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 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
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