Bernard Malamud: A Writer's Life, by Philip Davies

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Philip Davis has loved Bernard Malamud's novels and stories for 30 years, and his affectionate admiration informs this detailed and generous biography. Malamud died in 1986, and since then his writing has been overshadowed by that of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. Yet the truth is that his best work deserves to be ranked alongside theirs, for reasons that Davis frequently makes clear. The self-effacing, constantly hard-working Malamud had a horror of novels such as Bellow's Herzog, in which the author's neuroses and paranoia are put on public display. Malamud is closer in spirit to Isaac Bashevis Singer and Chekhov, storytellers who steer well clear of the seemingly autobiographical. The lives of other people were always more important to him than the current state of his mind as a proper subject for fiction.

Davis notes with a certain sadness that Malamud at the end of his life in writing still lacked confidence, could still feel humiliated by an intemperate and unjust review by a New York hack such as John Leonard. Being a successful writer in America – "successful" in terms of sales and transitory fame, that is – means acting the showman to an extent, and Malamud was incapable, due to a combination of shyness and revulsion, of playing the part.

Malamud was born in Brooklyn in 1914. His parents Max (originally Mendel) Malamud and Bertha (*ée Brucha Fidelman) were Jewish immigrants newly arrived from Russia. Bertha's first son was stillborn, so the infant Bernard was showered with affection. His brother, Eugene, arrived in 1917. The family was poor, and became even poorer with the advent of the Depression. Bernard's childhood was therefore one of hardship and, in 1929, tragedy. Bertha, who had suffered from mental illness for some time, had to be committed to an asylum, and it was there that she died, probably by her own hand. The terrible event affected the 14-year-old for the rest of his life, but it also gave him a lasting subject – the absence of love and the desperate attempts to retrieve and secure it that men and women are often reduced to.

Malamud's exact and refined prose (Mendel in the story "Idiots First", for example, draws on "his cold embittered clothing") did not come easily to him. He worried away at his sentences until they gleamed. His diligent and painstaking approach to his art guaranteed long hours at his desk, sometimes causing friction between him and his wife of Italian origin, Ann, and their children Janna and Paul. Money was scarce at the beginning of his career, but a succession of university posts ensured financial stability wherever he was working on a new book.

At the age of 47, Malamud began an affair with one of his students at Bennington College. Arlene Heyman was 19, and as beautiful as she was intelligent. They met clandestinely in New York City and in various cities in Italy. The difference in their ages, exacerbated by Malamud's irritation and jealousy when she flirted with young men, brought the physical aspect of their liaison to an acrimonious end. Even so, the relationship was to endure on a platonic level, with the two exchanging heartfelt letters as he grew older. (Arlene is the model for Amy in Roth's The Ghost Writer and the recent Exit Ghost, the Muse – it is implied – of EI Lonoff, the great writer who might, or might not, be Malamud.)

The youthful Roth was an admirer of Malamud's second novel, The Assistant, which is inspired by Max Malamud's experience as a grocer in Brooklyn in the Twenties and Thirties. After teaching the book on a creative writing course, Roth changed his mind, and in an article for the New York Review of Books, defending his own Portnoy's Complaint, he accused Malamud of creating a stereotype in Morris Bober, the Jew as victim, who entraps the Gentile Frank into a life of servitude. The novel strikes me as being just as heartbreakingly true today as it was when I first read it in the Sixties – a very particular study of a very particular way of life. Deprivation and victimhood are terrible bedfellows.

Along with The Assistant and Dubin's Lives, that rueful study of a biographer of Thoreau who becomes obsessively involved with a younger woman, Malamud's greatest achievement is in the realm of the short story. The Stories of Bernard Malamud is a magisterial collection, unfashionably warm and compassionate, and forgiving of human folly. Davis charts Malamud's long struggle to be as good a man as he is a writer with empathetic understanding.

Davies quotes Malamud as saying of Schubert, whom he adored: "Schubert writes the heart." That's a pretty accurate assessment of Malamud himself. At his very, very best, he writes the heart.

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