Google+ Followers

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Levin Leaping: Malamud's Masterpiece Redux

  -- By Tom Phillips  

At last!  My candidate for the Great American Novel has gotten the boost it so desperately needs.  This long-shot is "A New Life,” Bernard Malamud’s 1961 epic of a down-and-out New Yorker in the Pacific Northwest.  It's a tale of mutual transformation, unlike anything else he ever wrote, but based on his own true experience in that very time and place.   

Never read it?  Never heard of it?  You're not alone.  “A New Life” is the most ignored work of a hugely popular author.  The New York Public Library system recently held 164 copies of Malamud's best-loved novel “The Assistant,” and exactly one copy of “A New Life.”   But “A New Life” has just gotten a new life, thanks to New American Library, which has published two volumes of Malamud’s work to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth, and to literary lioness Cynthia Ozick, who has finally given Malamud’s masterpiece its due. 

In a front-page review for The New York Times Book Review, Ozick compares “A New Life” with no less than Huck Finn as a moral tale, and Gatsby as a saga of American transformation.  She calls it “one of those rare transfiguring American novels that turn wishing into destiny.”  Whatever that means, I think she’s right.   “A New Life” is an immensely complex, immensely entertaining vision – the closest thing to "Ulysses" ever written in America.  It's a hair-raising trip along the disputed borders of east and west, the Fifties and the Sixties, pragmatism and idealism, Judaism and Christianity, repression and revolution.  

The hero is Seymour Levin, M.A. (NYU 1950), newly-appointed Instructor in English Composition at Cascadia College, a woebegone state institution in the Pacific Northwest,  where the powers-that-be have sacrificed literature and the liberal arts to focus on efficiency, economy, and above all, athletics.

Malamud prefaces his novel with a quote from Ulysses:            
"Lo, levin leaping lightens
            in eyeblink Ireland’s westward welkin!"  (1) 

Seymour Levin:  See More, Leaven.  A vision, rising, over Cascadia’s purple hills.  We meet him as he descends from a transcontinental train, met by Director of English Composition Gerald Gilley and his flat-chested flower of a wife, Pauline.

He introduces himself:  ""S. Levin,” Levin said, removing his black fedora, his teeth visible through his beard.  “From the East.""  

Seymour is immediately re-christened “Sy” by the gregarious Gilley, who is campaigning to be the next chairman of the English Department.   Declining Gilley’s suggestion that he lose the beard, he settles into a room in town,  learns to drive a car, signs his loyalty oath and sets to work at his first-ever college appointment:  teaching forestry and engineering students how to write.       

Levin hopes to resurrect the liberal arts in a school that has written them off.  But he’s also resurrecting himself.  The instructor, we learn, is formerly a drunk, his father a thief, his mother a suicide.   His life turned on a vision he had while squatting in a filthy basement – a shaft of sunlight on his rotting shoes convinced him that life is holy, that the source of freedom is the human spirit.   His quest is “to get back what belongs to me.”  In his words, “order, value, accomplishment, love.” 

Values and love are what get him into trouble.  Levin’s moral code has nothing to do with the sexual prudery that is the college’s definition of “morals.”   But at the same time he is a stickler for fairness and equal treatment, the very opposite of Gilley, a pragmatist whose highest value is to “keep the department running smoothly.”  Levin objects to favored treatment for athletes, but is brushed aside with a lecture on how much they do for the school.   He pursues a suspected plagiarist; Gilley complies with the student’s request for a transfer out of Levin’s class.  Levin realizes “this man is my enemy.”

As for love:  his heart a famished cat, Levin prowls the town in search of females.  He has a painful flingus interruptus with a waitress.  He beds a student, in a lost weekend at the wild Oregon coast, but then finds himself bored.  And then he falls in love -- a passionate connection with roots that go back before their actual meeting. 

It turns out it was Pauline Gilley who brought him out of the East.  Gerald was in a jam, needing a comp teacher on short notice, and his wife plucked Levin’s resume out of a pile, attracted by his picture.

"So I was chosen," Levin says.  

Long story short:  At the end of the year Levin is fired by the college, on “moral” grounds.  He and Pauline drive off for California, with the Gilleys’ two adopted children (Gerald was sterile) as well as Levin’s own baby, growing in Pauline’s womb.  Her breasts are starting to blossom at last, preparing for a natural child.   

And he drives away from a changing institution.  The long-time department head has died, the frozen curriculum is finally shifting.  As they go through campus for the last time, they see a colleague sprouting a beard.  He’s been chosen to teach a Great Books program Levin had suggested to the dean.

