Thursday 14 August 2008
There's a large shop near Waterloo Station that sells remaindered and discounted books. It's a lucky dip: what can I get today that looks interesting for £2.99? The only time I don't pretty much know what I want, the author if not the title.
That's how I came to read Dubin's Lives by Bernard Malamud, attracted by the nice green cover, to tell the truth. A name I was only vaguely aware of, and I'd never read any of his eight novels (all are out of print in the UK). And, oh, it's rather wonderful! A late novel, published in 1976, and he died in 1986, it's really fine writing. The opening pages, which paint a Vermont landscape and William Dubin's inner landscape on his daily walk through it, are as close to perfect an opening to a novel as I've ever read and what follows didn't disappoint.
(I love this photo, which I found on the web - uncredited. Very painterly)
His style reminds me of no one else. Such a strong, particular use of prose, often skirting the sense, taking several passes at it. Disconcerting, but it weaves in the end an exceptionally rich and satisfying picture. Hasn't he said this already?, you think. No, he said something a little different, and complementary: a pentimento, a shadow line.
I gather that his earlier novels sit squarely in the great American tradition of second-generation Jewish immigrant literature; this one doesn't necessarily, I think - although there is a back story, and the back story sheds subtle but important light on the foreground story.... It does, I suppose, sit within a tradition of American novels with laconically gloomy, lost, self-deprecating middle-aged male protagonists. But it's infinitely warmer and more redemptive than most of these, whilst just as lacking in self indulgence. (I was recently reading Richard Ford and I really, really couldn't take him. He's too casually grim). It's very funny too: read it with a wry, aching smile.
The skill and depth of the writing in Dubin's Lives is such that I wasn't put off, as I might have been, by the 1970s hippy morality of the tale (aging male writer has affair with a woman his daughter's age. His wife finds out, has an affair with her psychotherapist. Inconclusive ending). The characters are complex, believably confused and changeable, sweetly drawn, and reap bitter rewards for stupidity and hypocrisy. Malamud's morality is not really of the '70s at all (though critics suggest the story may well have autobiographical elements), but something older, darker and more ambivalent.
A tense, riveting few pages where the protagonist gets hopelessly, dangerously lost - entirely his own fault - in a blizzard in the fields right near his house (deeply metaphorical) stay with me particularly strongly. I could pick out many more sections. The long, meandering whole, often claustrophobic, but often spacious, hangs together exceptionally well. It was so good that, having torn through the novel once, I started again right away and more slowly. Might I really get a handle on the wretched habit of devouring books without chewing? [This is not a happy metaphor in the context of beginning the same book again. Ed.] Writing of this quality and lucid complexity just might help me to do that. It's sobering to wonder if such a lengthy, dense, inward and circular work, but so full of life, would now get published. I suppose it might, if the writer had a long and prestigious career behind him, as Malamud did by 1976, but I do wonder.
I've no idea if I might like Malamud's other novels as much as this. But what an unexpected gift to chance upon something so very, very good. Perhaps someone who knows his work would like to suggest which of his other books I should read?