Pictures of Malamud

Philip Roth

‘Mourning is a hard business,’ Cesare said. ‘If people knew there’d be less death.’

From Malamud’s ‘Life is Better than Death’

In February 1961 I travelled west from Iowa City, where I was teaching in the Writers’ Workshop of the university and finishing a second book, to give a lecture called ‘Writing American Fiction’ at a small community college in Monmouth, Oregon. A close buddy from my graduate school days at the University of Chicago was teaching there and had arranged the invitation. I accepted not only because of the opportunity the trip afforded me to see, for the first time in five years, my friends Bob and Ida Baker and their small children, but because Baker promised that if I came out he’d arrange for me to meet Bernard Malamud.

Bern taught nearby at the state university in Eugene, Oregon. He’d been in Eugene (pop. 50,000) since leaving New York (pop. 8,000,000) and a night-school teaching job there in 1949 – 12 years in the Far West instructing Oregonian freshmen in the fundamentals of English composition, and writing his unorthodox baseball novel, The Natural, his masterpiece set in darkest Brooklyn, The Assistant, as well as four or five of the best American short stories I’d ever read (or ever will). The other stories weren’t bad either.

In the early Fifties I was reading Malamud’s stories, later collected in The Magic Barrel, as they appeared – the very moment they appeared – in Partisan Review and the old Commentary. He seemed to me then to be doing no less for his lonely Jews and their peculiarly immigrant, Jewish forms of failure – for those Malamudian men ‘who never stopped hurting’ – than was Samuel Beckett, in his longer fiction, for misery-ridden Molloy and Malone. Both writers, while bound inextricably to the common life of the clan, severed their racial memories from the larger social and historical setting, and then, focusing as narrowly as they could upon the dismal, daily round of resistance borne by the most helpless of their landsmen, created, improbably, parables of frustration charged with the gravity of the grimmest philosphers.

Not unlike Beckett, Malamud wrote of a meagre world of pain in a language all his own: in his case, an English that often appeared, even outside the idiosyncratic dialogue, to have in large part been clipped together from out of what one might have thought to be the least promising stockpile, most unmagical barrel, around – the locutions, inversions and diction of Jewish immigrant speech, a heap of broken verbal bones that looked, until he came along in those early stories to make them dance to his sad tune, to be no longer of use to anyone other than the Borscht Belt comic and the professional nostalgia-monger. Even when he pushed this parable prose to its limits, Malamud’s metaphors retained a proverbial ring. In his most consciously original moments, when he sensed in his grimly-told, impassioned tales the need to sound his deepest note, he remained true to what seemed old and homely, matter-of-factly emitting the most touchingly unadorned poetry to make things even sadder than they already were: ‘He tried to say some sweet thing but his tongue hung in his mouth like dead fruit on a tree, and his heart was a black-painted window.’

The 46-year-old man that I met at the Bakers’ little house in Monmouth, Oregon in 1961 never let on that he could have written such a line, neither then nor in all the years I knew him. At first glance Bern looked to someone who’d grown up among such people like nothing so much as an insurance agent – he could have passed for a colleague of my father’s, employed, as he was during the Thirties and Forties, by the downtown Newark district office of the Metropolitan Life. When Malamud entered the Bakers’ hallway after having attended my lecture, and stood there on the welcome mat removing his wet overshoes, I saw a conscientious, courteous, pinochle-playing working man of the kind whose kibbitzing and conversation had been the background music of my childhood, a stubborn, seasoned, life insurance salesman who does not flee the snarling dog or alarm the children when he appears after dark at the top of the tenement stairwell – soberly reassuring in dark fedora and black overcoat, and carrying beneath his arm one of Metropolitan Life’s large, black, oblong ledgers, the collection book which to me, as a boy, looked like a scaled-down portent of the coffin – to try to pry out of the poor breadwinner the half a buck that will prevent his policy from lapsing. He doesn’t frighten anyone but he doesn’t make the place light up with laughter either: he is, after all, the insurance man, whom you can only beat by dying.

