Review by Carl Rollyson
William Dubin, the protagonist of Bernard Malamud’s 1979 novel Dubin’s Lives, is a highly respected biographer of Henry David Thoreau, Abraham Lincoln, and other important subjects. He lives quietly in the country with his wife while he works on a new biography of D. H. Lawrence. His life becomes unsettled when a young woman, Fanny Bick, employed as a housekeeper, enters his study and undresses. Dubin is 35 years her senior, and although they have had some intimate conversation in the past, he is surprised by her sudden disrobing and tells her to put her clothes back on. Nonetheless, he soon embarks on a furtive romance with her.
Dubin is having trouble with his current writing project, and at first, he finds in Fanny a welcome distraction from his professional worries. But the affair ends badly, with Fanny breaking it off because she wants more from Dubin than he is willing to give her. Although Dubin has refused to leave his wife for Fanny, he discovers that the end of the affair is deeply depressing and further shakes his confidence as a biographer. His wife knows something is wrong, but he refuses to seek help or to tell her what has happened. His letters to Fanny go unanswered. And Dubin finds himself unable to follow the precepts of his subject, Lawrence, who has advocated living life to the fullest. When Fanny reappears and the affair is resumed, Dubin’s crisis of confidence intensifies.
Malamud captures the writer’s angst, the biographer’s obsession with his subject, better than other contemporary novelists who have so often treated the biographer as a vulgar interloper into the lives of others. Malamud’s biographer is a noble, if flawed man. His deep moral seriousness stems, it becomes apparent only late in the novel, from his Jewish upbringing. He has been brought up to examine himself and the selves of others with scrupulous honesty and persistence. Yet the very relentless nature of his self-examination he turns against himself—at one point accusing himself of being a “self-hating Jew.”
As Dubin learns near the climax of this novel, however, he is not his own worst enemy. Late one night, in a car that runs out of gas, he decides to cross a field; he is promptly attacked by a dog. Its owner is alerted to the dog’s cries when Dubin bashes the animal with his belt. The farmer calls Dubin a “Jewish bastard” and tries to shoot him.
The dark night and the forces within and outside of Dubin, come together in this riveting scene in which the biographer is almost murdered. The episode finally forces Dubin to come to terms with aging (he is fifty-eight), his mortality, and the life he had made for himself. His salvation is the writing of lives, even though he has found it so difficult to accomplish his work. Malamud’s novel provides no easy out but seems to honor the Jewish tradition of making the individual responsible to himself and his world even in the midst of terrible anguish and in conditions that threaten the self’s very existence.
Carl Rollyson is the author of American Biography, Biography: A Reader’s Guide, Reading Biography, and several biographies of authors and artists. He previously wrote about Susan Sontag’s Death Kit for Fig Tree Books.