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.’

In recent years, Malamud has been championed by a new generation of Jewish-American writers. Dara Horn, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Lethem and Jonathan Rosen have all written loving introductions to his novels, and sometimes it seems that what they most admire about them is all the suffering: so awful, and so authentic! They do not find his sentimentality off-putting: it is, after all, their grandparents he’s writing about, not their parents. In Malamud’s first short story, an anti-semitic meat-seller thinks that ‘it was always like that with the Jews. Tears and people holding each other,’ but it’s true that more men seem to weep in Malamud’s fiction than anywhere else. Another of his stories is about himself as a young man, lying in his father’s bed ‘with a heavy cold, miserable because I had no job, he came up the stairs from the store, and after we had talked a minute, he took my foot in his hand and said “mir soll sein far dir” – “I’d rather it were I than you.” I always remembered that.’ When a father says ‘How I wish it were me’ in a Philip Roth novel, his offspring reply (as a daughter does in Exit Ghost): ‘Yes, I wish it were.’

One of the delights of Davis’s biography is realising that whatever sweetness appears in the work came unnaturally to the man. Malamud might seem to have overcome his fear of distraction when he seduced his creative-writing students – first at Oregon State University, then, as he moved up in the world, Bennington and Harvard. But there is something disconcertingly poseurish about all these loveless affairs with all these young women. ‘I deserve you,’ he wrote to one of them. He had decided that a writer – certainly a great one – should have affairs, even if he didn’t really want to, for the good of the work. An artist must have beauty. Look at Bellow! In Dubin’s Lives, the novel which Davis claims is the most intensely autobiographical, a biographer’s wife knows not to feel threatened by her husband’s infidelity: ‘Everything sooner or later goes back to your biographies. That’s your grand passion – if you could fuck your books you’d have it made.’ Often enough the girls would find things they’d said or written to Malamud tucked into his next novel.

Janna Malamud Smith, Malamud’s daughter, said in her memoir My Father Is a Book that she was ‘inclined to think what was damaged by Bertha’s psychosis and despair’ was her father’s ‘ability to live easily, openly, casually in the everyday world’. Anyway, Malamud knew his Wound and the Bow: detachment was essential for his writing, but also made living so difficult. He was excused from military service, probably because he had sought psychiatric help for depression, and spent the war years supply teaching and writing his first novel. Davis gathers that it was ‘about a depressed young man seeking to find himself’, and prospective publishers complained that there was too little plot. Malamud later burned the manuscript, but he remained convinced of his vocation. He married with trepidation: not because Ann de Chiara wasn’t Jewish, but because he feared emotional untidiness. Like Malamud’s character in The Tenants who refuses to move from a condemned apartment building because he’s in the middle of writing a novel, Malamud was sometimes overheard saying that ‘he could not stand the idea of divorce – because of the sheer disruption it would cause his work.’ He warned Ann that ‘writing is an intense experience. You do it 24 hours a day, no matter what. You must understand that and be lenient with me.’ She did; she was. So as not to encroach on the bridegroom’s time she bought her own wedding ring, and Max said Kaddish for his son as though he were dead.

In 1952, when Malamud was 38, he at last found a publisher for The Natural, about a baseball player who is shot in the stomach by a mad woman just before he can make it to try-outs. It takes him 15 years to make a comeback, when he’s well into his thirties and thought too old for a rookie. The ballplayer knows he might be ‘the best there ever was in the game’, but he regrets the cost: ‘Sometimes he wished he had no ambitions – often wondered where they had come from.’ He becomes infatuated with a coach’s niece, but she prefers the memory of the less talented outfielder he replaced:

‘Oh,’ she answered, ‘he was carefree and full of life. He did the craziest things and always kept everybody in stitches. Even when he played ball, there was something carefree and playful about it. Maybe he went all the way after a fly ball or maybe he didn’t, but once he made up his mind to catch it, it was exciting how he ran and exciting how he caught it … You work at it so – sometimes you even look desperate – but to him it was a playful game and so was his life.’

It’s an enjoyable book, particularly if you like baseball. Malamud himself was disappointed by it. He had wanted to write the All-American novel – it’s the only one of Malamud’s fictions in which there isn’t a Jew to be found – but he was writing far from what he knew, or even was interested in, and by the end the novel is only retelling stories about Babe Ruth and Shoeless Joe Jackson. More interesting are the short stories Malamud was writing at the same time, set in New York. Davis writes: ‘Wonderful as many of those stories are, I want most of all to make the case that Malamud himself most favoured – the case for his novels.’ Accordingly, Davis pays less attention to the stories than he might have, and too much to novels that seem unworthy of pages of textual analysis.

Among these is The Fixer (1966), a sadomasochistic fantasy that won over prize juries with its hokum ending: ‘Where there’s no fight for it there’s no freedom … Long live revolution! Long live liberty!’ Philip Roth, no prude, criticised the novel as a ‘relentless work of violent pornography’; Malamud may have started with Kafka in mind, but he settled for the Story of O.

They threatened to pump blood out of his penis with a machine they had for that purpose. The machine was a pump made of iron with a red indicator to show how much blood was being drained out. The danger of it was that it didn’t always work right and sometimes sucked every drop of blood out of the body. It was used exclusively on Jews; only their penises fitted it.

And so on for three hundred pages.

