Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life by Philip Davis - review by William Palmer

William Palmer

Too Little Ragtime

Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life


Oxford University Press 377pp £18.99

This is the first full-length biography of Bernard Malamud, and it is as much a study of his work as of his life. This, in a way, is a relief. The fact is that most writers do little else except write; in Malamud’s case, that is almost all he did.

Bernard Malamud was born in 1914, in Brooklyn, New York, the first child of Russian Jewish immigrants. His father, Max, owned a small delicatessen. The business was not a success and neither was home life, and Malamud was obsessed with memories of the store, its claustrophobic lack of ambition and horizons. Malamud describes his father as ‘dour’. His mother attempted suicide, was confined to a mental home and died there in 1929, when Malamud was fifteen years old. A brother was diagnosed as schizophrenic and was hospitalised several times. When, many years later, Malamud made notes for an autobiography, he identified his role as ‘the observer of Max, Bertha, Eugene’; seeing his father sit in his dark little store, ‘16 hours a day, waiting for someone to come into the place’, was of primal importance in his growth as a writer.

But that development was painfully slow. An ungainly, unsporty boy, he was fortunate in having sensitive teachers at school and in discovering the Public Library (the place that has produced more writers than any university). However, despite all his reading, he failed the examinations needed to become a schoolteacher. As

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