That was the other surprise about Malamud. Very little laughter, no display at all of the playfulness that flickered on and off even in those barren, underheated, poorly furnished flats wherein were enacted the needs of his entombed, let alone of the eerie clowning that is the charm of The Natural. There were Malamud stories like ‘Angel Levine’ – and later ‘The Jewbird’ and ‘Talking Horse’ – where the joke seemed only an inch away from the art, where the charm of the art was just the way it humorously hovered at the edge of the joke, and yet during all our meetings, over twenty-five years, I remember him telling me two jokes. Jewish dialect jokes, recounted very expertly indeed, but that was it – for twenty-five years two jokes were enough.

There was no need to overdo anything other than the responsibility to his art. Bern didn’t exhibit himself and he didn’t consider it necessary to exhibit his themes, certainly not casually to a stranger. He couldn’t have exhibited himself even if he’d been foolish enough to try, and foolish enough to try he couldn’t have been either – never being foolish was a small part of his larger burden. S. Levin, the Chaplinesque professor of A New Life, teaching his first college class with a wide-open fly, is hilariously foolish time and again, but not Bern. No more could Kafka have become a cockroach than Malamud could have metamorphosed into a Levin, comically outfoxed by an erotic mishap on the dark backroads of mountainous Oregon, and sneaking homewards, half-naked, at 3 a.m., the Sancho Panza beside him a sexually-disgruntled, bar-room waitress dressed in only one shoe and a bra. Seymour Levin the ex-drunkard and Gregor Samsa the bug ingeniously embody acts of colossal self-travesty, affording both authors a weirdly exhilarating sort of masochistic relief from the weight of sobriety and dignified inhibition that was plainly the cornerstone of their staid comportment. With Malamud as with many writers, exuberant showmanship, like searing self-mockery, was to be revealed only through what Heine called Maskenfreiheit, the freedom conferred by masks.

The sorrowing chronicler of human need clashing with human need, of need mercilessly resisted and abated glancingly if at all, of blockaded lives racked with need for the light, the lift, of a little hope – ‘A child throwing a ball straight up saw a bit of pale sky’ – preferred to present himself as someone whose needs were nobody’s business but his own. Yet his was, in fact, a need so harsh that it makes one ache even now to consider the sheer size of it. It was the need to consider long and seriously every last demand of an overtaxed, overtaxing conscience torturously exacerbated by the pathos of human need unabated. That was a theme of his that he couldn’t hide entirely from anyone who thought at all about where the man who could have passed himself off as your insurance agent was joined to the ferocious moralist of the claustrophobic stories about ‘things you can’t get past’. In The Assistant, the petty criminal and drifter Frank Alpine, while doing penance behind the counter of a failing grocery store that he’d once helped to rob, has a ‘terrifying insight’ about himself: ‘that all the while he was acting like he wasn’t, he was a man of stern morality.’ I wonder if early in adult life Bern didn’t have an insight no less terrifying about himself, maybe more terrifying – that he was a man of stern morality who could act only like what he was.

Between our first meeting in Oregon in February 1961 and our last meeting this past summer at his home in Bennington, Vermont, I rarely saw Bern more than a couple times a year, and for several years, after I’d published an essay about American Jewish writing in the New York Review of Books which had examined Pictures of Fidelman and The Fixer from a perspective he didn’t like – and couldn’t have been expected to – we didn’t see each other at all. In the mid-Sixties, when I was frequently a guest for long periods at the Yaddo artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, a short drive from Bennington, he and his wife Ann would have me over when I felt like escaping for a few hours from the Yaddo solitude; in the Seventies, when we were both members of the Yaddo corporation board, we’d see each other at one of the biannual meetings; when the Malamuds began to take refuge in Manhattan from the Vermont winters, and I was still living in New York, we’d meet occasionally near their Gramercy Park apartment for dinner; and when Bern and Ann visited London, where I’d begun spending a part of my time, they’d come to have dinner with Claire Bloom and me.

Though Bern and I ended up most evenings talking together about books and writing, we hardly ever alluded to each other’s fiction and never seriously discussed it, observing a discreet, unwritten rule of propriety that exists among novelists, as among rival team-mates in sports, who understand just how much candour can be sustained by professional fellow-feeling that develops from something more binding than mere neighbourliness but is still less ardent than blood brotherhood, however deep the respect may run. Blake says, ‘Opposition is true friendship,’ and though that sounds very bracing, particularly to the argumentative, and subscribing to its wisdom probably works out well for everyone in the best of all possible worlds, among the writers in this world, where resentment, touchiness, uncertainty and pride can make for a rather potent explosive, one learns to settle for something a little more amicable than outright opposition if one wants to have any true writer friends at all. Even those writers who just adore opposition usually get about as much as they can stand from their daily work.

