BY THOMAS MALLON
The Aspern Papers
to the novels of A. S. Byatt, the fictionalized biographer has usually been a figure of rapacity or comic misadventure. Not so the thoroughly realized William Dubin in Bernard Malamud's second-to-last novel. Dubin came to the art of biography after writing obituaries for a New York newspaper, and by now, after long, prizewinning endeavorâreconstructing lives from Schubert's to Thoreau'sâhe and his vocation have become inseparable. Dubin leads his life the way he performs his work. Often referred to in this novel by his professional title (“the biographer”), he's “uneasy when not observing,” and he endures the “occupational problem” of overanalyzing nearly everyone. He sometimes sees his own wife and children with authorial disinterestedness, and tends to offer instructive bits of biography the way another person will dispense improving quotations: “Mark Twain lived in heartbreak after his daughter Susy died,” Dubin tells a hotel bartender who's lost his own child to a drug overdose. The hotel is the Gansevoortâ“Melville's mother's maiden name,” he points out to somebody else.
Dubin lives inside a tense, creative paradox. His study of human natures has convinced him that we should and do make our own fates,
and yet he knows: “I am in my thoughts a detached lonely man, my nature subdued by how I've lived and the lives I've written; subdued by the dyer's bloodless hand.” Kitty, Dubin's nervous, earnest wife, accuses him of knowing more about lives than life, but he counters by saying, “Biographyâliterary or otherwiseâteaches you the conduct of life.” What's more, he believes, his subjects' lives “evoke” his own.
They provoke it, tooâonto new paths and into new dangers. As the book opens in the Watergate summer of 1973, the edgy fifty-six-year-old Dubin has embarked on a new biography of D. H. Lawrence, whose “high-pitched insistent voice” will soon be ringing in his ear. A local therapist wonders if this subject isn't hazardous to the biographer's mental health. Perhaps, but Lawrence certainly plays a role in Dubin's erotic rejuvenation.
Fanny Bick, only twenty-twoâa generous gift from the zipless decade of Erica Jongâcomes into Dubin's life, startling him with her body and her “gift of closeness.” Their Lawrencian tussles (“She bit his lip, drawing blood”) are intermittent, circumscribed by the tricky logistics and guilts of infidelity. (Dubin is now throwing down the same false scents and red herrings he struggles to clear away from his subjects' lives.) But the connection of Fanny and Dubin is poignant beyond the usual meeting of midlife crisis and opportunity. A desire for self-improvement has made the young woman seek out Dubin after reading his biography of Twain: “I wanted somebody other than a shrink to advise me about my life,” she tells him. “You make me take myself seriously.”
Dubin himself needs no encouragement toward serious self-appraisal. His somber childhood (typical of a Malamud hero), his temperament, and his work all move him constantly in that direction. The novelist's willingness to show Dubin at his most cranky and fretfulâand to keep portions of the book housebound during a long and quarrelsome winterâmake this a nervy, even brave, book. (Though one with its own mournful humor. Caught outside in a blizzard, Dubin worries over the possibility that he might “die so close to the road; like drowning in a bathtub.”)
Malamud rises to the same challenge that an honest biographer faces with a “difficult” subject, one who's more involving than attractive. He succeeds through an assortment of sly techniques. In places
the novelist adopts an oddly choppy
â“In bed they forgave themselves; had done it before”âthat puts one in mind of a biographer's notes. There are even bits of what seem to be transcript from an interview between Dubin and himself:
Q. How did you feel?
The pitfalls of biographical work are dramatized early in the novel through a lovely example of false deduction: Dubin thinks he sees Kitty happily dancing on the lawn, when in fact she's flailing to get a bee out of her blouse.
