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Malamud, Bernard 1914–
Malamud is an American novelist and short story writer. Thematically, his fiction centers around the concerns of the Jew in modern America. Malamud's work is distinguished by a spare prose style and dialogue flavored with traditional Yiddish humor and dialect. Through his suffering heroes, who are drawn with compassion, Malamud explores the process of redemption through suffering, reaffirming the triumph of the human spirit. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 9, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
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[The aspects of culture] which characterize Malamud's best writing, particularly some of his finest short stories, I would identify with Hasidism, a Jewish religious movement founded shortly before the middle of the eighteenth century by the East European saint and mystic, Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov. Some of the major teachings of Hasidism, a transformation or reinterpretation of an older Jewish mysticism which made it accessible to the masses of the people, are the need to journey inward to achieve salvation, the importance of identification with a holy man or teacher, the primacy of love, and the reality of evil. In addition, the Hasidic belief in the sanctity of the tale, the notion that a story could have potency to effect change, led to the development of a vast and rich folklore. Hasidic tales permeated the culture of the East European shtetl until its destruction in the twentieth century and directly, or indirectly, have influenced the thinking of East European Jews and their descendants. If Malamud recalls for us the humor of Sholom Aleichem and, more significantly, the irony of I. L. Peretz, if his tales infuse us with the same sense of mystery that we find in the recreated Hasidic tales of Martin Buber, it is because he shares a common past with all of these writers.
Among his finest short stories, there are five which particularly illustrate Malamud's use of Hasidic themes: "The Last Mohican," "The Magic Barrel," "Idiots First," "The Jewbird," and "The Silver Crown." All of them deal with old-world Jews, displaced or in tension with the world around them; there is a schnorrer (beggar), a shadchan (matchmaker), even the suggestion of a wonder-working rabbi. From Yiddish folklore the author draws on a talking bird and the angel of death, and each of these figures takes on special significance within the Hasidic tradition. To understand the Hasidic elements in these short stories is to enrich our appreciation of some of Malamud's most creative work.
The motif of the journey as a means to the discovery of self, an inward journey that promises salvation, is employed most successfully in "The Last Mohican." Arthur Fidelman, a "self confessed failure as a painter,"… goes to Italy to become an art critic and learns, instead, to become a mensch. Fidelman's mentor in Rome is Shimon Susskind, refugee from Israel, a combination schnorrer, wandering Jew, and Virgil. (pp. 51-2)
As a Jewish Virgil, Susskind leads his initiate on a journey through Hell that promises transformation. But, unlike Dante's Virgil, Susskind is no exemplar of cool and dispassionate reason. On the contrary, he has all the bravado, all the huzpah (arrogance), associated with the common beggar or schnorrer of East European shtetl society. Because he is a product of this society …, Susskind knows that as a beggar he is an occasion for mizvos (good deeds) and, thus, an instrument of grace. If he feels himself at an advantage, if he does not hesitate to demand his due, it is because he realizes that the more fortunate need him as an object of charity. In the culture of the shtetl it is the schnorrer who opens "the portals of heaven" for the more fortunate man…. In the final analysis, the power of "The Last Mohican" can be attributed to Shimon Susskind who, with all his grotesque humor, can be identified with the wandering beggars and fools of Hasidic folklore. Like them, he is an enigmatic mixture of the commonplace and mysterious, the saintly and demonic; like them, he makes people dream and leads them to themselves.
