William Dubin, once a composer of obituaries, has found his vocation and his identity as a biographer. Responding to the pathos of unrealized possibilities, he began with Short Lives. Later he wrote biographies of Lincoln, Mark Twain, and Thoreau; and at the opening of Bernard Malamud’s novel, he has just begun a life of D. H. Lawrence. “Everybody’s life is mine unlived. One writes lives he can’t live,” Dubin jots down in a note to himself. In Dubin’s Lives, Malamud portrays Dubin’s struggle to break free of others’ lives and live one more completely his own.
As the novel begins, sometime early in the 1970’s, Dubin is living an existence partly Thoreau’s and partly Lawrence’s. One therefore notices the likenesses in these odd, original, nature-loving, sexually incomplete writers. Drawn to both, Dubin lacks their strongly directed commitment to a certain way of life that for them represents living fully. Dubin, for example, loves nature and had once been passionately affected by it like a young Wordsworth; but now, living a retired life in the countryside of northern New York State, he must remind himself to observe his surroundings as he partakes of nature during his daily walk, regularized as either the short walk or the long walk. “William Dubin, visitor to nature, had introduced himself along the way but did not intrude.” Though not much given to meditation on the external world, Dubin, like Thoreau, is trying to learn how to live his life. Like Lawrence, he has taken on another man’s wife—the husband was dead, but Kitty had not ceased to belong to him—and won through to a relationship that seems solid, though there are tensions. Yet Dubin still tends to see himself as a stephusband.
Dubin composes by imagining he is writing about himself, and so as he begins his book about Lawrence, he finds his life joining Lawrence’s—though with reservations. With something like a Lawrentian attempt at fully living, Dubin begins a sexual adventure with a twenty-two-year-old girl. The story follows a conventional course: Dubin is at first reluctant to entrust much of himself to the girl; next, upon losing her, he experiences torments of desire for her, then he loves her fully (while suffering sexual impotence with his wife); and at the end of the book, he runs home to his wife with a heart full of love. Although his lover has suggested he spend half the week with her and the other half with his wife, the implication is that he is making a new beginning toward loving his wife as fully and completely as Lawrence believed necessary.
Malamud tells the story with a wealth of naturalistic detail and wry humor that give an illusion of utter realism. The beginning of William and Fanny’s affair, for example, is a frustrating, funny, hideously unromantic fiasco. Fanny, a college dropout, has wrecked her car on the way to the Big Apple after a disillusioning experience at a Zen commune. She becomes acquainted with Dubin when she takes a job cleaning his house; he invites her to meet him in New York, but she loses the name of the hotel. He then takes her to Venice, where her flamboyant sexuality lights up the city, but he never manages to make love to her. The first night she gets sick, and he cleans her up. To Dubin’s distaste, Fanny’s conversation seems to turn inevitably to his wife, Kitty, despite Dubin’s desire to keep Kitty as untouched by their conversation as he hopes she will be by this affair. Also, Dubin is distracted by worrying whether a young girl he caught sight of with an older man may be his daughter Maud. He returns late from searching for Maud to find Fanny copulating on a hotel room rug with a gondolier.
Hurt and angry, Dubin dismisses Fanny and flies to Sweden to look up his stepson, an army deserter; this adventure is equally frustrating and shabby. Dubin takes a fall in the street and bangs up his knees. Painfully he searches for and locates his stepson, who has discarded Dubin’s name and taken back his original surname, rejecting his stepfather along with the army, the United States, and any normal existence. Bitter and uncommunicative, Gerald rebuffs Dubin in every possible way. The last scene of the chapter has Dubin wretchedly pursuing his son down the street calling his name, while a hopeful prostitute trails behind. This many-toned European excursion in which Dubin experiences anticipation, pleasure, guilt, injured vanity, frustration, shame, and anguish is a rich slice of intensely observed, intensely felt real life.
One becomes aware, however, that Dubin, realistic though he seems, is also living his way through an intricate web of literary allusions. He is living other writers’ lives and other writers’ creations. When he talks to himself, as he frequently does, he tends to mumble quotations from Thoreau, Lawrence, Coleridge, Samuel Johnson, Shakespeare, and other major authors. When he begins to take cold showers in the morning, he does so as therapy recommended by Carlyle. Eventually, even Kitty Dubin begins to identify with Jane Welsh Carlyle, the unhappy wife of an impotent biographer. A melancholy piece of music heard in the silence of an extremely cold night brings thoughts of Schubert and of Keats (“The Eve of St. Agnes”), two short lives collapsed together. Fanny Bick, of course, hints at Fanny Brawne, and Dubin’s long period of agonized desire for her after their parting in Venice suggests Keats’s ambivalent feelings of longing and fear with respect to Fanny Brawne as well...
(The entire section is 2255 words.)