Like Saul Bellow, Malamud developed a fondness for possessive titles
(Rembrandt's Hat, God's Grace),
and the multiple meanings of this book's name provide steady work for the reader, who comes to understand “Dubin's lives” to mean the biographies that the character has written; his “hunger to live many lives”; the double life of the married man having an affair; and finally, the discrete stages of a single life, William Dubin's, especially the two and a half yearsâdepressed and Dionysian, cramped and entropicâinside
Bernard Malamud's daughter, the psychotherapist Janna Malamud Smith, is the author of a book called
Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life
(1997), wherein she expresses strong reservations about the more invasive kinds of literary biography practiced in our time. Three years after her father's death in 1986, Smith wrote: “If an audience for his fiction persists, my grandchildren might wish to make public Bernard Malamud's private letters and journals. I doubt I will.” The reissuing of
should extend not only Malamud's readership but also our thoughts about the biographer's art, which has so far yet to ensnare him.
They sometimes met on country roads when there were flowers or snow. Greenfeld wandered on various roads. In winter, bundled up against the weather, Dubin, a five-foot-eleven grizzled man with thin legs, walked on ice and snow, holding a peeled birch limb. Greenfeld remembered him tramping along exhaling white breaths. Sometimes when one was going longitude and the other latitude they waved to each other across windswept snowy fields. He recalled Dubin's half-hidden face on freezing days when it was too cold to talk. Or they joked in passing. Had he heard the one about the rabbi, who when his sexton prayed aloud, “Dear God, I am nothing, You are everything,” remarked, “Look who says he's nothing!” Dubin hoarsely laughed. Once, looking not at all well, he said, “This has to be the center of the universe, my friend.” “Where?” “This road as we meet.” He stamped his boot as he spoke. Once in passing he said, “Ach, it's a balancing act,” then called back, “a lonely business.” A minute later: “In essence I mean to say.” There were times Dubin handed him a note he read later and perhaps filed. Once the flutist read the slip of paper on the road and tore it up. “What are you doing?” the other shouted. “This I've seen before.” Afterward he asked, “Why don't you keep yourself a journal?” “Not for me,” the biographer replied. “None of this living for the gods.”
They embraced after not meeting for months. Nor was Dubin afraid to kiss a man he felt affection for. Sometimes they wrote when either was abroadâa card might bring a letter, but otherwise now saw little of each other. Their wives weren't friends though they spoke at length when they met. There had been a time when both men drank together on winter nights, and though the talk satisfied, neither was able to work steadily or well the next morning. Eventually they stopped visiting one another and were the lonelier for it. Dubin, as time went by, found it hard to bear the other's growing quietude, and Greenfeld did not that much care for confession. Dubin could stand still, look you in the eye, and say some intimate things. Greenfeld liked not to know all.
Although it isn't yet end of summer, William Dubin in a moment of his walk into the countryârural into pastoralâbeats his arms across chest and shoulders as though he had unexpectedly encountered cold, clouds have darkened, a snowstorm threatens. He had, in a way, been thinking of winter.
The biographer had left the house in late-afternoon warm sunshine and had casually walked himself, despite nature's beauty, into a small gloom. He imagined it had come from sensing change in the season, one day to the next. August was a masked month: it looked like summer and conspired with fall; like February it would attempt to hide what it was about. Dubin had uncovered bright-green shoots under dead leaves in February. In the woods today he had spied a flare of red in a broad maple. A sense of short season: Northeast cheat. The days had secretly cast off ballast and were drifting toward autumn. Cold air descended to the roots of trees. The leaves, if you touched, were drying. The noise of bees sucking pale flowers, of crickets rasping, seemed distant. Butterflies, flitting amid trees, flaunted their glad rags a moment before generating and expiring. Dubin felt change and could not bear it. He forbade his mind to run to tomorrow. Let winter stay in its white hole.
Beating his chest he flails at time. Time dances on. “Now I am ice, now I am sorrel.” He shakes his useless fist.
Dubin, the biographer, a genial angular middle-aged type with a bulge of disciplined bellyâthus far and no fartherâand a grizzled head of hair, his head perhaps a half-size small for his height, walked briskly toward a dark-green covered bridge about a mile up the dirt road. His arms and legs were
long; deep chest; shoulders, when he straightened himself, upright. He had gray-blue eyes, a slender long nose, relaxed mouth; he smiled now, touched by a pleasant thought. The mild existential gloom he had experienced in the woods had evaporated; he felt serene, doing his walk. Dubin had a way of breaking into a run when something intensive rose to think of. He was running âmarvelous gait for a man of fifty-six. For a minute he shadow-boxed on the road, desisting when a woman in a passing car laughed aloud. He trotted on, enjoying the sweep of space in every direction. He loved the free pleasures of perspective. Fifty yards from the road, a narrow stream, turbulent and muddy after a heavy morning shower, wound through the pasture. To the east rose masses of green trees climbing New York hills; beyond were the looming low Vermont mountains in misty receding planes. Dubin remembered once, in approaching Capri in search of D. H. Lawrence, the hills like a big-breasted woman on her back, raising her head to kiss the sky.