"The Magic Barrel," the title story of Malamud's first collection, is probably the best one that he has written to date. Like so many of Malamud's better stories, which suspend us between the real and the supernatural, "The Magic Barrel" also contains within it an artful fusion of Hasidism's basic teachings. Leo Finkle, a young rabbinical student, must learn the lesson of the heart over the head. He does so from Pinye Salzman, a questionable mentor, who leads him on a tortuous journey and through an experience of evil. Only by identifying with, and embracing, this evil can Leo find himself and the love that he so desperately seeks. (pp. 53-4)
As an old-world shadchan, Pinye Salzman represents a classic type in Jewish folklore. Noted for a tendency toward humbug and a genius for euphemistically glossing over the defects of clients, the shadchan is not without a comic pathos. As the guide who shows to one who is lost the way through the mysterious maze of love and redemption, Salzman is reminiscent, in some ways, of Shimon Susskind of "The Last Mohican."… Salzman, like the refugee from Israel, is comic and grotesque, yet not without a sad dignity. If there is a suggestion of the demonic about Susskind, it also clings to Salzman, for Leo sees him as a "commercial cupid" … and a "cloven-hoofed Pan"…. To trust in Salzman, the yeshivah student must suspend his rationality…. [The] whole tenor of the story suggests that Salzman planned the final meeting between the student and his daughter for their mutual benefit, and if, at the end, he chants the prayers for the dead, he does so within the context of a culture where death is but the first step in the process of transformation. (pp. 54-5)
The final tableau—Leo running toward Stella with violets and rosebuds, while violins and lit candles revolve in the sky—transports us into a dream world where anything is possible. Many critics, writing of this scene, have remarked on its affinity with the paintings of Marc Chagall, and, not surprisingly, for Malamud's world, like Chagall's, is the visionary world of Hasidism where all of God's creation, good and evil, death and life, swirl together in a unified whole.
The Hasidic belief in inner salvation, an important theme in Malamud's early stories, is not as prevalent in his later work, where other Hasidic teachings, such as the potency of love (or hate) and the terrors of evil (both, of course, associated with the process of transformation in the earlier work) are more prevalent. Three stories which skillfully demonstrate these themes are "Idiots First" and "The Jewbird" (in Idiots First) and "The Silver Crown" (in Rembrandt's Hat).
"Idiots First," is based on a common motif in folk literature: the confrontation of a mortal with the Angel of Death…. In the culture of the Hasidim, though death is accepted, even embraced, there are times when death is postponed because of special circumstances. (pp. 55-6)
The power of "Idiots First" lies in its masterful tension between terror and hope and the artfulness with which we are suspended between the real and the supernatural. Death is a messenger who croaks "Gut yontif" (Good holiday) …, an omnipresent force that talks of "cosmic universal law" … but who picks his teeth with a matchstick…. If Ginzburg is, on the one hand, inexorable, he is, on the other, able to reflect on himself…. We see here Malamud's gift in creating a dream-like landscape, for, while the setting is New York, the deserted streets and the reappearance of the bearded stranger transport us to somewhere beyond. Finally, there is Malamud's special way of combining affirmation with a suggestive, mocking irony. Mendel has conquered death but only for a few minutes; Isaac [his son], a half-wit, will go to California, but to the care of an eighty-one year old uncle, and how long will Uncle Leo live? (p. 57)
"The Jewbird," a combination of beast fable and parable, emphasizes the Hasidic teaching of the reality of evil. If a man will not accept evil as part of himself, if he cannot say with the Hasidic rebbe, "I experience it [evil] when I meet myself," if he is determined only to project it on to another, then evil has the power to destroy that man rather than to lead him on the pathway to good. Malamud incorporates this teaching in his story of the Cohen family and their encounter with a talking bird … who flies into their New York apartment one day and announces 'I'm a Jewbird'….
According to Samuel Bellman, the Jewbird as a talking "crow" seems to hark back to Poe's "The Raven," but it would seem to me more appropriate to place it within the context of Jewish tradition. Talking animals are common in Jewish folklore and are distinctive for the ways in which they take over Jewish mannerisms and modes of speech. Malamud's Jewbird, Schwartz, who smells of herring and speaks with a Yiddish accent, is an obvious product of the East European shtetl. (pp. 57-8)
But the story may be related to Hasidic teaching in a more profound way, for Harry Cohen could be any man who rejects evil as part of himself, who projects it on to another, and destroys the other without realizing that the other is part of himself. When Schwartz flies into Cohen's apartment asking for sanctuary, he says he is fleeing from "Antisemeetes,"… but Cohen's fear and persecution of Schwartz make him the anti-Semite who does Schwartz the most harm. (p. 58)
In an even more somber tone, "The Silver Crown," the opening story of Rembrandt's Hat, is also concerned with the reality of evil; in particular, the terrors of repressed hatred. (p. 59)
The conflict in "The Silver Crown" is not so much between doubt and faith as between love and hate…. Twice the rabbi asks Albert if he loves his father and both times Albert avoids answering the question directly…. If Albert wants to save his father it is from a sense of gratitude and from a concern that his own "conscience be in the clear."… But Albert's initial unwillingness to face his repressed hatred for his father and his closing cry of "He hates me, the son-of-a-bitch, I hope he croaks" … suggest that the final unmasking will leave him with a lifetime of regret. When he runs down the stairs with a "spike-ridden head-ache" …, he is fleeing from a terrifying recognition of self that his pride cannot accept.
