- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 27, 2008


By Philip Davis

Oxford University Press, $34.95, 377 pages, illus.


A fine writer — widely admired, respected, even revered by critics and readers — Bernard Malamud (1914-1986) does not seem to be a natural (to borrow that word which he made so famous in his great baseball novel, “The Natural”) subject for a biography. Even his longtime publisher, the patrician Roger Straus, scoffed at the very notion:

“[He] did not even believe that his author had a life as such … ‘I don”t think there were affairs. Everything was up there in the head, nothing down there.” When he was asked what he thought of a biography of Malamud, Straus laughed: ‘I think it”s ridiculous. There was nothing there; as a life it was unexciting. Saul Bellow was filet mignon, Malamud was hamburger.””

Well, in this first full-length biography, Philip Davis demonstrates authoritatively and conclusively that, pace the coarse, insensitive, wildly wrongheaded dictum of Straus, Malamud indeed had a life. This book”s subtitle is “A Writer”s Life,” and Mr. Davis gives the works and the process by which they were created pride of place in his probing book.

But he also shows a man who lived a life in every way that matters, fully engaged with family, friends and the world, no stranger to emotions and personal turmoil. Certainly what counts about Malamud in the final analysis is that he was a writer of distinction, but Mr. Davis has succeeded in evoking a human being who is interesting in and of himself, quite apart from his literary output.

It is noteworthy, I think, that the first biographer of so quintessentially American a figure should be British, albeit someone who has read and appreciated him for decades and written critical studies of him. This speaks to the universality of Malamud”s oeuvre. As is so often the case, the more particular the places summoned up by a writer, the greater their resonance the world over.

But Mr. Davis has an understanding of Malamud, the world in which he grew up and that in which he lived his adult life, which is all but flawless in its perceptions and insights. Consider the economy and sensitivity of his parsing of that well-known dictum about the great trio of mid-20th century Jewish American novelists:

“It was Saul Bellow who was ruefully to describe himself, Malamud, and [Philip] Roth as the Jewish literary equivalent of the first- generation rag trade gone upmarket — the Hart, Schaffner, and Marx of literature.”

Proud as they are of their own Savile Row tailoring, few Britons would even know from that label, still less would they be capable of understanding so perfectly its precise resonance in American culture. Similarly, the explanation of what Mr. Roth”s portrait of his alter ego”s great exemplar, E.I. Lonoff, owes to Malamud shows Mr. Davis” absolute mastery of the nuances of American fiction and literary history.

This most American of writers could not have been more lucky in his English biographer, who truly appreciates the varieties of Malamud”s fiction, from the searing historical novel, “The Fixer,” to the comedic joys of those wonderful short stories and everything between.

Mr. Davis is rightly grateful for the insights of Malamud”s widow, Ann, who died last year, and of his two children, Paul and Janna, herself the author of a trenchant memoir, “My Father is a Book.” But, as he states at the outset of his book, “it would not be an authorized biography as such, but one written with the full cooperation of the family and estate, without censorship.”

In writing about Malamud”s not always easy relationship with his children, this biographer has proved to be a model of the sensitivity necessary in writing about human beings very much alive today with feelings that deserve respect. Yet he has also produced a portrait of parent-child dynamics that ring true to the characters of those involved. One is left with the satisfying feeling that he has successfully negotiated the difficult path of simultaneous tact and veracity.

As is also the case in the biography”s portrait of Malamud”s enduring but by no means untroubled marriage. One affair which Malamud had with a student turned into a crucial relationship for the rest of his life, long after the sexual flame had died out.

Both spouses” infidelities are explored, and to an unusual extent understood, both in what drove them and in their effects on the marriage. Malamud taught for many years at Bennington, beginning in the 1960s, and the reader is left wondering just how much zeitgeist and this particular milieu had to do with these sexual adventures.

Shortly after Malamud”s death, his widow was talking to a friend about him. “But, of course he wasn”t a simple man… Well, maybe he was a simple man, in a way.” It is a measure of Mr. Davis” achievement in this book that by the time we read Ann Malamud”s summing up of her husband, we understand exactly what she meant by these two apparently contradictory judgments.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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