My Man Malamud

I never met him. I know exactly where I was standing when I heard he was dead. It was in March 1986 and a friend came in to tell me that the Jewish American novelist I admired had died. ‘Saul Bellow,’ he said, then paused, ‘No, Bernard Malamud’, he corrected himself.

It was a Malamud moment — mainly serious, half comic, also awkward. I remember I thought to myself: I will never get to meet him now, though I had never before thought of doing so. Malamud, not Bellow, was my man. In July 2005 I was sitting in the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, reading my way through the Malamud archive there and read this in a notebook entry for 21 October 1976: ‘Bellow gets Nobel Prize. I win $24.25 in poker.’ This was the little man, the one who always felt he came second, who, while shaving, would mutter unconvincingly to himself in the mirror, ‘Someday I’m going to win.’ He had known no real success until he published his first novel at the age of 38. I can guess what he would have said the day I heard I was shortlisted for the Wingate Prize. But at least it wasn’t alongside a biography of Saul Bellow.

I have been reading the work of Bernard Malamud since I was a schoolboy in Nottingham. In 1969, my teacher, the novelist Stanley Middleton, recommended The Fixer, perhaps because he knew I was Jewish and, like Malamud, the son of a shopkeeper. Much later, I wrote about Malamud in a book called The Experience of Reading published in 1992. It was three years after that, sick of straight-and-narrow literary criticism, that I tried out an experimental book called Malamud’s People: it was a collection of short stories about a variety of people reading my man. I don’t know if it was any good; certainly it struggled to find its publisher and when published had no impact. But it gave feeling to my thoughts, embodied in those imagined human narratives, and some freedom too. I even sent a copy of it to Malamud’s London agent, Michael Sissons, who kindly wrote back to say that Malamud would have liked it, and that he would send it on to Malamud’s widow. When I finally met Ann Malamud near the end of 2002, she had no memory of ever having received it.

How I came to write the first-ever life of Malamud, and meet him that way at least, goes like this. It was graduation day at the University of Liverpool, summer 2002, and after the ceremony I was talking to Hermione Lee, the biographer, who had just been presented with an honorary degree. I said to her that I had seen an advertisement a few months earlier for a conference on biography in Oxford, where not only was Hermione featured but also Malamud’s daughter. Was Janna Malamud Smith going to write her father’s biography, I asked her, because I really wanted to read that book. There had been nothing for sixteen years following his death, the family apparently set firmly against intrusion. At my question Hermione Lee looked really startled and said she had only just stepped off the plane from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she had spoken to the Malamud clan. They were now, at last, considering giving permission for a biography, she said, because of Malamud’s dwindling fame. Though she insisted it was not in her gift and that she could act only as an intermediary, she nonetheless said to me directly: ‘Why don’t you write it?’

It was chance, or a calling, something never imagined that I hadn’t even tried for, when many things I had tried for hadn’t come off. It made me wary. I sent on to the family and the estate, via Hermione Lee, what I had already written about Malamud. What followed was a series of informal interviews. Later in that summer of 2002 I met Janna Malamud Smith and her husband David on their holiday in London. We talked and though they were very bright and kind, they did make me accompany them to a Tom Stoppard play. Rightly they insisted upon the difficulties and disadvantages of the enterprise. There were family secrets, they said; I might not like Malamud so much after I knew more about him; there were many examples of biographers who had grown to hate their subjects; and for the purposes of inwardness it really wasn’t ideal that I was English rather than American. The matter was left open until, a month before Christmas, without any guarantees as to the outcome, I travelled to the States, where I had never been, to meet Ann Malamud, the widow, in Cambridge and Tim Seldes, Malamud’s agent, in New York. I got the job, I think, because they could see I loved the work and would put that first, as Malamud himself would have wished. My subject was notoriously reticent and thin-skinned, and he didn’t want his work ‘explained’ by his life. I myself had never written a biography before.