The power of "The Silver Crown" comes from the tension that it evokes between the mysterious and the commonplace, and from the artistry with which it explores the complexities of human nature. Is the rabbi a "clever confidence man" … or a genuine magician …? Did Gans "murder" his father, as the rabbi claims, or did the old man die of natural causes? As in so many of Malamud's tales, the answers to such questions do not ultimately matter. What does matter is that Gans, in his unwillingness to face his feelings, has denied both his father and himself. That the elder Gans had sensed his son's true feelings is implied in his cancer "of the heart"…. If hate is to be turned into love, a man must first accept it as his own. Albert is ensnared in "the conceit born of self-deception," a sin that, to a Hasid, weighs more than "all the sins of the world." Though there is some question about Rabbi Lifschitz's authenticity in "The Silver Crown," there is no doubt that the arch-deceiver of the story is Albert Gans himself.
In many ways "The Silver Crown" is a recreation of characters and themes that Malamud has shown us before. The Bronx biology teacher is another of Malamud's young intellectuals, skeptical to the bone and reluctant to love. His quest for his father is ultimately tied to his knowledge of self, a knowledge that he would deny rather than face. Rabbi Lifschitz is another of Malamud's enigmatic holy men, ready to lead the young man into an experience with evil, the instrument for grace or damnation as the hero would choose. The notable difference between "The Silver Crown" and the earlier tales which resemble it, is the pessimism which prevails here. Albert Gans, unlike Arthur Fidelman or Leo Finkle, does not achieve salvation. Yet this tale, like "The Jewbird," while it does not evoke the delight of the earlier stories of transformation, nevertheless may be seen within the framework of Hasidism. Though its teaching emphasizes inner salvation and joy in all that is, it does not deny the dark side of life and man's freedom of will. In some Hasidic stories, a man chooses Hell; in Bernard Malamud's fiction he sometimes makes the same choice.
Looking back on Malamud's short stories, we see a reflection of the same concerns that are found in his novels. The quest for salvation, when achieved, is ultimately tied to the acceptance of self. If a man fails another, he has first failed himself. Yet, I think that none of the novels can match his short stories, perhaps because, as Philip Roth has written, Malamud's imagination is "essentially folkoric and didactic" [see CLC, Vol. 5], and such an imagination lends itself more readily to the terseness associated with the traditional tale. (pp. 59-61)
Malamud, in the twentieth century, is doing with the Yiddish tale what Peretz did with it in the nineteenth. Peretz, a reworker of Hasidic folk materials and one of the founding fathers of modern Yiddish literature, is certainly one of its most conscious stylists…. [Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg point out that what] he does, especially in his later and stronger stories, is to rework folk and Hasidic materials "in a way that appears to be folklike but is actually the product of a sophisticated literary intellect." Or, to put it another way, what Peretz accomplishes through his sense of distance, his use of irony, his control of tragic vision is, in the words of the Yiddish poet, Jacob Glatstein, "to give the agnostic legitimacy" and "to preserve Jewish life for him."