Remembering his work, he unconsciously slowed to a brisk walk. He'd had thoughts while shaving that he ought to try developing a few notes for an autobiographical memoirâtype a page or two to see if they came to life with texture, heft. Or do it the way Montaigne didâyou start an essay and thus begin an examination of your life. “Reader, I am myself the subject of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a matter.” His smile turned into snicker when he foresaw Kitty's judgment: “Why bother when there are so many unusual lives to write about?” She'd be right although any man speaking truthfully about his life should be worth reading. Still, no sense thinking about it until he had completed the Lawrence he was, after years of research, about to start writing. “My God, whatever brought me to him?” After several steps he ran on, a little in fright.
He was running lightly, forearms loosely lifted, watching a wheeling flight of birdsâgrackles?âwhen an orange VW with a battered door and a soiled cracked windshieldâit looked as though it had passed through the bird flight âroared out of the covered bridge, came to a halt, abruptly started forward, at last pulled jerkily to a stop at Dubin's side. He felt a flash of recognition on beholding the driver but it came to nothing: she was a stranger.
The young woman begged his pardon in a voice he would surely have remembered, vaguely drawing down her skirt over bare thighs. She was braless, her face attractive; he had noticed a few darkish blond hairs on her chin. Her loose fair hair she wore long; the well-formed sturdy body was feminine, appealing. A half-eaten yellow pear lay on the seat beside her but
if she had enjoyed the fruit it no longer showed. The girl's curious eyes, he thought, were uneasy, as if she was staring at last night's dream instead of only good-willed Dubin. She wore wire-framed blue-tinted glasses that muddied her green irises, he saw when she removed them. Her smile was nervous, mouth sour in repose. From habit he tried to imagine her past but made no headway. Her first glance at him had seemed tight, as though she was calculating whether his visible interest went beyond what the moment required; or she wanted not to be quickly read by anyone who could possibly read; then her focus shifted, gaze eased; she asked if she was on the right road to town. She had, out of the window, touched his arm.
Dubin, pleased by the gesture, pointed a helpful finger in the direction he had come. “Take the left of the fork.”
The girl nodded. This was no comfortable lady despite nature's favor of an impressive body and on-the-verge-of-beautiful face. Whatever she had she seemed to want less of. He was about to walk on but she was still unsure where to go. Dubin gave her a good word: “A lovely day.” He was a deep-voiced man with a tentative laugh.
“Some would say so.”
She did not reply.
“Be kind to yourself.” He had stammered as a child, and the impulse to on occasion converted itself into a mild hoarseness of expression, sometimes a self-conscious laugh. Dubin cleared his throat.
She gave him an almost sullen look.
“Why do you say that?”
A man behind them, in an Oldsmobile with Jersey plates, honked to pass. “Whyn't you make love in bed?”
The girl burst into a nervous laugh.
Dubin told her he had no idea and hurried on.
It later occurred to him that the disquiet lady had been wearing a Star of David on a thin gold chain around her neck. If they had spoken names might they have touched lips?
Ah, Dubin, you meet a pretty girl on the road and are braced to hop on a horse in pursuit of youth.
There he stood by the tree that had wounded him.
The blow on the head and broken bones were not the wound; they had
evoked the wound, he had thought a minute after his car had struck the tree âthe aftermath when one cursed himself for suffering the wound. Dubin had tramped through the booming bridge, where the muddy stream turned west and he east, and was again at the point of the road he still shunned, twenty feet from the highway: it had iced up during a freezing late-fall rain last year and Dubin, on a trivial morning errandâa container of milk Kitty had forgotten to buyâslid into an accident. His thoughts had hardly changed. The car spun like an arrow on a board and the biographerâas if trying to foretell the future: what begins with a wound?âhad struck a tree, the last lining the roadâanother foot and he'd have skidded to a stop in the dead grass.
