Tuesday, June 24, 2014


A New Life, Bernard Malamud, Farrar Strauss and Cudahy, 1961, 367 pp

Having now read the first three of Bernard Malamud's eight novels, I am less than halfway to knowing him as a novelist. Already I have developed a strong affinity for him. He is drawn to creating stories of how men acquire wisdom through suffering, also a major concern of my father's, and you could say I was raised within a Christian interpretation of that theme. Malamud's was a Jewish viewpoint but I have been surrounded by Jewish people all of my life. It all adds up to feeling comfortable with Malamud.

Not that his protagonists are ever comfortable. They suffer, they have a lack of luck in life and a tendency to dither about most things. S Levin, a thirty year old teacher from New York City with a past soiled by excessive drinking, has been hired as an instructor at a small private college in the Northwest.

Levin sees the new job as a chance to start over and make something of his life. Though he has given up alcohol, he still harbors the traits that drove him to drink. Before long he has made enemies on campus and fallen into a relationship with the wife of his immediate superior.

The sense of impending doom begins in Chapter One and continues up to Levin's decisions and actions in the final chapter. Since the reader does not know the outcome of those decisions and actions, I felt he was most likely still doomed. Malamud's particular genius is to keep the reader hoping for Levin's success despite every wrong move he makes. Exquisitely torturous, as any good novel should be, but so close to the human condition where now and then a guy gets a break.

I have read a good share of campus novels, of which A New Life is one. A college or university setting provides a good microcosm and I suspect Malamud had read some campus novels himself because he covers the major tropes of professional conflict, intellectual competition, town vs gown, and the insularity that leads to immorality amongst the professors, students, and locals. 

He covers a broader array of life than he did in The Natural or The Assistant. That may be because of the woods and fields surrounding his fictional Oregon town and the range of issues both personal and political that Levin confronts. Though he writes with a less precise focus than the troubles of a ball player or a struggling small shopkeeper in a big city, A New Life is an expansion into bigger questions of what make a whole life successful.

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