In defense of the hamburger

Philip Davis's biography is partly a rescue mission to revive interest in Bernard Malamud's work.

malamud book 88 224 (photo credit: )
malamud book 88 224
(photo credit: )
Bernard Malamud: A Writer's Life By Philip Davis Oxford University Press 388 pages; $65 The life of Bernard Malamud does not lend itself to biography. Governed by obsessive routine, his career lacked the substance abuse, literary feuds or media controversies that often color a writer's biography. Malamud's publisher, Roger Straus, described the idea of a biography as "ridiculous," joking that if "Saul Bellow was filet mignon, Malamud was hamburger." Along with Bellow and Phillip Roth, Malamud once formed a ruling troika of Jewish-American writers, but interest in his work has faded. With the explosion of the 1960s counter-culture movements, and the corresponding rise in avant-garde and postmodern art-forms, novels such as The Natural (1952), The Assistant (1957), A New Life (1961) and The Fixer (1966) seemed old-fashioned in their humanist and moral commitment. Philip Davis's Bernard Malamud: A Writer's Life - the first biography of Malamud - serves partly as a rescue mission. Davis writes that his aim is to draw more readers to Malamud's work, but his tone is rarely hagiographic. Born in Brooklyn to poor Russian Jewish immigrants, Malamud's childhood was shadowed by the chronic depression and suicide of his mother, planting the seeds of his ambition and fear of chaos; a meticulous keeper of lists and accounts, Malamud was always obsessively punctual. With his father consumed by his struggling grocery business and sick wife, Malamud became a father figure to his schizophrenic younger brother, Eugene. Davis views Eugene as Malamud's unsuccessful shadow self, in whom the fierce devotion to work, books and routine which galvanized Malamud were absent. A non-believing Jew, Malamud married an Italian Catholic, Ann de Chiara, against his father's wishes, but was dismayed when his daughter, Janna, married a gentile. Ann was selflessly devoted to Malamud's career, typing up his manuscripts and securing him teaching work. She ensured that his work remained at the center of the family orbit. Ann stood by Malamud through his affair with his 19-year-old student Arlene Heyman, more sexually experienced than Malamud despite being 28 years younger. The contradiction between Malamud's puritanism and his unsatisfied sexual yearnings grew especially pronounced in his later years, as he became more flirtatious with women and depressed about the sacrifices that his work ethic entailed. He remained insecure about having emerged from the claustrophobic, shtetl-like world of his childhood and being less educated than his colleagues. Even at the height of his success, he looked to fan mail for affirmation. Prematurely aging before dying of a stroke at 71, Malamud continued laboring at his craft in the face of increasingly fruitless results. The extent to which Malamud's devotion to his work was the cause of his limitations, rather merely a convenient alibi, is a question that Davis leaves open. Davis's 1995 book Malamud's People was an experimental mix of fiction and literary analysis, telling six stories about people reading Malamud's work. His new book also often segues into literary criticism. Its detailed forays into Malamud's fiction are obviously the work of a scholar rather than a journalist. What is elusive in Malamud's reticent personality can at times be gleaned from his autobiographical fiction. Davis states outright that he aims to "place the work about the life," but the detailed literary analysis tends to interrupt the book's flow and read like padding. Avoiding paraphrase, Davis quotes extensively from letters, journals and interviews, approaching his subject with the unobtrusiveness of Malamud's prose. The biographer-hero of Malamud's novel Dublin's Lives observes that "all biography is ultimately fiction." Davis's book is laudable, if not always engrossing, for its refusal to glibly psychologize or strike false epiphanies to make Malamud's life read like fiction. Malamud's memory was poorly served by his daughter Janna Malamud Smith's sentimental 2006 portrait, My Father Is a Book, so it is fortunate that Davis's biography has arrived fast on its heels. Yet despite its exhaustive detail, Davis's Malamud is more enigmatic - not because Davis never knew him, but because he recognizes that Malamud was, in many ways, unknowable.