Malamud's reworking of Hasidic themes is not unlike Peretz's; there is the same controlled tension between skepticism and wonder, the same juxtaposition of sacred and profane, the same fusion of Jewish past and present. But, in the best sense of the tradition, Malamud, too, has broken away and found his own distinctive voice. While both writers excel in a kind of bittersweet irony, while both can be ambivalent, even sour in tone, there is often a warmth and humor to Malamud which is more difficult to find in Peretz. Nevertheless, each writer at his best proves the sanctity of the Hasidic tale, for each, by reminding man of his kinship with the past, suggests the possibilities of transformation. (p. 61)
Marcia B. Gealy, "Malamud's Short Stories: A Reshaping of Hasidic Tradition," in Judaism (copyright © 1979 by the American Jewish Congress), Vol. 28, No. 1, Winter, 1979, pp. 51-61.
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Bernard Malamud's risk-taking new novel ["Dubin's Lives"] moves into areas not usually associated with his art. In many of the famous short stories, in such novels as "The Assistant," "The Fixer" and "The Tenants," Malamud has depicted Jewish characters in confrontation with their neighbors—Italian-Americans, Czarist Russians, blacks and other goyim; he has presented the Jew as victim, as sufferer and as purveyor of special moral insights painfully wrung from experience. Often his stories have seemed like fables; often he has used, in both narrative and dialogue, a voice that echoes, in its rhythms and locutions, the Yiddish-speaking past.
"Dubin's Lives," by contrast, is only peripherally concerned with Jewishness, though its protagonist, William Dubin, was born into a poor Jewish family…. At 56, Dubin is a successful freelance biographer who lives comfortably in a small town, Center Campobello, on the New York-Vermont border. (p. 1)
Throughout, Dubin's relationship to his work is a major concern. His writing, which is central to his life, even to the point of shutting out his wife and children, has its own rhythms, rising and falling in ways that do not consistently reflect what is happening in other areas of his experience. The "lives" that he has written shed their influence over the course of his own life and his understanding of it; Thoreau, for instance, has educated Dubin's eye for nature…. The influence of Lawrence is to be felt in some of the sexually explicit lovemaking scenes, one of which, involving the entwining of flowers around flesh, seems to have been transposed directly from "Lady Chatterley's Lover."
Death and resurrection—that most Lawrentian of themes—is a central theme of this novel as well, one that is worked out on the grand scale of the landscape and the seasons and on the microcosmic scale of Dubin's existence. Two whole years and more undergo the cycle of efflorescence, decay, death and rebirth. (pp. 29-30)
Obviously there is a thematic copiousness in "Dubin's Lives," enough explicit or implied "meaning" to supply half a dozen less ambitious works. How well is all this sustained by the novel's action, by the continuing interplay of character and event? The novel seems to me to move brilliantly through the first third of its length, again and again displaying what Malamud can do when his talent is crackling at his fingertips. In this section the book is wry, rueful, inventive and funny. In his exploration of the effect of the Venetian fling on Dubin's marriage and work, he achieves a psychological truthfulness that is moving and impressive. But the action of the middle section flags rather seriously, becomes slack and repetitious. The stalemate between Dubin and Kitty is too protracted, while the sexual interludes with Fanny do more to rejuvenate Dubin than the novel during this long stretch. There is perhaps an excess of weather and scenery, though they are always rendered with a delicacy and precision that Thoreau would not have scorned. Then, as if aware of a need to liven things up, Malamud introduces so many new complications that the final section becomes frenetic. These new plot twists—especially the ones involving Gerald and Maud—are so inadequately developed as to seem perfunctory. "Dubin's Lives" remains "open-ended" with a vengeance. (p. 30)
I found that while I could respond with delight and admiration to many aspects of "Dubin's Lives" and to others with critical reservation, the book as a whole eluded me—and continues to do so. A large part of my problem has to do with the presentation of Dubin himself. How ironically are we meant to perceive him? How sympathetically? Dubin's own propensity for ironic self-analysis is considerable; hardly an event occurs in the novel without being filtered through his consciousness, subjected to his commentary. We are also given a presumably "objective" commentary on his behavior from the concealed narrator's point of view, but it is so minute and glancing that no large outline of the character emerges. There are moments when Dubin seems to reach a self-understanding of such profundity that the reader holds his breath, thinking, "Ah, there he is." But then Dubin skitters off again, and we lose him.
