The Fixer-Upper

From The New York Times:

Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life by Philip Davis.

Siegel190 A curious passage occurs in “My Father Is a Book,” Janna Malamud Smith’s tender, touching 2006 memoir of her father, Bernard Malamud. In the spring of 1978, when the novelist was in his mid-60s, he and his wife, Ann, had dinner with Philip Roth and Claire Bloom in the latter couple’s London apartment. In a letter to his daughter describing the visit, Malamud affectionately characterizes Claire Bloom — “absolutely unpretentious” — and then, in parentheses, adds this detail about greeting Roth: “We kissed on the lips when I came in. He couldn’t have done that two years ago.” Now wait a minute.

Is this the Philip Roth who by then had put the id into Yid, the writer who had turned Freud’s three elements of the psyche into the Flying Karamazov Brothers? And is the letter writer the Bernard Malamud known for his themes of redemption through suffering, of the burden of conscience that weighs down even the artist-hero? Is it this Bernard Malamud, the creator of the Christlike Jewish store owner, Morris Bober, and also of Arthur Fidelman, a hapless painter forced to choose between the gross imperfection of his life and the complete bollixing of his work, between Fidelman’s mostly fruitless attempts to make a woman and his mostly futile efforts to make art?

By presenting himself as liberated and Roth as repressed, Malamud — who died in 1986 — may well have been taking imaginative revenge on a younger rival. Roth, after all, had at one time publicly scolded Malamud for being narrowly moral and uptight. As Philip Davis recalls in his wise, scrupulous, resolutely admiring biography, “Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life,” in 1974 Roth had contributed a long reflection called “Imagining Jews” to The New York Review of Books in which he disparaged what he regarded as the “stern morality” of Malamud’s second novel, “The Assistant.” In the letter to his daughter, Malamud goes on to surmise that Roth “sought” the kiss “to signify I had forgiven him for the foolish egoistic essay he had written about my work.”

More here.