The narrative of Bernard Malamud's life runs parallel to the comic-pathetic plotline characteristic of his short stories: an honest, simple man a schlemiel, in Yiddish struggling, usually in vain, against indignities, petty cruelties, or his own shortcomings. Malamud who would eventually publish eight novels and dozens of short stories that helped break ground for Jewish-American fiction spent years teaching freshman composition at Oregon State University, forbidden to teach literature because he lacked a doctorate. His wife, with whom he had an enduring but troubled relationship, told him bluntly that he was "not a great writer such as Faulkner or Joyce." At the dinner celebrating his first National Book Award (in 1959, for the short-story collection "The Magic Barrel"), a waiter told the author there was no room for him at his own table. Even Malamud's publisher, Roger Straus, when asked about the prospects for a biography of the writer, scoffed that it was "ridiculous," as Philip Davis gamely reports in "Bernard Malamud: A Writer's Life" (Oxford University Press, 388 pages, $34.95). "Saul Bellow was filet mignon, Malamud was hamburger," Straus quipped.
Mr. Davis's sensitive yet probing new biography recounts all these tales in a Malamud-like effort to subvert them. Acknowledging that his book must be primarily "a literary life, as the life of Malamud indeed was," he argues that Malamud was in fact a great writer who, through his endless striving for plainness of style, came closer "to the bone of human feeling," in Alfred Kazin's phrase, then any other writer. And he takes Malamud's lack of a publicly engaged personal life as an opportunity to investigate the eternal question of whether the artist must choose, "perfection of the life, or of the work," as in the line from Yeats that Malamud once used as an epigraph. But Mr. Davis also shows that the image of Malamud as schlemiel is wrong in another, more troubling way. Malamud was not a simple man, but he was not entirely honest, either; and out of his deceptions, Mr. Davis argues, grew his greatest work.
Mr. Davis finds deceit at the heart of Malamud's creative impulse from his childhood on. His experiences growing up in the 1920s and '30s as the son of an impoverished Brooklyn shopkeeper provided the grounding for "The Assistant," his second novel and arguably his masterpiece. In the novel, the Jewish grocer Morris Bober, who counts his profit in pennies, takes on an "assistant" who had, unbeknown to him, participated in a holdup of the store. Though the thief tries to expiate his crime by working for little pay, he finds himself compelled to steal cash from Bober's register. Malamud, Mr. Davis writes, was tormented throughout his life by the memory of a similar transgression. "I went through a period of stealing quarters from [my father's] till," he wrote in a note found on his desk after his death. "One Sunday he caught me and my shame [was] so great I wanted to die. He called me bluffer and made me give the coins to him." Mr. Davis notes that Malamud's father once used the same word "bluffer" to chastise his son for elaborating on a true story: "It was as though the gift of storytelling that led to his being a novelist might be founded upon something as bad as the capacity for lying." Indeed, the question of how to tell the truth is central to Malamud's fiction, from the tortured deceptions of Bober's assistant to the equally tortured honesty of Yakov Bok, the "fixer" wrongly accused of murder.
The language of Malamud's fiction, Mr. Davis shows, is the language of his childhood: the plainspoken, Yiddish-shaded idiom of his parents (recent immigrants to the United States), stripped down to the essence of ideas and actions "English as if it is spoken for the first time," as Malamud once said in an interview. This was not Malamud's natural register: He achieved his style through a notoriously scrupulous process of revision, generally writing a first draft in longhand which his wife would type out, then making corrections on the typed draft, then writing it all out again to be typed once more. "The typed page looks solid but when it is rewritten by hand it becomes fluid again and if the idea is good it bursts into flame or flower," he explained. He was still making changes on the galleys of his books, negotiating contracts with his publishers that required them not to charge him for changes made late in the process. "Writing this book is like bending iron. Each day I bend the width of a toothpick," he wrote to a friend in 1959.