Malamud, I believe, has positioned himself much too close to Dubin to get him in perspective—either for himself or the reader. How, for instance, is the reader meant, psychologically and morally, to take Dubin's withdrawal from Kitty, his dalliance with Fanny? Is he to be regarded as risking himself for a "plenitude of life through love?" Or as a middle-aged fool? Or both? The image of Lawrence casts a dubious shadow over the whole proceedings. Of all the risks that Malamud takes in this book, the constant invocation of an angry genius like Lawrence is the most audacious—and possibly the most damaging.
"Dubin's Lives" is a book of multiple and often conflicting intentions, a large book that creates for itself some rather large problems. It could have benefited, I think, from a sharpening of focus, from extensive cutting and from the weeding-out of some of the undeveloped material. But if flawed, it is also a rich book, generous in what it offers, a work that significantly extends the range of one of America's best writers. (pp. 30-1)
Robert Towers, "A Biographical Novel," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 18, 1979, pp. 1, 29-31.
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Bernard Malamud sometimes gets obscured by flashier American writers…. But he writes superbly most of the time, at least as well as any living American writer of fiction, and time will pardon him for violating the categories.
For he does do that, and reviewers, whose categories they largely are, are often uncomfortable with him because of it. His narratives, which we are told ought to be shapely and lucid, are often lopsided and indistinct. He can be abrupt, impatient with the demands of plot without being willing to scuttle plot altogether; so he'll take shortcuts. His situations sometimes fail wholly to convince on sociological grounds—The Tenants is an example—and his tense, loving, troubled appreciation of life, with its concomitant of occasional desperation, can lead him to sentimentality, an excess of willing; The Fixer suffers from that. In short, he isn't a tidy novelist, but loose and erratic, someone struggling.
But how well he writes! His great gift is that of using language so as to bring about the narrowest possible spaces among experience, thought and utterance, to come as close as one can to eliminating the discrepancy between experience and its recovery as literature. This near unity of instrument and object results in a quiet eloquence, a nearly inaudible one at times, since to be determinedly eloquent is to weight language toward a celebration of itself, with a consequent diminution of actuality. And Malamud's fiction, even the seemingly fantastic short stories, is one of actuality, which is to say that it esteems and mourns what exists, without wishing to add to it. He is a realist in the sense Dostoevsky was, a writer true to the structures of experience.
I find all this necessary to say because there are things wrong with Malamud's new novel, Dubin's Lives, but I don't think they matter. They are malfeasances only from the perspective of an educated, reasonable notion of fiction, a notion of elements in their proper relation: plot, structure, style, everything in balance, everything "convincing," no room for dubiety, incompleteness, disjunction. (pp. 28-9)
To Dubin's Lives, then. Malamud's title is double-edged, referring on an immediate level to the fact that his protagonist is a biographer who has written lives of Thoreau, Lincoln and Mark Twain, and more poetically to the divisions within his own being. He is at work now on a biography of D. H. Lawrence, an understandable though troubling subject. For at the heart of Dubin's condition is a Lawrence-like yearning for the flesh, for its wisdom and power, and yet Lawrence, with whom he can identify that far, was a man who wove myths around himself, was impotent at 42, was enormously complicated and in certain profound respects inaccessible. The novel concerns Dubin's struggle to write the biography while undergoing the violence of his own movement toward self-realization….
[Dubin has] fallen overpoweringly in love with a girl of 23, an event which sets everything in motion toward the seeming reversal of a proposition he had earlier stated: "One writes lives he can't live."
For in his hunger for the renewal of spirit and provisional redemption from the fact of aging which the girl affords him Dubin finds himself embattled with his book, the "fiction" he is attempting to create about Lawrence. He is blocked for long periods, most radically after the girl has broken off the affair and all his consciousness goes into the conflict between a craving for it to be restored and self-hatred for ever having begun it. (p. 29)
[In] a denouement which seems at first wholly arbitrary and unconvincing, Dubin leaps from her bed, "holding his half-stiffened phallus in his hand," to return to his wife "with love."
