Desk Job

Deborah Friedell

  • Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life by Philip Davis
    Oxford, 377 pp, £18.99, September 2007, ISBN 978 0 19 927009 5

In Philip Roth’s novel The Ghost Writer, 23-year-old Nathan Zuckerman, ‘already contemplating my own massive Bildungsroman’, makes a jaunty pilgrimage to the clapboard farmhouse of Emanuel Lonoff, the great Jewish-American writer whose work Zuckerman admires but aims to surpass. Although Lonoff writes about Jews, he has secluded himself in the goyish New England countryside in the hope of being left alone: ‘I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again.’ At his desk each morning by 8.30, Lonoff pauses only for lunch and to teach creative writing at the local college, then writes until dinner, always prepared by his lonely shiksa wife, then reads until he’s exhausted. On Sundays he usually agrees to spend part of the day walking with his wife through the woods, but before they’ve walked long he invariably becomes anxious and insists on going back to work.

Aspects of Lonoff’s biography and manner have called to mind I.B. Singer and, in the most recent Zuckerman novel, Henry Roth. But Philip Davis, Bernard Malamud’s first biographer, persuasively argues that the house, the wife, the joylessness and the drive are all echt Malamud. ‘If you think of me sitting at my desk, you can’t be wrong,’ Malamud once wrote to a friend he would not make the time to see. He had little confidence in his natural gifts, and hoped to compensate by putting in more hours than anyone else. He spent his life envious of the idle, effortless, self-delighting genius (or so he imagined Saul Bellow) and those with better educations and more refined childhoods. Growing up, he told the Paris Review, ‘there were no books that I remember in the house, no records, music, pictures on the wall. On Sundays I listened to somebody’s piano through the window.’ It wasn’t actually a house; it was a small railroad flat above a poor grocery store. His best short stories and his masterpiece, The Assistant, would come from that world, the family crowded into a tiny Brooklyn apartment while the father, his ‘soles and heels … worn paper thin for being so many hours on his feet’, manages the store below:

The thousands of cans he had wiped off and packed away, the milk cases dragged in like rocks from the street before dawn in freeze or heat; insults, petty thievery, doling of credit to the impoverished by the poor; the peeling ceiling, fly-specked shelves, puffed cans, dirt, swollen veins, the back-breaking 16-hour day like a heavy hand slapping, upon awaking, the skull, pushing the head down to bend the body’s bones; the hours; the work; the years.

(‘The Cost of Living’)

Max Malamud (born Mendel) and his wife, Bertha (Brucha), had been part of the exodus of late 19th-century Russian Jews who fled the Pale for the United States. Although Bernard Malamud is sometimes likened to a literary Chagall, there is nothing schmaltzy about his descriptions of shtetl life. The novel he sets in Russia, The Fixer, in which a Jewish man is accused of killing a Christian child, is so fantastically miserable that many thought it unreadable, though it won the Pulitzer Prize. But the new world brought Malamud’s parents less joy than they had hoped. Bertha was schizophrenic, and would die in a mental institution when Bernard was 15. Bernard’s younger brother would spend his adult life institutionalised with the same illness. Although Malamud seems to have found his father’s suffering abominable – ‘What a shameful waste of life, and existence, and all that’ – suffering in his fiction is unvaryingly allowed to be redemptive or ennobling: ‘Suffering is what brings us towards happiness – it teaches us to want the right things.’

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