It was in London that we first arranged to meet again after the 1974 New York Review essay and the exchange of letters about it that was to be the last communication between us for a couple of years. His letter had been characteristically terse and colloquial, a single sentence, sounding perhaps a little less fractious than it looked all alone on that white sheet of typing paper and inscribed above the signature in his tiny, measured hand. What I’d written about Fidelman and The Fixer, he informed me, ‘is your problem, not mine’. I wrote right back to tell him that in time, he might come to see that by my exposing fictional skeletons he was perhaps not wholly aware of himself, I’d probably done him a favour of precisely the kind William Blake advocated. I didn’t have quite the gall to mention Blake but that was more or less my tack: what I’d written would help him out. Not too awful as these exchanges go, but not one likely to ennoble either of us in the history of correspondence.

The London reconciliation didn’t take long for Bern and me to pull off. At 7.30 p.m. Claire’s doorbell rang and there, as expected, on the dot as always, were the Malamuds. Under the porch light I gave Ann a hug and a kiss, and then, with my hand extended, plunged past her, advancing upon Bern, who with his own outstretched hand was briskly coming up the step towards me. In our eagerness each to be the first to forgive – or first perhaps to be forgiven – we wound up overshooting the handshake and kissing on the lips, rather like the poor baker Lieb and the even less fortunate Kobotsky at the conclusion of ‘The Loan’. The two Jews in that Malamud tale, once immigrants together out of steerage, meet after many years of broken friendship and, at the back of Lieb’s shop, listen to the story of the afflictions in each other’s lives, stories so affecting that Lieb forgets all about the bread in his oven which goes up in smoke. ‘The loaves in the trays,’ the story ends, ‘were blackened bricks – charred corpses. Kobotsky and the baker embraced and sighed over their lost youth. They pressed mouths together and parted forever.’ We, on the other hand, went into the house for a perfectly-cooked dinner and thereafter remained friends for good.

In July 1985, just back from England, Claire and I drove north from Connecticut to have lunch and spend the afternoon with the Malamuds in Bennington. The summer before they had made the two-and-a-half-hour trip down to us and then spent the night, but Bern wasn’t equal to the journey now. The debilitating after-effects of the bypass surgery and stroke of three years earlier had begun increasingly to sap his strength, and the effort not to submit without a fight to all the disabling physical problems had begun to beat him down. I saw how weak he’d got as soon as we drove up. Bern, who always managed, regardless of the weather, to be waiting in the driveway to greet you and see you off, was out there all right in his poplin jacket, but as he nodded a rather grim welcome, he looked to be listing slightly to one side at the same time that he seemed to be holding himself, by dint of will power alone, absolutely still, as though the least movement would bring him down. It was impossible to discern in him even a remnant of the stolid, resolute insurance agent I’d envisaged years ago. The 46-year-old transplanted Brooklynite that I’d met in the Far West, that undiscourageable round-the-clock worker with the serious, attentive face and the balding crown and the pitiless Eugene, Oregon haircut, whose serviceable, surface mildness was in no way intended to mislead anyone about the molten obstinacy at the core, was now, without question, a frail and very sick old man, whose tenacity was just about used up.

It was his heart and the stroke and all the medication that had done the damage, but to a long-time reader of the man and his fiction it couldn’t help but appear as though the pursuit of that unremitting aspiration that he shared with so many of his characters – to break down the iron limits of circumstance and self in order to live a better life – had finally taken its toll. Though he’d never said much to me about his childhood, from the little I knew about his mother’s death when he was still a boy, and about the father’s poverty and the handicapped brother whose lamentable fate had become Bern’s responsibility, I imagined that he’d had no choice but to forgo youth and accept adulthood at a very early age. And now he looked it – like a man who’d had to be a man for just too long a time. I thought of his story ‘Take Pity’ and that unforgettable exchange between Davidoff and Rosen in what is perhaps the most excruciating parable that he ever wrote about life’s unyieldingness even to – especially to – the most unyielding longings. When quizzed by Davidoff, a heavenly census-taker, about how a poor Jewish refugee died, Rosen, himself newly arrived among the dead, replies: ‘Broke in him something, that’s how.’ ‘Broke what?’ ‘Broke what breaks.’