I say this seems arbitrary, but its rationale quickly becomes apparent. Malamud isn't telling a conventional story about adultery or middle-aged desire. If he were he might have gone on to prepare the reader for Dubin's reversal, but his impatience with the requirements of plot leads him to finish it right there, with a leap. For the real story has already been told and the point isn't whether or not Dubin stays with the girl, whether or not the affair will "work out," a question that would be at the heart of a more sentimental tale—or even a more soberly naturalistic one. The point is that things have been completed, such knowledge as time grants has been attained; Dubin's "lives" are now essentially one. As a kind of postscript there is a list of "Works by William B. Dubin." They include the Lawrence biography and several other new books: Dubin has gone on, worked, the fiction has completed itself in the future.
Instead of being a defect, then, the ending is a bold stroke, unacceptable only to those who judge fiction by its immediate psychic or social plausibility, whereas Malamud's credibility establishes itself on a deeper level….
One of [Malamud's] great strengths … is his ability to move the reader by an alternation of tones, a subtle passage from statement to evocation. The world of his fiction emits a glow of consciousness; things making themselves known, gamely, lovingly. No other writer we have celebrates so well the hard-earned nobility of the literary imagination as it makes its conquests. (p. 30)
Richard Gilman, "Books Considered: 'Dubin's Lives'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1979 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 180, No. 12, March 24, 1979, pp. 28-30.
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In such early work of Bernard Malamud as the tales collected in The Magic Barrel and the penitential drama of The Assistant, the painful, intractable truths of immigrant Jewish life in America exist as a permanent reproach to the younger generation of writers like Roth, and … Heller, who turned that poverty and suffering, even the Yiddish language itself, into a manic comedy of derision and cultural denial. Malamud rendered the immigrant world with such exactness and honesty that it acquired the fixed quality of fable.
Though Malamud has never stopped writing about Jews (only his first novel, The Natural, did without them almost entirely), quite early in his career the defeated grocers and shoemakers were succeeded by characters drawn from his adult life rather than from his Brooklyn childhood: the English teacher Levin in A New Life; the art historian and painter in Pictures of Fidelman; the novelist Harry Lesser in The Tenants; and the biographer in his new novel, Dubin's Lives. All of them grew up in slums, but by the time we meet them they have all, for better and for worse, left their parents' world behind.
In Malamud's earlier novels, what binds Levin and Fidelman and Lesser together like brothers is that they are inextricably enmeshed with their past, which does not "haunt" them in any sentimentally nostalgic sense but is part of what they are and always will be. They long for adventure, foreign places, sexual conquest, but none of these brings about the transformation they crave. In the end, all that questing merely reinforces the burden of the past…. Though Malamud's novels are rich in whimsical irony and sometimes fly up into thin surrealistic air when they should remain earthbound, the message has been clear: there are no new lives, only new illusions and disappointments.
But now, in his microscopically detailed account of William Dubin, Malamud seems to have gone off in a very different direction. "The biographer," as the novelist keeps referring to him (as though his vocation confers on Dubin a majestic status beyond the ordinary work of an ordinary life), is a fictional kinsman of Levin and Fidelman only in the sense that he was born into a poor Jewish family in Newark: his father was a waiter, and his mother went mad after a younger son was drowned. Though William Dubin often thinks of his parents and his childhood, in uncomfortable attacks of pity and revulsion, he is not obsessed with his Jewish past, nor does Malamud seem particularly concerned with its relevance to the middle-aged man he scrutinizes with inexhaustible fascination. Dubin's backward glances are dutiful but unenlightening, as though Malamud were sick of all that festering sadness and suffering, and would much rather concentrate on more interesting matters, like sex. (pp. 72-3)
[Malamud subjects us to his] mechanically turning wheel of seasons, depressions, deaths, and rebirths, the monotonous cycle of jogging, Lawrence, summer, Fanny, winter, aging, impotence, spring, jogging, Lawrence, summer, etc. Malamud tries to engender some excitement by casually throwing in the troubles of Dubin's estranged son and daughter. Gerald, who had deserted from the army and fled to Stockholm, is recruited by the KGB and trapped in Russia. Maud becomes pregnant by a lover who is married and black and older than her father. But having offered us this much, Malamud leaves these unfortunates high and dry, and tells us not one single thing more about them. Unlike soap opera, there is no next installment and we will never learn what happened to them. The book doesn't end—Malamud has always had trouble with endings—it just stops like a car running out of gas; or like a writer whose weariness with his creatures has become intolerable.
