Walking With Malamud

Discussions with Malamud by Jonathan Lethem ’86

He takes a walk across the Commons lawn once a semester, and if you happen to be there when it occurs, you can talk to him for the duration of the walk.” So went the joke that was floated on the subject of Bernard Malamud’s official presence at Bennington, by the time I arrived there, in 1982. The idea being that Malamud clung to some emeritus position at the school, by a thread, but you shouldn’t expect much of him, maybe not even a glimpse. The joke encoded a sophomoric cynicism about the institution’s, and Malamud’s, past greatness. In fact, despite two relatively fresh National Book Awards and a Pulitzer, and his maybe-presence in the vicinity, I didn’t know any of us, among the aspiring writers at Bennington then (some you’ve heard of since), who were reading Malamud. I wasn’t. He was out of fashion just then. So the implications of his fame were a puzzle I wasn’t equipped to solve. Yet I knew enough to be interested—to desire that walk across the lawn, if the chance came. It did. An announcement, in the casual Bennington manner—perhaps a last-minute notice pinned to the mailroom bulletin board?—that Malamud would be talking informally after dinner in the living room of one of the old dorms. I think it was McCullough. I attended, with fifteen or twenty others, and ended up sitting more or less at his feet. I asked no questions, and I don’t recall exactly what he said. Not because it was unmemorable, but because for me, by now, the wisdom he dispensed in his ruminative, painstaking remarks has become confused with that from the many interviews with him that I’ve subsequently read. Malamud had a number of essential precepts, and had worked his thinking about writing, and thinking about his life, into aphoristic form.

My second encounter was a bit more personal. It was during the Summer Writing Seminars. I wasn’t enrolled, but since I lived in North Bennington that summer, I “audited” all the readings—George Garrett, John Ashbery, Mary Robison, and others. I was living in Welling Town House then, trying to write my first novel, and all the readings and talks held a mysterious power over me. Malamud read several short pieces—brief biographical sketches of historical figures in the arts that were crucial to him. If I recall correctly, one of these was Mahler. He spoke humbly of the difficulties he’d had with these pieces, and with his writing generally as his age advanced. It was a dignified, wintry, and somewhat sad performance.

At the party afterwards, at Stephen Sandy’s home in the Orchard, I got Malamud to myself, briefly. I regret to say I asked about the then-recent Robert Redford film of The Natural, and he spoke in a tolerant way of the differences between the two mediums, but also of his dislike of the film’s happy ending. I simply hadn’t read enough of his work at that point—I may, in fact, have only read the story “The Jewbird” in an anthology—to ask any of the dozen questions I’d now wish to engage him with. Despite my callowness, he was patient with me.

It was only later, years after his person imprinted itself on me, that Malamud became one of my favorite writers. As it happens it was his “campus novel,” A New Life, that was my entrée into his essential genius. That book doesn’t portray Bennington, but instead his life preceding Bennington, in the mountain west. You can glimpse Malamud’s New England life, however, in a later novel, Dubin’s Lives. For The Salon Guide To Contemporary Fiction, in 1998, I wrote entries on three writers: Philip K. Dick, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Malamud. The first two were in print and fashionable at the time, while Malamud was still in decline; I had to make the case for his inclusion in the book. Reading his entire shelf, end to end, was persuasive. I’d love to believe I had some tiny contribution to make to the long-term prospect for his present revival, and inclusion in The Library of America— where he belongs. In any event, lucky me Malamud was still taking his walk across Commons lawn in 1982. 

Jonathan Lethem ’86 is a writer whose work has won the National Book Critics Circle Award and earned him a MacArthur “Genius” Award. His first book was Gun, With Occasional Music, and was published in 1994, combining elements of detective fiction and science fiction. Since then Lethem has published eight other novels—including the highly acclaimed Motherless Brooklyn—and a variety of other work including non-fiction, essays, and short stories. He was named Disney Professor of Writing at Pomona College in 2010.

Bernard Malamud became a part of Bennington in 1961, when he joined the faculty as a teacher of creative writing. The author of eight novels and sixty-five short stories, Malamud is often recognized with Saul Bellow and Philip Roth as a prominent Jewish author of the twentieth century. His novel The Natural (1952) was adapted into a 1984 film starring Robert Redford, and 1966’s The Fixer won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Malamud, a member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences, died in Manhattan in 1986.