Ann Malamud, I found, had multiple sclerosis, but at the end of the discussions that November she sent one of her helpers to drive me and my wife to Mount Auburn cemetery where Malamud’s ashes were buried under a small stone lozenge bearing Malamud’s words from the introduction to a selection of his stories: ‘Art celebrates life and gives us our measure’.We had only rough directions as to where to find the stone but, superstitiously perhaps, I knew that of the three of us I would find it. And that was the final confirmation, where I made my promise. It was a personal work. Stanley Middleton had once said to me that literary criticism was a very minor art, but that the best thing a critic could do was rescue and fight for the literary reputation of a writer he admired — like Leavis with Lawrence.

The initial work fell into two main parts: interview work and archive work, followed by the writing of the biography itself. First there were interviews to be conducted in the States. Many of Malamud’s friends and colleagues had already died, and the rest were wryly warning me to get to them fast. I spent two weeks recording an extended interview with Ann Malamud in January 2003; then the summer on what my family called ‘The Malamud trail’ — a schlep from New York (Malamud was born in Brooklyn in 1914) to Oregon (where he got his first teaching appointment in a cow college in 1949). The first interview I conducted that summer was with Malamud’s own publisher Roger Straus of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I had wanted the old firm to publish the biography, but Straus had already cheerfully described the project as ‘ridiculous’. Malamud hadn’t had a life, Straus told me: ‘Saul Bellow’s filet mignon, Bernard Malamud’s a hamburger.’ Later the other partner, the real literary man, Robert Giroux told me that Malamud was acutely aware of how the rich and glamorous Straus looked down on him.

But Giroux was like Malamud, a poor boy who had lost his mother early. Malamud’s mother was a schizophrenic who died in a mental hospital, probably a suicide, when the boy was fifteen. I remember Ann Malamud telling me how her husband had described his last sight of his mother, waving to him from a window in the hospital he wasn’t allowed to enter. This was when I first began to realize that there is nothing like being the first biographer. The life of Bernard Malamud was not yet a history, not yet in that public domain I was supposed to turn it into, but still just that — a life, raw and in pieces, remembered by chance, in snatches or notes, and not wholly recoverable. For every one thing I found or heard, I uneasily suspected that there would be another thousand lost or unspoken, arbitrarily or deliberately. But there among the papers in Ann’s flat, for example, were letters from the father, Max Malamud, impoverished grocer, barely literate immigrant, to the clever literary son — letters which had lain seemingly untouched for years. This wasn’t an archive: this was someone’s flat, an incapacitated person who let me into the back study to open drawers and rifle papers as I wished.

Those letters from the father to Malamud were mainly from 1949-52. In 1949 Malamud had left for Oregon with a new young family, having married out of the faith. It was a move that also precipitated the breakdown of Eugene, Malamud’s younger brother, who it turned out had inherited the mother’s schizophrenia. At the end of 1951, Eugene was committed to King’s County, the same hospital where the mother had been a patient. Max’s anguished letters to Bernie were written in heavy black pencil on the brown pieces of shop-paper that the grocer used to wrap goods and write bills, capital letters put in ungrammatically to mark what Max thought were The Important Words. ‘When you talk to Eugene you see he is a Sick Person . . . I don’t think he Will be all right Soon . . . Any time I see him I go home with a Broken Heart.’ ‘Bernie let me know if you Understand my writing if not I will have Somebody to write the letters for Me.’ And this most poignantly on 15 November 1951: ‘I Asked Eugene how he spels psychiatrist and he speled that for me’. Of all people (who else?) he had to ask Eugene how to spell it, suicidal within that medical hospital. A guilty but determined Malamud, safe in Oregon, had to read these letters. Just as later, he had to read and reply to twenty years of regular letters from poor Eugene himself. I read them, as if over Malamud’s shoulder, in the Harry Ransom Center. Malamud had kept every one of them, it seemed, though even outside the mental hospitals Eugene had had nothing to say, an intelligence with no life to report on. I began to know Eugene’s handwriting so well that I could recognise from the sheer physical nature of the hand when he was heading for the next major breakdown. I could hardly convey this in the finished work. But it came out of Bernard Malamud’s damaged and lingering first life — the life he left behind but never got over — even as he began the second as a writer. As a woman says to the protagonist of Malamud’s first novel, The Natural: ‘We have two lives, Roy, the life we learn with and the life we live with after that.’ I loved Malamud because he was the writer of second chances — not the man who gets everything almost effortlessly, it seems, by sheer genius the very first time, but the more ordinary one who struggling makes his achievements the second time around. Malamud’s characters are ordinary equivalent strugglers. ‘What have you made of yourself?’ Malamud would ask his students.