This abrupt cut-off would not seem as much of a cheat as it does if the remorseless accumulation of clinical detail about William Dubin's middle-age crisis had the cumulative weight of pain that Malamud struggles to convey. But every morsel of Dubin's ecstasy and dejection and terror and joy is belabored with sententious aphorism by an author itching to instruct us in the proper ways to interpret the experience he is relating. Even when Dubin in happily locked in Fanny's arms, he cannot desist from his oracular lecturing. "Life is forever fleeting," he natters to his love, "juggled heartbreakingly by events we can't foresee or control and we are always pitifully vulnerable to what happens next."
The leaden pace of the narrative is hardly quickened by Dubin's constant invocation of Lawrence, who provides yet another source of heavy-handed commentary on marriage, women, sex, and the art of biography. The novel is so over-loaded with exegesis that no character but Dubin emerges with any credible human clarity. Kitty never acquires a face but remains a miscellaneous collection of phobias and anxieties, and Fanny is an erotic fantasy whose attraction to Dubin is merely baffling. While the book is pedantically abundant in minutiae about weather, flowers, trees, clothing, food, all these particulars give us no solid idea of Dubin's and Kitty's and Fanny's life.
In the end, what makes Dubin's Lives so exasperating and so boring is the self-absorbed narrowness of Malamud's vision. He writes as if no novelist before him had ever portrayed a middle-aged man, assaulted by the terrors of mortality, seeking to renew his manhood with young and resilient flesh. But it is after all a subject as old and treacherous as time. (pp. 74-5)
Pearl K. Bell, "Heller & Malamud, Then & Now," in Commentary (reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), Vol. 67, No. 6, June, 1979, pp. 71-5.∗
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Bernard Malamud has been a patient student of life's mysteries, a steady worker in the craft of fiction and, of course, one of our major writers, but he is hardly a novelist of large canvas or big risk. His protagonists begin their respective sufferings in medias res, generally in settings (e.g. rundown grocery stores, Czarist prisons, jerkwater colleges) that reinforce the entombing point. Not since the heyday of the Russian novel have there been such endlessly dragged-out winters, especially when his luckless characters fall in love. At its most reductive, the point of all the agony and ersatz Yiddish seems to be that sensitive men are forced to endure the world's pain and, therefore, that all sensitive men are also sensitive Jews. It has proved to be a very popular, but very dubious, equation.
Dubin's Lives is made of headier stuff, at once out to show off Malamud's hard-earned wisdom and to reveal how perplexed about it all he still remains. It is also a novel out to beat Saul Bellow at his own game. By that I mean, Bellow's protagonists have a way of convincing us that they have the raw brain power necessary to get our social engine on the right track. (p. 108)
Let me hasten to add, however, that some things about Malamud's latest novel look very familiar indeed: A protracted winter follows Dubin's infatuation with the twenty-two-year-old Fanny Bick like the Shakespearian night the day. In such a world the heart swoons and the snowflakes fly; Dubin's book, The Passion of D. H. Lawrence: A Life, is symmetrically balanced with Dubin's personal life in ways that smack of Formalism's last hurrah; moral impulses lead, ironically, to botched results.
By the usual standards, Dubin has made it. He is a successful fixture of Center Campobello life, a "biographer" rather than, say, an impoverished grocer or itinerant matchmaker. Nonetheless, shadows of the Great Depression still fall across his life. Which is to say, he is a typical Malamud character, however untypical his situation. It is hard for such men to be entirely comfortable in the world.
