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The Lives of Bernard Malamud

ISSUE:  Winter 1980
Dubin’s Lives. By Bernard Malamud. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $10.00.

Ever since “The Lady of the Lake” and “The Last Mohican,” which helped to win the first of his National Book Awards, Bernard Malamud has written with admirable versatility about protagonists who are painfully yet hilariously indebted to two rich traditions. Henry Levin, alias Freeman, pursues the lady of the lake, a Jewish caretaker’s daughter who has survived the Nazi death camps, in the mistaken belief that she is an Italian noblewoman and that he is perfectly free to deny his own ethnic heritage. Fidelman, in “The Last Mohican,” meets in Rome his presumptuous but pathetic double, a modern Jewish Bartleby, so unacceptable to conventional society that even the state of Israel has expelled him after gathering him in with other survivors. Fidelman repeatedly denies this character’s claims to brotherhood, but guiltily allows him small sums of money and accepts his gratuitous criticism. “Who doesn’t know Giotto?” asks the double, upon learning that Fidelman is writing a book about the painter. One answer is that Fidelman doesn’t know Giotto, or his own mind or heritage, until a visit to the ghetto provokes a dream: Giotto’s painting of St. Francis giving his cloak to a poor nobleman. Fidelman awakes running, carrying to the impoverished double the suit that he has previously refused to surrender. Even after he learns that the double has stolen his brief case and burned the pages of his precious first chapter, Fidelman proffers his suit, but the fleeing culprit (“When last seen he was still running”) eludes both the material and the spiritual suit, just as the lady of the lake eludes the belated embrace of Henry Freeman.

It is a long way from Freeman the touring floorwalker and Fidelman the inept student of Giotto to William Dubin, biographer, but estimating the distance between The Magic Barrel and Dubin’s Lives reminds us of both the strong continuity and the delightful variety in Malamud’s work. Much of the delight that I find in Malamud’s fiction comes from the ingenuity of his comic invention. Just as his bogus Freeman becomes “an Apollo Belvedere, slightly maimed,” when he swims clumsily after the lady in the lake, so another urban Levin, in A New Life, finds himself unable to navigate a rented car gracefully to an assignation in a motel on the sylvan highways of the Pacific Northwest. In The Tenants a literary Jewish lessee who refuses to leave and a black squatter who is trying to learn the writer’s craft become the only remaining occupants of a building that has been sold and marked for demolition. Even The Natural, Malamud’s first novel, brings together the fantastic lore of baseball—the selftaught rookie’s strikeout of a great major league batter as they wait for repairs beside a disabled train, and Babe Ruth’s selection of the spot to which he would hit his next home run— with actual incidents such as the shooting of Eddie Waitkus in a Chicago hotel and the Black Sox scandal of 1919.

Dubin’s Lives, like The Natural, delights me with the sheer abundance of such allusions. And here they issue not only from the novelist’s mind but from the character’s. Malamud convinces me that William Dubin is an accomplished biographer, whose lives of Lincoln, Mark Twain, and Thoreau have won him both affluence and a presidential medal. Throughout the crisis of his late fifties, the central subject of the novel, Dubin aptly if sometimes mechanically refers predicaments in his own life to the wisdom and folly in more than a score of other lives he has read or written: Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway, Chekhov, Frost, Tolstoy, Augustine, Montaigne, Mahler, Schubert, Keats, Rousseau, Ruskin, Samuel Johnson, Vivaldi, Mozart, Freud, Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle, Charlotte Brontë, Eleanor Roosevelt.

“Jesus, all you think about is biography,” complains his young lover, and Dubin replies:

“I get this mind-blowing sense—as you say—of their lives and quality. I’m taken by those who celebrate life by making much of their own. It’s a subtle altruism.”

“If genius is your bag.”

Dubin thought their genius made their humanity more

clearly apparent. “One learns from their ordinary lives.”

“I’ve got my own to live.”

Both because he is a biographer and because he believes that one can learn to live well, or at least somewhat less foolishly, Dubin cannot so easily separate his own life from the lives he studies. His own life includes the study of other lives. And since all the major issues in Dubin’s emotional crisis are versions of the brief debate that I have quoted, Malamud has made a brilliant choice in assigning him for the duration of this novel the biography of D.H. Lawrence.