The Tenants (1971) is about the strained friendship between two writers, the cultivated, diligent Jewish novelist Harry Lesser, who is always called ‘the writer’, and Willie Spearmint, possessed of animal energy (there is no other way to describe it) and natural talent, who is always called ‘the black’. Malamud’s idea of black vernacular – even as spoken by a writer – is ‘I want green power. I want money to stuff up my black ass and white bitch’s cunt. I want to fuck her with money.’ (This one, at least, Davis is willing to describe as ‘failed experimentalism’, even as he earnestly argues that the novel ‘was written to make a social difference in the contemporary world – to bring about a greater understanding of the black and white races’.)

In Malamud’s last novel, God’s Grace (1982), a paleologist is the lone human survivor of nuclear war. He finds apes that speak English, teaches them about Judaism (they think the rules are too hard and convert to Christianity), and is rescued from despair when he fathers the child of a ‘loving lady chimpanzee’: ‘In sum, a worthy primate evolution demanded, besides a few macroevolutionary lucky breaks, a basis of brainpower; and commencing with a combination of man-chimp child, the two most intelligent of God’s creatures might produce this new species.’ Davis notes that Malamud was depressed by the reviews.

But the short stories are marvels of storytelling – straightforward, no tricks. Flannery O’Connor wrote to a friend: ‘I have discovered a short-story writer who is better than any of them, including myself. Go to the library and get a book called The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud.’ A few of the stories, written after Malamud won a Partisan Review fellowship to Italy, are about the difficulty of finding affordable apartments in Rome. But most are about New Yorkers, usually in tenements or living above the store, or above the butcher, the cobbler – ‘no closets, but who needed them?’ Their lives are hard, and the slightest disturbance may upset everything: a grocer who tends a shop ‘for profits counted in pennies’ realises that a poor child has been stealing candy. Another grocer learns that a store offering better bargains is about to open next door. A star of the Yiddish theatre finds out that his daughter has been dating an uneducated plumber. A tailor ‘who had prospered, so to say, into ill health’ can’t keep his employees from fighting. Malamud was not a great stylist (‘Bellow has two words to my one,’ he would moan), but in the short stories his dialogue captures something of the poetry of Yiddish syntax:

‘How did he die?’ …
‘From what he died? – he died, that’s all.’
‘Answer, please, this question.’
‘Broke in him something. That’s how.’
‘Broke what?’
‘Broke what breaks.’

(‘Take Pity’)

Virginia Woolf said that her books would have been ‘inconceivable’ without the death of her father: she needed him to die before she could write about him in To the Lighthouse. Something similar seems to have been true of Malamud. Although he had written stories about poor Jewish grocers since high school, it wasn’t until after his father died in 1954 that he began to shape the material he was chronicling in his short stories into a novel.

The Assistant (1957) tells the story of the slow death of Morris Bober, who escaped conscription in the tsar’s army by fleeing the country. ‘He had hoped for much in America and got little.’ Nearly everything we need to know about him, we learn in the opening scene:

The front door opened and a girl of ten entered, her face pinched and eyes excited. His heart held no welcome for her.

‘My mother says,’ she said quickly, ‘can you trust her till tomorrow for a pound of butter, loaf of rye bread and a small bottle of cider vinegar?’

He knew the mother. ‘No more trust.’

The girl burst into tears.

Morris gave her a quarter-pound of butter, the bread and vinegar. He found a pencilled spot on the worn counter, near the cash register, and wrote a sum under ‘Drunk Woman’. The total now came to $2.03, which he never hoped to see. But Ida would nag if she noticed a new figure, so he reduced the amount to $1.61. His peace – the little he lived with – was worth 42 cents.

Malamud had never cared so much about these homely particulars – what a child might order in a store, what the owner might give: ‘More detail,’ he prodded himself in the margins of his manuscript. Into Morris’s life – as if from the pages of one of the Russian novels his ambitious daughter reads on the subway – comes the Italyener Frank Alpine. He robs the store, hurting Morris in the process, and spends the rest of the novel trying to atone, first by working in the grocery, then by taking it over to provide for Morris’s family. Alpine’s punishment is to become a Jewish shopkeeper: ‘They would carry him out in a box. When the walls caved in they could dig for him with shovels.’ It is a great novel.

Since Malamud’s death in 1986, his daughter had discouraged all would-be biographers. In an essay for the New York Times in 1989, Janna Malamud Smith said she would not be making her father’s letters and journals public because she feared that a biography would be ‘without the love, loyalty or privacy that make revelation meaningful’. But in her memoir, published last year, she announced that she’d changed her mind; her father’s critical reputation, she knew, had fallen, and she announced her hope that a biography would reverse its course. Philip Davis has responded with a generous if not always convincing evaluation of the work, and his portrait of the man is intelligent and interesting. It is also very much a British biography, and most of Davis’s rather too frequent slips – though few of them are consequential – probably wouldn’t have been made by an American, particularly in the sections about baseball. (One to stand for the many: Davis describes Malamud’s high school, Erasmus, as the best in the ‘five boroughs of Brooklyn’. Brooklyn is not divided into boroughs; it is one of the five boroughs of New York City.) There is something patronising, too, about Davis’s repeated reference to Malamud as ‘this Wordsworth of Brooklyn’. Malamud wasn’t a Wordsworth. But his idiom was his own.