This is my review of A New Life (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics) by Bernard Malamud.
I owe my discovery of Bernard Malamud to Jonathan Raban's quotations in "Driving Home" from "A New Life" to capture vivid impressions of the landscape in the area round Seattle, such as the wide skies in which the clouds are "a clash of horses and volcanoes".
Drawing on his own experience of working in Oregon Community College, Malamud introduces us to city bred Levin, who tries to escape from New York, where a sense of failure drove him to drink, by seeking a new life teaching English in the parochial world of a vocational college in the mythical state of Cascadia. Malamud describes with wry humour Levin's frustration over being forced to teach grammar from the soul-destroying primer which has enriched the ageing head of department who is so dime-pinching with his staff.
After a halting and wimpish start, Levin begins to gain confidence, but it is not until events begin to unravel that he realises that he has lost the sense of "being in control" which he briefly enjoyed. We sense from the outset that things are unlikely to work out well for the accident-prone, awkward Levin. Acute loneliness will drive him to unwise liaisons, and his desire to achieve something in his life will cause him to stand out from the herd at the wrong time and in the wrong way. Yet, by describing Levin's personality and thoughts in such detail, Malamud brings him alive as a man for whom we can often feel sympathy, even respect.
"Flight flew in him. He wasn't fleeing yet fled, unable to determine whom he was running from, himself or X. He blamed the flight, paradoxically a pursuit of feeling, on the fact that too much had happened in too short a time."
Published in 1961, the writing is on the cusp between an older style of presenting events in strict order, with detailed explanations, and a more modern directness about e.g. sex, and passages of near poetry, with a touch of "stream of consciousness". Malamud has a knack for comical situations, all the more so for being unexpected, his dialogues are realistic, and his observation of people razor sharp.
In the well-constructed plot, incidents along the way return to haunt Levin, creating at times a real sense of tension. You know that the most you can hope for is a bittersweet ending, but you care about Levin and want him to achieve a new life, even if not what he had planned.
This is a true classic, one of the novels worth keeping to reread and extract all Malamud's wisdom. I think he may be one of the greatest C20 American writers, yet one of those most at risk of being forgotten.