Dubin’s Lives by Bernard Malamud. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 362 pp. $10.00.
The style in which William Dubin the biographer writes, in which he speaks, and in which this novel about him is largely written, is detached and often ironic. Dubin is obsessed with lives and the lessons they impart: say the magic word and he rattles off a capsule biography, or at least a few choice tidbits, that could be inserted without change into a dictionary of biography. He believes that he writes lives in order to find direction in his own, and is ceaselessly didactic, but there is something dry and barren in all his teaching. A total stranger confesses that her husband is impotent, and the best that Dubin can do in the way of sympathy is to tell her that Mahler went to Freud with the same problem. About in the middle of the book, his wife is confessing an affair that came to nothing, and to his question — “But he wouldn’t oblige?” — she finally speaks out in anger, “I hate the way you distance yourself from me. Why do you put it so meanly?”
Exactly. Dubin’s precise academic style is distancing, and the impression the reader has had all along — it is a relief when his wife finally speaks it out — is that there is something cold and sometimes almost vicious in it. Dubin is trying to fulfill his own life by writing of those who have lived more richly, but life has frightened him, and his detached rational style keeps it at a distance.
There is reason for his fear. Dubin’s father led a meager life, working as a waiter without joy or ambition, and his mother, after another child died, suffered from a mad depression in which she rarely left her room. (“Hannah,” her husband said, “get better or your whole life will be wasted.”) Dubin drifted into a desultory career in journalism until, struck by the sadness of an early suicide in an obituary he was doing, he felt an urge to commemorate that life, and took up biography. Not long before, he had married a young widow with a son, perhaps not the best match for him; he handled the dark side of life by avoiding it, sticking to the facts of biography, but she was subject to the irrational, fearing illness, catastrophe, early death. On an act of faith they moved to the country for him to write and had a daughter. Dubin was successful as a biographer but perhaps not as a father: he wanted to teach his children, not rear them, and he was constantly absent in his absorption with his work. Growing older, they grew distant and uncommunicative (“You’ve got to live,” Kitty Dubin shouts at her unhappy son in his depression over Vietnam). As the novel opens, they are gone, Gerald a deserter in Sweden, Maud a student in California. Kitty is somewhat melancholy, with her children gone and no real work of her own. William Dubin, at the age of fifty-seven, is about to embark on a book about, of all people, D.H. Lawrence.
Into his life at this point steps a twenty-two year old college dropout named Fanny Bick. Her education has been of a different sort: initiated into sex as a teenager, she has drifted from man to man, and has a fiercely defensive feeling that she is somewhat the better for all of it. Still, she is unsettled, concerned that she has not found work that she wants to do, and though she doesn’t admit it until well into the relationship, had sought Dubin out because of his biographies, because he seems to understand lives. Dubin’s Lives is largely the story of their involvement, an aging man and a young woman, an intellectual being and a sensual one, a man who inhabits his conscious mind and a woman who lives largely by intuition and instinct.
The early part of their relationship is a fiasco. She offers herself in his house and he won’t accept; they agree to meet in New York and she doesn’t show up; they spend a disastrous week in Venice during which she is constantly ill. Dubin seems to be seeking in her the youth and passion he never really had, the daughter whom he misses; Fanny is seeking a good father and some direction in her life, but between them stands the lives they have actually lived, in particular, Dubin’s marriage to Kitty. Dubin would like to have an affair that doesn’t touch that, but Fanny, naturally enough, wants all of him. Dubin undergoes a long terrible winter depression after the Venice fiasco. His work suffers, and he and Kitty drift apart, as if hating each other for the lives they haven’t lived. Finally, in the spring, Fanny returns, and in a wonderful scene in which they both seem to find what they want in the other — they are in a field, naming wildflowers — she and Dubin become lovers.
In a way it seems an ordinary story these days — an aging writer experiences a crisis and has an affair — but Malamud’s handling of it is far from ordinary. His spare narrative style selects the perfect details, and he conveys moods — especially Dubin’s long depressions, and the icy distance between him and his wife — expertly. Not by openly discussing them, but by presenting characters enmeshed in them, he confronts many problems of the day, women who want to live with men but do not want their lives run by them, people whose work rules their lives and those who have found no useful work to do, impotence in relationship and in one’s work. The scenes he presents are part of a narrative but have an existence of their own, and the reader lives in them.
Ending such a work is difficult: there is no neat solution to such problems, in the abstract or in characters’ lives. It is only toward the end that the narrative gets a little shaky; in a melodramatic scene of danger, Fanny rescues Dubin rather improbably, and the plight of Dubin’s children, as if to punish him for distancing himself, is almost unbelievably severe. Failing marriages, of course, do not suddenly succeed — at best they need a long convalescence — and passionate love affairs never really end, at least not in the lovers’ minds. Wisely, Malamud leaves his final pages ambiguous and open-ended, and, in the intriguing list of Dubin’s works at the end, leaves the reader much to speculate on. A biographer can write of lives that end, but a novelist cannot afford to. His characters, when he has drawn them well, continue to live.