Who is this Levin, what place has he in our histories?   First of all, he is the wandering  Jew as modern intellectual hero.  Thorstein Veblen described his role in a 1919 essay:  “(separated from) the people of his origin, he finds himself in the vanguard of modern inquiry.   He becomes a disturber of the intellectual peace, but only at the cost of becoming an intellectual wayfaring man, a wanderer in the intellectual no-man’s-land, seeking another place to rest, farther along the road, somewhere over the horizon.”  (2)

That’s where Levin and Pauline are headed as they ride off into the sunset.   But there is even more to Seymour.   Throughout the book, his name morphs through a series of changes.   “S. Levin, from the East” is Seymour, then Sy, then Pauline’s poetic “Lev.”   But on the next-to-last page he tells her his ancient name:  “Sam, they used to call me home.”
And who is Sam?  If we choose, we can locate his original home in the Bible, as Samuel the Prophet, judge of Israel, who called upon the Lord and overcame the Philistines.  Levin, though run out of town, has overcome.  Not only has he sown revolt among the Philistines, he is driving off with the wife and children of his foe, the wife now bearing his seed.  (3)

This shocking conclusion is probably the reason why “A New Life” has been so little read and taught.  Its story line – a Jew humiliating the Philistines -- is not something America wanted to hear in 1961.  But Malamud does not shrink from the conflict.  And he realizes himself as a writer in this new, exhilarating atmosphere.  This is a 367-page prose poem, every sentence crafted to sing, and to echo.  Listen to him wail on the Cascadian winter:

“..he listened to the rain as natural history, the Pacific extending itself over the land.  Huge sopping clouds floated over breakers threading the beaches and struck against mountainsides, rain pouring from an armada of smashed hulls, drenching the craggy crawling forests, drowning green hills black… Here was no sense of being between rains; it was a climate, a condition, the water burbling, thick, thin, fine, ubiquitous, continuous, monotonous, formless.”   (p. 162)

Bernard Malamud, 1958 (OSU ohoto)
Such a weather report does not come of the blue.  It is based, as is much of the book, on Malamud’s own experience – teaching freshman composition at Oregon State University, in the small-town atmosphere of Corvallis, from 1949 to 1961. Unlike Levin he stayed out of trouble.  But like Levin, he stood for personal and intellectual freedom in a conservative, authoritarian culture.  A friend and colleague described one of his confrontations at OSU, over a campus political demonstration:

“.. A young English instructor who was an activist type…  joined a group of sloppily-clad protesters with placards.  During a Saturday event at the stadium, they paraded antagonistic slogans in front of the audience dominated by conservative alumni.  When word reached the English department, the head was so indignant that he called in the instructor and fired him.  The instructor in turn went to (Malamud) at home… Bern, determinedly representing the instructor, went to the head to emphasize the unfairness of the dismissal.   I can imagine the head wilting under Bern’s concentrated gaze and emphatic diction.  Bern was just the right person to turn to under such circumstances.”   (4)

Malamud’s confrontation with his boss reads like the seed of the moral conflict in “A New Life.”  My own connection to the book is visceral.  It was written while I was a student at Grinnell College in Iowa, contending with many of the same social norms that Malamud discovered at the other end of the Oregon Trail.   My mentor was Sheldon Zitner, head of Grinnell’s English department, like Malamud a Brooklyn native and graduate of City University.  Zitner was no protester, but he stood clearly apart from the prevailing Midwestern values, and offered a model to non-Jewish youth like me, who were sick of “all-American” conformity, but lacked the tools to construct a new set of values on our own.

Jews came to the heartland with their own values, based not on prudery and pragmatism, but individual freedom and fundamental fairness.  This enabled them to become pre-eminent “disturbers of the intellectual peace” in all the movements that convulsed America from the 1960s down to the present day.  Veblen’s gifted, wayfaring Jews – out of their own milieu, teaching, living and writing amidst the gentile enterprise – had in the 50s and 60s a perspective that enabled them to see clearly the failings of a nation that was too taken with its own success.   

Malamud saw "A New Life" as a comedy, and it is funny in its satire on Philistine culture.  The trouble with Levin, complains Gilley in a memorable rant, is that he has never experienced the challenge and the thrill of fly-fishing, waist-deep in an icy stream.  It would make him "a better man," says Gilley, demonstrating by leaping around the rug in his office with a fishing rod in hand.  But Levin, though comically flawed himself, is clearly a better man than Gilley.  And unlike the sterile Gilley, it is Levin who holds the seeds of a new life in America.
-- Copyright 2014 by Tom Phillips

References and parallels to Joyce’s “Ulysses” are copious in “A New Life.”  Like Leopold Bloom, Levin is a Jew alone in a gentile culture, but who insists on his own place in it.   He’s also lonely, and horny, and adulterous in spirit.  But Levin reverses roles with Bloom and acts like Blazes Boylan, the cuckolder rather than the cuckold. 
  1. Quoted in "Connoisseurs of Angst" by Julian Levinson, in "Philosemitism in History," Jonathan Karp and  Adam Sutcliffe, eds.  Cambridge, 201
  2. Malamud lets out the Judeo-Christian theme in the final pages.  Levin’s Jewishness is finally acknowledged, and Pauline reveals her maiden name: Pauline Josephson, a double reference to the New Testament.   
  3. "Bern Malamud, an instinctive friendship" by Chester Garrison.  Oregon State University Library, special collections.