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letty cottin pogrebin   Bernard Malamud: A Reminiscence  
 
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  The other night, around a convivial dinner table, someone asked the assembled guests whether any of us believed in God. The question and the ensuing discussion brought to mind many remarkable conversations with the late novelist, Bernard Malamud, whose first book, The Natural, was published 45 years ago. Bern loved cosmic questions, especially those posed during mealtimes.

A dinner party is where we first met, in the early 70s, at the home of his friend and lawyer (now retired judge), Shirley Fingerhood. Bern was captivated by the notion that I was both an editor at Ms. magazine and a wife and mother--facts he'd heretofore considered irreconcilable. He interrogated me in that intense yet gentle way he had of focusing his concentration upon you until he had satisfied his need to know. After sorting out who I was, he instructed me to send him samples of my published work; my writing would be his reality check. I must have passed the test because we became friends.

I was far from the most eccentric person in his social circle, yet Bern continued to marvel at my world view. He would interview me about sex stereotypes, gender roles, egalitarian marriage, as if he were a cultural anthropologist decoding the habits of an obscure tribe. Or he would ask me to expound upon some arcane aspect of feminist theory that one would have thought alien to his fictive imagination. Even more than he cared about fiction, he cared about the passions of his friends. Caring was one of the ways he honored us.

Bern loved to take walks, serious talk-centered walks. Many Sunday mornings, he and my husband Bert ambled around our Lincoln Center neighborhood chatting about the day's headlines, books they were reading, their respective children. During one outing, Bert recalls, the conversation turned to regrets.

Bern said his greatest regret was not having known the love of many beautiful women.

"Which of your books would you have sacrificed to carry on these time-consuming affairs?" Bert asked.

Bern thought for a minute. "Come to think of it," he answered, "none."

Their walks often ended at the breakfast table in our apartment where one morning our daughter Abigail, then a student at Yale, joined us. Bern grilled her, kindly but insistently, about her studies. When he elicited the fact that she was taking a class with Harold Bloom for whom she'd written a paper on Malamud's work, Bern asked for a copy. A week later, a letter arrived written in his precise hand, praising her insights in a tone that can only be called Victorian.

Bernard Malamud was a formal man, almost courtly, and neat as a nun. You rose to your best self in his presence, especially at dinner parties. He seemed happiest not at literary galas or lavish buffets but at small sit-down suppers characterized by a minimum of small talk and no subgroupings. He liked one conversation with everyone addressing the same subject at the same time. And he liked it best when he chose the topic and sat at the head of the table, orchestrating the collective discourse.

"If you could live your life over again," he would ask just as we unfolded our napkins, "what would you do differently?"

"Is there such a thing as a Jewish writer or a woman writer--or just writers who happen to be Jewish or female?"

"Does it affect your reading of poet's work if you know he was a bad person like Frost, or had bad politics like Pound?"

"Where would you rank art in humanity's hierarchy of needs?"

Bern's questions were posed not rhetorically but in the command mode. Because there was a twinkle in his eyes did not mean one could bow out of the proceedings. He liked feisty, opinionated dinner guests. He liked clever young people and outspoken women, preferably pretty. He liked eloquence with his entree, disputation with dessert.

On March 14, 1986, we had the Malamuds to our house for dinner. As ten of us settled around the table, another of the writers present, Phyllis Theroux, put a question to the group that I knew would please Bern and keep him engaged until long past his bedtime.

"If you could instantly possess any body of knowledge, what would it be?"

Phyllis volunteered that she was a stranger to the science of earth and matter; she wished she knew geology.

I confessed to being geographically challenged, my sense of the world represented by the New Yorker cover with everything West of the Hudson squished into insignificance.

My husband, a lawyer, wished he knew how to play the piano. John Tauranac, an urban historian, wished he knew geometry.

Esther Broner, a novelist and playwright, said she wished she knew less. She'd already seen too much for one lifetime.

Louise Bernikow, another writer, wanted a different sort of instant knowledge. She wanted to know why, when one person loves another, that person doesn't necessarily return the love.

Her statement elicited sighs of recognition, murmured reassurances, thoughtful speculation. But Bern, who happened to be sitting beside her, offered more than comforting words. He put his hand on her back and rubbed, "not flirtatiously," Louise recalls, "but the way you'd massage a baby who was in pain."

When it was his turn, Bern wished for two kinds of knowledge. Citing a friend who had memorized all of King Lear, he said he wanted the ability to remember texts so he could have the company of great literary passages on his solitary walks. And secondly, he wished he knew how to have fun.

Four days later, Bern died, leaving me with one of my greatest regrets. I never told him how much fun it was to be his friend.
 
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Copyright © 1997 Letty Cottin Pogrebin.

Photo credit: Bill Miles