Throughout the novel Dubin struggles to regain control of his intellectual, ethical, and emotional lives and to unify them. We begin on the day that Dubin, having completed his research, actually starts to compose the new biography. We encounter him on his ritualistic four-mile walk through the countryside of upstate New York, and we follow his meditation and his involuntary running and shadow-boxing as he admires the landscape, identifies bird calls and wildflowers, considers the expenditure of his own years on re-creating other lives, and wonders what has brought him to choose D.H. Lawrence. Dubin’s struggle for psychic and literary survival becomes a gloss on Lawrence’s experience, Lawrence’s ideas.

William and Kitty Dubin have married for convenience and have deliberately learned to love one another, but in his late fifties he is especially susceptible to the erotic force of a young woman—Fanny, as young as his daughter—who has been hired to clean the house. At first he resists his lust for her, even when she disrobes and entices him, but soon he abandons himself to an extravagant flight to Venice with her. An outrageous fiasco, that misadventure is capped by an equally painful rejection by his stepson, a deserter who has taken miserable refuge in Sweden.

Dubin finds himself unable to write about Lawrence during a wretched winter, unable to shut off fantasies about his faithless Fanny. His ability to write about Lawrence revives when Fanny returns; when at last they do become lovers, the biography flourishes. And the complexities of Dubin’s subsequent adventures often run parallel to events in Lawrence’s life: Frieda’s elopement with Lawrence, her bitter fights with him, her affairs with other men, Lawrence’s impotence.

For me the major issue is Dubin’s agonized yet comic determination to maintain his humanity by striving for a balance of control and susceptibility, recognizing the power of his feelings, circumstances, and the claims of others but insisting too on the legitimacy of his reasoning mind, his ethical will. He is both strengthened and afflicted by what Henry James called the double consciousness. Especially in the worst moments of his grave depression, the line between discipline and compulsion is indistinct, but Dubin fortunately or heroically does survive, and so does his biography. After the abrupt conclusion of the narrative, the list of Dubin’s published works includes The Passion of D.H. Lawrence: A Life and two subsequent books, The Art of Biography and (with Dubin’s daughter as co-author) Anna Freud.

That final touch reminds us that our view of Dubin’s life has included a fine portrait of a marriage, a family, three generations. Dubin’s original pursuit of Fanny is explicitly related to his anxiety about his own aging and the whereabouts and safety of his daughter. His children, come of age in the late 1960’s, count on him as “recognizable, measurable, predictable, vulnerable. They knew reasonably well his strengths and limitations and sensed how they themselves were bound by them. By definition he was as parent. . .the opposing self, and in subtle ways they opposed him. They opposed him best by changing. . . . They saw him differently as they changed, and against the will he was a changed man.” Within the narrative his confidence that they will eventually “return to claim his friendship” is justified by a pathetic letter from the stepson, and Dubin does at least succeed in setting young Fanny on the way to intellectual and professional independence before he returns, running through the moonlight, to his wife. His own daughter’s return is signaled in her credit as coauthor of Anna Freud.

In Dubin’s Lives Malamud celebrates life not only by making much of his own but also by working his shrewd knowledge of actual biographies into the texture of his protagonist’s life and by setting Dubin’s fictive life in a natural and a social environment that are more precisely, more beautifully described than in any of Malamud’s previous work. When Dubin stumbles through Stockholm or a blizzard near the Vermont border, and when he pulls down the window shade between Fanny’s bedroom and an old synagogue in New York City, he can be as ridiculously inept as Freeman or Fidelman, but he knows Venice, he knows the natural world of rural New York, he knows the literature of biography, he celebrates his parents’ humanity even as he mourns their blighted lives, and he has the honesty to remind himself, in the midst of his devious schemes to arrange his rendezvous with Fanny, that he will have to stop thinking of himself as an honest man. Celebration does not mean that Dubin’s life is full of joy, nor does he forget the rigid circumstances that provoked his mother’s madness, his father’s gloom, or his stepson’s exile. Malamud celebrates his perception that the struggle of Dubin and some lesser and greater characters has allowed them to affirm the richness of life. The wit, the humor, the delightful surprises of Malamud’s language bring us a vitality that deserves our celebration.


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