Friday 15 December 2017

Dubin's Lives

I've been reading another Bernard Malamud novel – Dubin's Lives this time. Originally published in 1979, it's very much of its time, being a tale of marital infidelity and male mid-life crisis – well, rather beyond mid-life in Dubin's case, as he's 58 years old. William Dubin, who is of course Jewish, is a successful biographer who seems to have spent his working life writing biographies in an unsuccessful attempt to learn how to live, being constitutionally unable to inhabit his own life with much conviction.
 As his latest project is to write a biography of D.H. Lawrence, Dubin is clearly heading for trouble – and it finds him in the form of 23-year-old Fanny, the flaky but voluptuous young woman his wife has hired as a house cleaner. Though Dubin rejects her initial (extremely direct) advance, he can't stay away and it's not long before he's taking her on an illicit trip to Venice (addressing her all the while as if giving a lecture – which is apparently what turns her on). The romance collapses ignominiously in Venice, but that is by no means the end of the story; Dubin is not going to get over Fanny, and his life is about to get very complicated...
  What makes Dubin's Lives so much better and more interesting than it might have been is the skill with which Malamud plays out the action as at once farcically comic and emotionally tragic, and succeeds in making us genuinely care about the deplorable, myopic and self-absorbed Dubin. He is extraordinary compelling, even addictive company (though one might not wish to know him in real life) and it's actually a wrench to part from him at the end of the novel. Apart from Dubin, the stand-out character is his long-suffering wife Kitty, who knows her husband so well, yet misses so much. You can see how she and Dubin were drawn together by their interlocking weaknesses, why they fit so well together and yet are so unhappy. As the portrait of a marriage, it's painfully convincing.
 The novel is set in upstate (and upmarket) New York, and Malamud describes the rural setting and the movements of the seasons with a sharp, even lyrical eye for nature, making landscape and weather major elements in the story. The verstatile Malamud, it seems, was not only an urban novelist.
 Dubin's Lives has its faults – including an abrupt and rather unsatisfying ending – and is probably a little too long. It's certainly not the masterpiece The Assistant is, but it's immensely readable, quite often laugh-aloud funny, and totally involving. The foolish, self-alienated William Dubin is a character who lingers in the mind.
 There are also some good Jewish jokes along the way, including the one about the rabbi who heard his sexton praying aloud, 'Dear God, you are everything, I am nothing' and remarked witheringly 'Look who says he's nothing!'

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