I may still be naïve as a biographer but to me the most cheering thing about the interviews was that they weren’t much good unless the person loved Malamud, beneath his prickly, easily-jarred exterior. But love comes in various forms, and I also had to get involved in Malamud’s sexual infidelities: part of the human story, also part of what he used to make Dubin’s Lives. Malamud was a plain and awkward man, disguised, defensively formal — aware of himself as sacrificing almost everything he had to his work, and as having had even less in his first life. But when he was famous, when he was a teacher in the all-girl liberal arts college at Bennington, he had chances for compensation. So it was that I became an honorary member of the Bennington alumnae sorority, as I was passed on by telephone from one ageing gal to the next. Most of them said they didn’t want to talk about themselves — but they would tell you what Malamud did with X or to Y. When I rang X or Y to seek confirmation, they would usually threaten to sue me (especially if it was true).

I recall a distinctly fruitless trip down the aptly-named Cow Pat Lane in Bennington where a loyal lady resolutely managed to tell me nothing for a length of time that grimly pleased her. Or the writer-colleague of Malamud’s who invited me to his hospital bedside, the day before heart surgery, only to reassure me as to Malamud’s sexual purity. He was all wired up; I could see the monitors: what would happen on them if I told him outright that I knew he was now lying to me? It is not often you can so gauge response or responsibility. But sometimes it was Malamud I could have killed for his neediness or sleaziness.

Ann Malamud herself had been as bravely honest as she could bear to be. The family secrets were ordinary hurtful things, not Good, not Evil, troubles between man and wife, troubles with the children, things often made disproportionate by people making me guess at them through their reticence. It depressed me that some feelings had died in Ann, who herself died just before my book came out (as indeed — she wryly said to me — she rather wished). Yet when I got to the actual writing, I was less bothered by the sexual stuff, and also had to concentrate on pretending that the wife and the daughter and the son were all (as it were) dead so that I could write the thing straight. To their great credit, they never asked to see the text and I would never have let them.

Here is how it ended. Between the summer of 2003 and the summer of 2005, I could do nothing because my time was wholly filled with being Head of the School of English at the University of Liverpool. In July 2005 I spent two weeks looking at letters and notebooks at the Harry Ransom Center out west (37 boxes). That November I spent a month back east at the Library of Congress in Washington, working my way through the manuscripts and revisions of the novels and short stories (13,000 items, 77 containers, 30.6 linear feet). This was an education in writing. This was where I found him inside his day-to-day work, using and using up his life, transforming it amidst his words, still moving me in minute detail.

But all this you will find in the book — which took me a further year to write — though I would sooner you read his books first or instead: The Assistant, The Fixer and Dubin’s Lives above all, because he was a great novelist and is now best known only for the (fine) short stories.

I care about him more now, not less. I can’t bear it when others don’t and so I buttonhole people with my tale of his neglect, like some Malamud street crazy. I write this with a little comic figure of a Hassid in front of me on my desk. Ann Malamud gave it to me: it was on his. She asked me what I would call the little bending gent with his large sad eyes. I told her that was easy: Manny.  ‘May he ensure that it is a good book’ was what she replied.

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