­mud dreamt of flee­ing the grim ten­e­ment blocks, and in the pub­lic li­brary found kin­dred spir­its in Keats, Shelley, Shake­speare and Yeats. Even­tu­ally, af­ter a spell in the Catskills and an­other in a cen­sus of­fice, he grad­u­ated from Columbia and taught com­po­si­tion at univer­si­ties. He also tu­tored Ger­man-Jewish refugees and chil­dren at a school in Har­lem. Mala­mud de­fended his char­ac­ters with hu­mour, though “spiced in the wine of sad­ness”.

Davis de­tects ref­er­ences to Mala­mud’s early life across his books — his mother’s death when he was 15 and his brother’s de­scent into schizophre­nia; his child­hood petty thiev­ery; and his strug­gle to “fit in” at the well-heeled up­state school where he won a schol­ar­ship. Mala­mud’s later af­fair with a stu­dent, Ar­lene Hey­man, mir­rored the dal­liance be­tween the mar­ried lit­er­ary re­searcher Du­bin and the younger Fanny Bick in Du­bin’s Lives.

Last year, Mala­mud’s daugh­ter, Janna Mala­mud Smith, pub­lished a re­veal­ing bi­og­ra­phy of her fa­ther. Now Davis adds lit­er­ary, so­cial and po­lit­i­cal hin­ter­land. Layer by layer, he paints a re­veal­ing por­trait of a com­pelling writer im­bued with a solid moral con­science, and of the rapidly chang­ing Amer­ica that writer in­hab­ited.

Lawrence Joffe is a free­lance writer

PHOTO: REX FEA­TURES

Robert Red­ford in the 1984 film The Nat­u­ral, based on Mala­mud’s novel

Bernard Mala­mud, by Karl Schrag, (c 1970) re­pro­duced in Davis’s book

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