Granted, Malamud used to think of this as a peculiarly "Jewish" condition. Now it seems more a function of male menopause or middle-aged crisis or whatever the fashionable term for this low-level angst one prefers. (p. 109)
Fortunately, Dubin's Lives is both more complex and more interesting than current versions of the December-May syndrome tend to be…. Add Malamud's … flair for undercutting irony and the result takes the edge of victory off Dubin's extensive, and allusion-filled, rationalizations.
In fact, Malamud is better on comic failure than he is on amorous success. Dubin's assignation with Fanny in romantic Venice is filled with comic interruptions and the assorted stuff of which schlemielhood is made. Not since A New Life has Malamud been so funny about the parched forehead and the cloying tongue. But contemporary novels demand more than a Dubin who trips over his feet while chasing Fanny Bick. He must, eventually, slip her between the sheets or, in this case, tangle her among the (Lawrentian?) flowers. Alas, neither Malamud nor Dubin is D. H. Lawrence. They are not even John Updike, so there is something forced, something artificial, about the explicit sexuality that has become de rigueur.
Dubin wriggles out of the dilemma by being as much "father" as lover and more biographer than either. And too, his liaison with Fanny becomes more serious as (1) she grows as a person and (2) seems more wife than mistress. In short, Dubin finds himself doubly married. It is a neat irony, one that suggests Life is more telling than Art, that writing about Lawrence is, finally, less at the heart of the matter than living with Kitty/Fanny.
Granted, with Malamud one can never be sure and Dubin's Lives is as complex, as densely textured as anything he has written. Of this much I am sure: It is wiser and more humane than the account of an aging, would-be swinger's malaise it might seem to be at first glance. Rather, this is a book about marriage, that institution Lawrence and Malamud and W. B. Dubin recognized as confining and liberating, both at once. (p. 110)
Sanford Pinsker, "W. B. Dubin as D. H. Lawrence: The Biography of a Contemporary Marriage," in The Ontario Review (copyright © 1979 by The Ontario Review), No. 11, Fall-Winter, 1979–80, pp. 108-10.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 334
"As a writer, I want uncertainty. It's part of life. I want something the reader is uncertain about," Malamud said in a 1966 interview. This he has certainly achieved [in Dubin's Lives]. Though Dubin, to a large extent Kitty, and to a lesser one Fanny, are rich and appealing characters, much remains puzzling about the novel. More than any of Malamud's previous works, it is "literary," a bookish book: not only Thoreau and Lawrence are evoked, but also Keats, Montaigne, Swift, Fitzgerald, Hardy (subject of Malamud's own master's thesis). There are strong suggestions of Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice," that classic tale of an older man's pursuit of youth. Like Mann's hero, Dubin appears in Venice in gaudy clothes, thinks of dyeing his hair, is haunted by an elusive redhead, is deceived by a rascally gondolier. Other signs and portents abound: Fanny's half-eaten fruit (pear or peach, never apple); Kitty's first husband, Nathanael (Willis, not West, despite the identical off-beat spelling of the first names); daughter Maud's experiences, so similar to Fanny's, that, were her character more fully developed, she could be seen as Fanny's double; Dubin's later work with Maud on Anna Freud, daughter of a famous father.
What does it all add up to? During Dubin's massive depression, Kitty theorizes about the sources of his writer's block: "You hit the jackpot with H. D. Thoreau. You want, naturally, to repeat with D. H. Lawrence. It's inhibiting—you're afraid you won't. You must think of yourself as being off the Rock Candy Mountain, plodding along a plateau, hunting another mountain." Kitty is wrong—it's sexual, not professional frustration that is blocking Dubin; yet in a sense she may also be right, more so about Malamud than about Dubin. Having struck out in a new direction, away from the subject-matter of his former successes, Malamud seems not yet to have found a secure footing. (pp. 57-8)
Harriet Polt, "Malamud's Lives," in Midstream (copyright © 1980 by The Theodor Herzl Foundation, Inc.), Vol. XXVI, No. 1, January, 1980, pp. 57-8.
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