Small Man, Heroic Qualities

Benjamin Balint
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Benjamin Balint

Bernard Malamud A Life, by Philip Davis, Oxford University Press, 377 pages, $34.95

Flaubert counseled writers: "Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work."

Bernard Malamud, one of the most original voices of American fiction in the last half-century, outwardly led a most ordinary and orderly life. He possessed neither the exuberant charm of Bellow, nor the megalomania of Mailer. "As a life," his publisher Roger Straus once said, "it was unexciting. Saul Bellow was filet mignon, Malamud was hamburger." Private, fastidious and reserved, Malamud gave his life over wholly to perfecting his art.

In looking at such a focused life, one can tally its costs, as the author's daughter Janna Malamud Smith does in her aptly named memoir, "My Father Is a Book," published last year. Or one can admiringly count the fruits that such self-sacrifice bears. In his new book, the first full-scale biography of Malamud (1914-1986), Philip Davis takes the second tack. Davis, a British scholar, places Malamud's novels and short stories first, in an attempt to show that, as he puts it, "out of the pained botching and blurring of that failed, uneven compromise between his life and his art, there came, paradoxically, the very best of Malamud's work."

The key to Davis' subtle portrait lies in the profound similarities it reveals between the writer and his own characters.

Davis' story begins with semi-literate, Yiddish-speaking immigrants in Brooklyn. Max Malamud lived with his wife Bertha Fidelman above their grocery store, where he put in back-breaking 16-hour days. They raised two sons, Bernard and Eugene. Bertha went mad, and died in an asylum when Bernard was 15. Eugene, three years younger, was later diagnosed with schizophrenia, and was committed to various hospitals for the mentally ill.

From his father, young Bern inherited a severe work ethic. "I must work for art. I must work harder," he admonished himself in his journal. First at Erasmus Hall High, then at City College and at Columbia - where he earned a master's degree with a thesis on Thomas Hardy in 1942 - Malamud sought order through reading. Eudora Welty taught him an identification of beauty with reticence, and Hemingway schooled him in a simplicity and "repressive dignity" of style.

One night when he was in his twenties, Malamud was "laboring in vain for hours attempting to bring a short story to life," he recalled. "Then I experienced a wave of feeling, of heartfelt emotion bespeaking commitment to life and art, so deeply it brought tears to my eyes. For the hundredth time I promised myself that I would someday be a very good writer."

Long before he could fulfill it, Malamud took the promise seriously. Before he married Ann DeChiara, an Italian Catholic ("who died earlier this year"), he warned her in a letter: "Though I love you and shall love you more, most of my strength will be devoted to realizing myself as an artist."

Years passed without accomplishment. Malamud worked summers in the Catskills, clerked in the Census Bureau, tutored German-Jewish immigrants in English, taught night classes, and spent five years on a long, autobiographical novel, only to abandon it and burn the manuscript.

But during his dozen years at Oregon State, teaching three days a week and writing the other four, the arduous apprenticeship came to a startling end. In 1952, at age 38, Malamud wrote the great American baseball novel, "The Natural," raising the national pastime to myth, and himself to prominence.

And then, success upon success. His masterpiece, "The Assistant," about an Italian-American whose remorse for stealing from a Jewish shopkeeper compels him to work in the store and finally to become a Jew, came five years later. "The Magic Barrel," his first collection of short stories, won the National Book Award in 1959. In 1967, "The Fixer," a fictional account of the 1911 Mendel Beiliss blood libel in Kiev, earned Malamud a Pulitzer and another National Book Award. Meanwhile, he had been redeemed from exile in the West, and given a job at Bennington College, in Vermont, where he would teach for more than 20 years.

And that, as far as the life goes, was pretty much it. There followed more books, coaxed into being by enormous self-discipline, and more accolades. There were two children, and a few affairs, the most serious of which began when Malamud was 47, with a 19-year-old Bennington girl; and there was great generosity, as when he advanced a down payment for a student's house. Near the end, in 1982, there was a stroke, after which Malamud struggled to regain language.

After Malamud died, four years later, Ann described him as "someone who towards the end of his life must have felt in some way that he hadn't lived." The same might be said of Malamud's characters, who are best understood as the critic Robert Alter has understood them: "large and resonant in their smallness." Their smallness resounds because it urges us to contemplate our own, and because it awakens a sense of empathy and enigma.

Characters locked in themselves Many of Malamud's men are imprisoned, like Yakov Bok, in a czarist jail in "The Fixer," Lesser in his tenement in "The Tenants," or Bober in his grocery store in "The Assistant." Malamud's creatures seem most of all locked in themselves, however, entrapped by guilt, captives to sex, to middle age, or to the contaminations of the past. As Levin discovers in "A New Life": "The prison was really himself, flawed edifice of failures, each locking up tight the one before."

In short, Malamud's plain people suffer - from loss and disappointment, from love ungiven, from loans and obligations, from everyday indignities. Sometimes the protagonists are defeated: Levin describes himself as a "limp self entangled in the fabric of a will-less life." At other times, the sufferers prevail, and accept that suffering, as Iris says in "The Natural," "is what brings us to happiness. It teaches us to want the right things." But either way, in observing the minor transactions between ordinary people enduring bleak, uneventful lives, Malamud attends to what he called "heroic qualities in small men." Alfred Kazin called him "a fantasist of the ordinary."

Resonant smallness also describes the spare, laconic style that Malamud forged to capture immigrant inflections, the locutions of Jewish speech. Malamud's condensed, pared-down sentences carry reserves of meaning. They do not say all they mean. Malamud "discovered a sort of communicative genius in the impoverished, harsh jargon of immigrant New York," Bellow once said.

To accomplish this, Malamud became a master of revision, of verbal precision ("he once thought of teaching a course in the human sentence"), and of afterthought. He spoke of the intense enjoyment of "finding new opportunities in old sentences, twisting, trying, looping structure tighter . . . deepening meanings, strengthening logicality in order to infiltrate the apparently illogical." In draft after draft, Malamud sought resonance in the smallest of effects. "I would write a book, or a short story, at least three times - once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say."

Resonant smallness, finally, describes how Malamud treated Jewishness in his writing. Though he retained only a tenuous relationship with Jewish tradition, Malamud deemed its spirituality and morality to be of "surpassing beauty." This allowed him to hear - and to let us hear - the larger reverberations of that tradition. "I use the Jew as Jew, and the Jew as universal man ("as Bloom in Joyce") and symbol of suffering man," he said. "All men are Jews, if they knew it."

Davis sometimes missteps: He refers to "the five boroughs of Brooklyn," he conflates the Talmud's Tractate Sanhedrin with the ancient court itself. His prose can be heard to creak under the weight of his abundant research.

But taken as a whole, Philip Davis' biography of Malamud amounts to a meditation on how common life can be pressed into the service of uncommon achievement. It succeeds in giving us a writer who, like his creations, managed to elicit extraordinary resonance by drawing the bow of language across the strings of an ordinary, small - and often somber - life.

Benjamin Balint, a writer living in Jerusalem, is working on a book about Commentary magazine and American-Jewish culture.



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