Bernard Malamud Put 'New Life' Into the American Novel

Friday, December 3, 2004

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past

Personal liberty is so deeply ingrained in our culture that we rarely think about it; it is as essential to the interior American landscape as amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesties are to the exterior one. The opportunity to build a new life is no less essential to our sense of who we are; not merely is it why millions of people have immigrated to America over the generations, it is also why Americans themselves are constantly on the move, seeking better prospects than the ones they were born with.

In literature as in life: From Huck Finn to Jay Gatsby to Augie March to the unnamed protagonist of Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," over and over again in American literature we meet people who are in transit, looking for rebirth. As Bernard Malamud wrote in his third novel -- called, appropriately enough, "A New Life" -- "If this was spring, Levin knew it because he eternally hunted for it, was always nosing out the new season, the new life, 'a new birth in freedom.' " No story tells us more about ourselves than this quest for a new life, and few have told it better than Malamud did in that 1961 novel.

It is perhaps a mistake on my part, and certainly it gives me no pleasure, but my impression is that Malamud has been slowly fading from the literary landscape since his death in 1986. For 3 1/2 decades, beginning with the publication in 1952 of his wonderful first novel, "The Natural," Malamud was one of our most admired writers of fiction. To this date his major works are all in print thanks to the good offices of his publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, but his name no longer is among the first mentioned when important American writers of the 20th century are discussed. Presumably he is still read in university literature courses and perhaps in book clubs as well, but by contrast with his approximate contemporaries Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, he seems no longer to be at the center of our literary consciousness.

Readers old enough to remember when all three of those writers were in their prime will recognize the trinity at once: Beginning in the 1960s, Bellow, Malamud and Roth invariably were pigeonholed as the grand masters of "Jewish American fiction." The evidence indicates that they admired each other's work and were preoccupied with many of the same themes, but they tended to regard the pigeonholing as a gross oversimplification and, indeed, as ghettoizing. Each in his own way wrote about being, simultaneously, Jewish and American, but each in his own way insisted that the larger canvas -- the American one -- was what mattered, and that viewing it through Jewish eyes was merely one particular slant on it, a point made implicitly by Roth last year in his novel "The Plot Against America."

The same point is made in different ways by Malamud in "A New Life." As the novelist Jonathan Lethem writes in his smart introduction to a new paperback edition of it, "A New Life" is "seemingly the least Jewish of Malamud's books," in which the "word Jew is only mentioned once, practically on the last page." Its protagonist, Seymour Levin, is clearly a Jew from the moment in August 1950 that, "bearded, fatigued, lonely," he arrives at a college town in the Northwest, a stranger in "a strange land," but it matters less that he is a Jew than that he is a city boy, an outsider, a Manhattanite set down in the alien corn of a state called Cascadia, aka Oregon.

Levin is 30 years old, which was approximately my age when I first read "A New Life" in the late 1960s. As one who was beginning to fashion a career as a book reviewer, I knew it was necessary to familiarize myself with Malamud's work, as his novel "The Fixer" had swept the major prizes in 1967 and he was commonly regarded as among the most important writers of the day. Though "The Fixer" struck me as preachy, his superb short stories and his first two novels -- "The Natural" and "The Assistant" (1957) -- made lasting impressions on me, especially the latter, which I regard as a masterpiece in miniature.

Even in the innocence and ignorance of youth, I understood that "A New Life" was a significant departure for Malamud. Again to quote Lethem, it is Malamud's "most traditional, and least mythic," work of fiction. The fabulism and brevity that characterize almost all his writing are scarcely to be found here; "A New Life" is long, realistic and conventional. The wit of Malamud's best work is much in evidence -- indeed, at times "A New Life" is laugh-out-loud funny -- but the novel is grounded in quotidian reality in ways not often found in his work.

Beyond that, "A New Life" unquestionably is the most autobiographical of all Malamud's fiction. From 1949 until 1961 Malamud taught at what was then known as Oregon State College in Corvallis; Levin teaches (though only for one year) at Cascadia College, a "science and technology college" like Oregon State in which the liberal arts get little more than a nod. The English department in which the naive, idealistic Levin finds himself offers "a glut of composition, bonehead grammar, and remedial reading, over about a dozen skimpy literature courses."

