Bernard Malamud (April 26, 1914 – March 18, 1986) was an American Jewish author who published eight novels and four collections of short stories. His writing often explores the immigrant experience – his parents fled Tsarist Russia. In 1967 he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Fixer. But it is Dubin’s Lives, his seventh novel, that will interest readers of this blog. Started in February 1973, it was completed by August 1978. Early extracts appeared in The New Yorker and Playboy.

56-year-old William Dubin is a prize-winning biographer who lives in upstate New York with his wife Kitty. He is obsessive and meticulous with each of his biographical subjects as biography offers him a way of experiencing situations denied him by his own life. ‘One writes lives he can’t live’ he explains, ‘to live forever is a human hunger.’ Through a biography of Thoreau, he has experienced the joy of nature. The later years of Mark Twain offer a ‘schmalzy misery’. While writing Short Lives he learns ‘how intensely and creatively life can be lived’ even when that life is cut short. His latest topic is D.H. Lawrence, specifically, ‘The Passion of D.H. Lawrence’. This is unfinished, suggesting he still has much to learn…

The opening epigraphs to the book give us a clue as to what his latest subject will teach him. The first is from Thoreau and warns, ‘What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?’ The second, ‘Give me continence and chastity, but not yet’ is from Augustine. This sets the tone for the various moral dilemmas Dubin will face during his research of Lawrence, ‘a complex type with tormented inner life’.

Early on we see Dubin observing his wife in the garden. He is taken by her free-spiritedness, dancing around the garden. Then she bursts into the house and asks why he hasn’t helped her; a bee has made its way into her blouse! After helping her undress, the bee escapes and then stings him. It’s a wonderful scene, not just in terms of the comedy, but the subtle nod to Lawrence who nicknamed his wife Frieda, the Queen Bee.  

While researching Lawrence, Dubin encounters a pretty drop-out, the aptly named Fanny. They embark on an affair that sees them travel to Venice, but it is not the romantic interlude Dubin had envisaged and soon Fanny is enamoured with a singing gondolier. She feels let down by Dubin, confessing, ‘I wanted somebody other than a shrink to advise me about my life’.

There are parallels here with the Lawrence’s. Frieda was notoriously liberal and had numerous affairs during their marriage; they eloped abroad during the early stages of their affair and Italy would become a future home. Lawrence explored sensual connections with the world through his notion of blood consciousness, though this was not a manifesto for promiscuity. Indeed, marriage was a sacred connection for Lawrence:

“When I take a woman, then the blood-percept is supreme, my blood-knowing is overwhelming. There is a transmission, I don’t know of what, between her blood and mine, in the act of connection. So that afterwards, even if she goes away, the blood-consciousness persists between us, when the mental consciousness is suspended; and I am formed by my blood-consciousness, not by my mind or nerves at all.” (2L 470)

Dubin is aware of this and later explains to a barman – who has no choice but to listen to his drunk customer – that ‘sex to (Lawrence), you understand, despite his ideology of blood-being, was a metaphor for a flowing life’.

Various themes from Lawrence’s life and works are cleverly woven into the story. Lawrence suffered from impotency towards the end of his life and when Dubin experiences this condition he wonders ‘if lying, or the habit of lying, could make a man impotent’. Whereas Lawrence refused to accept he was ever ill, Kitty is constantly convinced she has cancer. Nature is also ever present. Whereas Lawrence’s knowledge of flora and fauna was encyclopaedic, ‘Dubin, after a decade and a half in Center Campobello, could recognise and name about twenty trees, a half dozen bushes, fifteen wild flowers, a handful of birds’.

Lawrence travelled the globe in search of Rananim and never lived anywhere for more than two years. Dubin does his travelling via the page. So, what kind of impact has this choice of living had upon his perception of reality?  

Kitty’s psychotherapist suggests Dubin’s research into Lawrence might be doing him in. ‘I’m no literary critic’ he declares ‘but I could never figure out why a man of your disposition and temperament would want to get so many years of his life involved with a tormented semi-narcissistic figure like D.H. Lawrence’. But there is also a hidden compliment here in that ‘what a ball-breaking strain it must be to have to identify with someone whose nature is so radically different from yours’.

Bookseller Rick Gekoski makes a similar observation in Tolkien’s Gown when he warns against meeting collectors of T.E. Lawrence and Winston Churchill as ‘their sense of self is fuelled by their association with a hero through whom they feel enlarged’. In Jungian terms this is known as ‘psychic inflation’.

Dubin is not after psychic inflation. Studying authors helps him view life from a different perspective, to see the good and bad in people. Lawrence may have been ‘engorged with the rage of a failed prophet’ but ‘I can’t say I’m much upset by his hatred of capitalism and outraged sense of the perversions of human life by technology’. In the end, ‘he lived in a vast consciousness of life’ and this is what attracts Dubin to biography, ‘you want to write about people who will make you strain to understand them’.      

Further Reading

  • Halperin, Irving. The Theme of Responsibility in Bernard Malamud’s ‘The Mourners’. Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought 36 (Fall), 1987. 460–465
  • Smith, Janna Malamud. My Father Is a Book: A Memoir of Bernard Malamud. (2006)
  • Davis, Philip. Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life. (2007)
  • Bernard Mala­mud at 100: The Wrong Writer for Our Age jewishbookcouncil.org
  • Review: Rick Gekoski Tolkien’s Gown thedigitalpilgrimage.wordpress.com

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