It was a very sad afternoon. We talked in the living-room before lunch; Bern asked Claire about her daughter’s opera career, they talked about singers and singing, and then he went on to speak about his own two children, but concentration was a struggle for him, and though his was a will powerless to back away from any difficult task, it was disheartening to realise how imposing a challenge just pursuing a conversation with friends had become.

As we were leaving the living-room to have lunch outdoors on the back porch, Bern asked if he might read aloud to me later the opening chapters of a first draft of a novel. He’d never before read to me or asked my opinion of a work-in-progress and I was surprised by the request. I was also a little perturbed, and wondered throughout lunch what sort of book it could be, conceived and begun in the midst of all this hardship by a writer whose memory of even the multiplication tables had been clouded now for several years and whose vision, also impaired by the stroke, made shaving every morning what he’d wryly described to me as ‘an adventure’.

After coffee Bern went to his study for the manuscript, a thin sheaf of pages perfectly typed and neatly clipped together. Ann, whose back had been bothering her, excused herself to take a rest, and when Bern settled back at the table it was to begin to read, a little formally, in his quiet insistent way, to just Claire and me.

I noticed when he sat down that all around his chair, on the porch floor, were scattered crumbs from his lunch. A tremor had made eating a little bit of an adventure too, and yet he had driven himself to write these pages, to undertake once again this ordeal. I remembered the opening of The Assistant, the picture of the aging grocer, Morris Bober, dragging the heavy milk cases in from the curb at six o’clock on a November morning. I also remembered the exertion that had killed him – near financial disaster and physical collapse, he nonetheless goes out at night to shovel six inches of fresh March snow from the sidewalk in front of the imprisoning store. When I got home that evening, I reread the pages describing the grocer’s last great effort to do his job.

To his surprise the wind wrapped him in an icy jacket, his apron flapping noisily. He had expected, the last of March, a milder night ... He flung another load of snow into the street. ‘A better life,’ he muttered.

It turned out that not too many words were typed on each page and that the first-draft chapters were extremely brief. I didn’t dislike what I heard because there was nothing yet to like or dislike – he hadn’t got started, really, however much he wanted to think otherwise. It was like having been led into a dark hole to see by torchlight the first Malamud story ever scratched upon a cave wall. What was awesome wasn’t what was on the wall but, rather, contemplating the power of the art that had been generated by such simple markings.

I didn’t want to lie to him but, looking at the thin sheaf of pages in the hands of that very frail man, I couldn’t tell the truth, even if he was expecting it of me. I said simply, and only a little evasively, that it seemed to me a beginning like all beginnings. That was quite truthful enough for a man of 71 who had published 12 of the most original works of fiction written by an American in the past thirty-five years. Trying to be constructive, I suggested that perhaps the narrative opened too slowly and that he might better begin further on, with one of the later chapters. Then I asked where it was all going. ‘What comes next?’ I said, hoping we could pass on to what it was he had in mind if not yet down on the page.

But he wouldn’t let go of what he’d written, at such cost, as easily as that. Nothing was ever as easy as that, least of all the end of things. In a soft voice suffused with fury, he said: ‘What’s next isn’t the point.’

In the silence that followed, before Claire eased him gently into a discussion of the kind of character he was imagining as his hero, he was perhaps as angry at failing to master the need for assurance so nakedly displayed as he was with me for having nothing good to say. He wanted to be told that what he had painfully composed while enduring all his burdens was something more than he himself must have known it to be in his heart. He was suffering so, I wished I could have said that it was something more, and that if I’d said it, he could have believed me.

Before I left for England in the fall I wrote him a note telling him that I was off, and inviting him and Ann to come down to Connecticut the next summer – it was our turn to entertain them. The response that reached me in London some weeks later was pure, laconic Malamudese. They’d be delighted to visit, but, he reminded me, ‘next summer is next summer.’

He died on 18 March, three days before spring.