Levin has arrived in Cascadia essentially by accident, as we learn toward the end of the novel, but he is glad to be there: "Considering that he had just got his M.A. at thirty, and had only high school teaching experience to offer, Levin felt it was the greatest good luck that he had landed an instructorship in any college." Like Malamud, who got to Oregon after fits and starts at gainful employment, Levin is ready to start over. He is "a man at thirty still running after last year's train, far behind in the world," hoping to find in this bucolic setting the things he most wants: "Order, value, accomplishment, love." Instead he finds the unexpected: a life totally unlike anything he previously had known.

Thus he encounters a woman named Laverne and heads off with her to a barn: "It was overwhelming how his life had changed in a month. You gave up the Metropolitan Museum of Art and got love in a haystack." To his surprise he "had cut himself off . . . from longing for the East." He delights in the college's "green-lawned, thickly-treed quadrangle, liking its order and beauty as he recalled the stone skyscrapers in which he had gone to college." He is in a "new world." He buys a used car, learns to drive, astonishes himself with what he can do:

"For the first time in his life Levin was on the road alone in a car -- his own -- carried along on his own power, so to say. Three cheers for the pioneers of the auto industry; they had put him on wheels to go where he pleased! He thought with pleasure of the many things he had learned to do in his few months here: had mowed frequent lawns, the grass still green and growing in December; raked a billion leaves, fifty percent from neighboring trees; gathered walnuts in October; picked yellow pears; regularly attended and even cleaned [the landlady's] rumbling sawdust furnace, and so on and what not. Last week he had washed and waxed his car. Levin the handy man; that is to say, man of hands."

He is a "city boy let loose" in the abundant riches of nature, and he delights in them. Not merely does he frolic in barns, he also takes long walks through the countryside and then, once he has mastered his automobile, even longer drives. But Levin is still Levin, and the propensity for getting himself into trouble that had driven him away from the East scarcely deserts him in the West. He botches things with Laverne -- "Don't ever let me see you again in your whole goddam life," she shouts in farewell -- and does even worse with Nadalee, a luscious coed with whom he violates the college's rule against faculty-student extracurriculars. He is sucked into campus politics as two colleagues compete to become head of the department, in the process managing to make an utter fool of himself.

Then he gets involved with Pauline Gilley, the wife of a colleague. She is "an interesting-looking woman," flat-chested but with "shapely legs" whom he finds attractive and beguiling. In spite of himself, he becomes entangled, and ends up with a lot more than he'd bargained for. What begins as sex eventually turns into love, with consequences that turn his life upside down and send him away from Cascadia to begin, quite literally, a new life, with commitments and responsibilities he certainly hadn't anticipated when he arrived there the previous year.

All of this plays out against the story of Leo Duffy, "a sort of disagreeable radical who made a lot of trouble," according to Pauline's odious husband, Gerald. Duffy ultimately was sacked. Levin now occupies his office and is haunted by him, though he never appears in the novel; for the Jewish Levin, Duffy becomes an Irish doppelganger. Pauline tells him: "Leo was different and not the slightest bit fake under any circumstances. He was serious about ideas and should have been given a fair chance to defend his. People were irritated with him because he challenged their premises." In time Levin does much the same, with results that parallel but do not replicate Duffy's.

As is made plain by Duffy's story, by the competition for the departmental chairmanship and by Levin's frustration at the stunted curriculum he is required to follow -- "I sometimes feel I'm engaged in a great irrelevancy," he says, "teaching people how to write who don't know what to write" -- "A New Life" is very much a campus novel. As such it ranks with the best American examples of the genre -- Randall Jarrell's "Pictures From an Institution," Mary McCarthy's "The Groves of Academe" and James Hines's collection of novellas, "Publish and Perish" -- as well as the splendid satires by the British novelist David Lodge, "Small World" and "Changing Places." Seldom does one encounter in a work of literature more telling proof than Malamud offers of the old saw: Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.

Mainly, though, "A New Life" is about precisely what its title says: rebirth, regeneration, physical and psychological relocation. As such it is completely in the American grain, and exuberantly so. One can only wonder at what the people at Oregon State thought when they found themselves portrayed in its pages, but there can be no doubt that Bernard Malamud had a great deal of fun writing it. That fun, it could go without saying, is entirely infectious.

"A New Life" is available in a Farrar, Straus & Giroux paperback ($14).

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is

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