In extended readings of the fiction, Mr. Davis dwells lovingly on the words and phrases that Malamud added or subtracted from draft to draft, demonstrating that the writer's deepest insights into his characters often came late in the process. It was in his revisions that Malamud developed the "great stuttering riffs" in which words, upon their repetition, can transform their own meaning. In the magical short story "Angel Levine," a beleaguered tailor is startled by the appearance of an unlikely angel: a black man in frayed clothing. The tailor sends the angel away, only to seek him out when his situation grows truly desperate. But first he must attest to his belief. "A wheel in his mind whirred: believe, do not, yes, no, yes, no. The pointer pointed to yes, to between yes and no, to no, no it was yes. If you said it it was said. If you believed it you must say it. If you believed, you believed." The language achieves an unlikely poetry through the repetition of simple words, which have an almost incantatory power to guide the tailor to his own revelation.
Malamud achieved this perfection of style through a fanatic dedication. Having already established a strict working routine in his early 20s, he worried that the impositions of marriage would shipwreck his art. (After long debate, he chose to marry anyway.) Mr. Davis's depiction of Malamud's life as airless, not to say joyless dedicated entirely to writing and reading, with apparently little interest in his wife or children, not to mention other pursuits will be familiar to readers of Philip Roth's novel "The Ghost Writer," in which the punctilious maestro E.I. Lonoff is obviously modeled on Malamud. But readers of the novel may be surprised to discover in Mr. Davis's biography just how much of what Mr. Roth imagines of Lonoff turns out to be true for Malamud.
In the novel, Lonoff's carefully honed existence implodes when his wife leaves him over his affair with a former student. Malamud has long had a reputation for "chasing women students around his office, and even worse," Mr. Davis writes discreetly, concluding that Malamud's search for extramarital affection was the driving preoccupation of the author's later life. Though Mr. Davis handles the question of Malamud's womanizing with maximum discretion, the sheer number of his amorous letters many to students is astounding. Mr. Davis claims that Malamud was "using adultery, imaginatively, to support marriage," but this does not quite ring true. Similarly unconvincing is his argument that "Dubin's Lives," Malamud's fifth novel (apparently inspired by one of his affairs), is the writer's masterpiece. In fact, the years of Malamud's deepest personal troubles were also his most fallow years creatively.
After the triumph of "The Fixer" in 1966 the unlikely best seller, based on the case of Mendel Beilis, which won him a Pulitzer and made him famous Malamud's career suffered a long decrescendo. He produced two more major novels, "Dubin's Lives" and "God's Grace," both idiosyncratic works that seem to have puzzled critics. In 1982, while undergoing heart surgery, he experienced a stroke that impaired his faculties. Mr. Davis recounts that during the last year of his life Malamud painfully read the opening of his novel "The People" to Mr. Roth, only to be infuriated by Mr. Roth's response that "he hadn't got started, really." He died in 1986, at only 71, without finishing it. (It was published posthumously along with a handful of uncollected stories.)
Writing in the early 1980s, literary critic Robert Alter judged Malamud harshly as "a gifted eccentric who, early on, invented a narrow but brilliant mode of short fiction having exhausted that limited vein, he has been floundering for nearly two decades." But Malamud's reputation has lately been rejuvenated by a generation of younger writers who attest to his influence. What writers as different as Jhumpa Lahiri and Aleksander Hemon have discovered in Malamud is precisely what Mr. Davis identifies as the source of his greatness: his gift for depicting the extraordinary in the ordinary, "the limited man of 'small numbers' finding himself in a limitless situation and gradually forced to find in himself what can respond to it." This is true of his grocer, his fixer, and so many of Malamud's other enduring creations, even if their author did not always meet his own exacting standard.
Ms. Franklin is a senior editor at the New Republic.
Correction: The writer Bernard Malamud died in 1986 at the age of 71. His age at the time of his death was misstated in an earlier version of this story.
Correction from December 7, 2007:
71 is the age at which the writer Bernard Malamud died in 1986. His age was misstated in an article on page 11 of the October 10 Sun.