He had not at first felt pain as blood streamed down his face. He had stumbled to the highway waving his left arm, the other cracked at the wrist, bloody nose broken, right knee cut. It had seemed to him hours before anyone stopped to pick him up. Three drivers had seen him and sped byâ“Fools!” Dubin had cried in astonishment. She who had stopped for him was a girl in her late twenties in a red Pinto, on her way to work. He had felt ashamed to be bleeding in her car. It was years since he had seen his own blood flowing and he wondered if it was a portent; but nothing came of it except a week of pain and a mild depression for not being able to work.
Through his bleeding nose he could smell her incisive blooming perfume. Some responses have no respect for circumstances, characteristic of Dubin.
He told her his name. “I'm a biographer.” And laughed embarrassedly. “Sorry to be messing your upholstery.”
“It'll wash offâdo you feel much pain?”
“Curiously not. I will, I'm sure.”
“I'm Betsy Croy.”
“Charmed. What do you do?” Dubin asked her, mopping with his handkerchief the blood dripping down his head. Better to talk.
“I bookkeep. What did you say you do?”
“Write livesâMark Twain, Thoreauâothers.” He smiled foolishly; she didn't know the name.
Betsy drove awhile in concentrated silence, then said hesitantly, “I married this boy from my high school class when we graduated. Now he's twenty-eight and has got impotent.”
“A shame,” Dubin replied. “The composer Mahler was helped in similar
circumstances by a long walk with Freud in Leidenâthat's in Holland. If he hasn't already, your husband ought to talk to a doctor.”
“He has but it did no good.” She said nothing more.
Dubin was moved to offer his services but surely not now; he bled quietly.
Afterward he had stupidly forgotten to thank her, express heartfelt gratitude for her kindness; he had wanted to send her flowers. Dubin had visited the State Police, hoping her address might appear on the accident report. It did not. Occasionally he dreamed of her. He had for an instant thought this was she whom he had just met on the road; she was another.
The bark of the oak had been obscenely skinned for months after he had hit it. Although an accident on the road was sooner or later almost certain, given the hard wintry weather and frequency of mishap, Dubin had felt insulted by fate. A year later he would still not look at the tree as he walked or drove by.
He ran across the highway when traffic let up, wobbling as his arthritic knee tightened, and limped a minute after entering a theoretically hard-topped roadâsubject to winter potholes, spring mudâthen went on with his country walk. Dubin thought of it as circular although it was in fact an irregular quadrilateral on the county map. He strode on at a steady pace, refreshing his lungs, exhaling with pleasure. He had put this walk together years agoâthe long walkâand his route rarely varied. The short walk went to the bridge and back, about a mile each way. He left by the kitchen door; across the back lawn into a grove of tall gray-trunked silver maples with slender sharp-pointed leavesâgave the elegant effect of elms but less lyric, more grandeurâthrough a broad field with a pliant path he had worn into it; then, past the old barn, into the sunlit, still, pine-scented wood, drama of white birch with evergreen; in addition, sugar maples, aspen, ash. Kitty called it “Kitty's Wood” because she'd been in it first; explored it while he was unpacking his books after they'd moved into the house. And then up the road to the covered green bridge.
The walk he was into now Dubin estimated an additional four miles, the whole taking about an hour and a half or three quarters, unless he hurried. The way not to hurryâto enjoy nature, not suffer obsessionâwas to go the short walk; but sometimes he hurried the long. He felt he was taking his time today when he had the thoughtâsensationâthat the road was coming at him counterclockwiseâmoving as though the journey hastened its end.
Dubin's mind ran ahead of itself. What's my hurry to get back? What must I do that I haven't done? The truth was he hadn't meant to take the long hike today and was probably hitting it up unconsciously; he had meant at the bridge to turn back but walked on remembering his accident. And Betsy Croy.