“Dubin's Lives, for my money, is certainly Malamud's best novel since The Assistant. Possibly, it is the best he has written of all.” Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, The New York Times
Dubin's Livesby Bernard Malamud, Thomas Mallon
With a new introduction by Thomas Mallon
Dubin's Lives (1979) is a compassionate and wry commedia, a book praised by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in The New York Times as Malamud's "best novel since The Assistant. Possibly, it is the best he has written of all."
Its protagonist is one of Malamud's finest characters; prize-winning biographer/i>/i>/i>
With a new introduction by Thomas Mallon
Dubin's Lives (1979) is a compassionate and wry commedia, a book praised by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in The New York Times as Malamud's "best novel since The Assistant. Possibly, it is the best he has written of all."
Its protagonist is one of Malamud's finest characters; prize-winning biographer William Dubin, who learns from lives, or thinks he does: those he writes, those he shares, the life he lives. Now in his later middle age, he seeks his own secret self, and the obsession of biography is supplanted by the obsession of love--love for a woman half is age, who has sought an understanding of her life through his books. Dubin's Lives is a rich, subtle book, as well as a moving tale of love and marriage.
“Dubin's Lives, for my money, is certainly Malamud's best novel since The Assistant. Possibly, it is the best he has written of all.” Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, The New York Times
Read an Excerpt
They sometimes met on country roads when there were flowers or snow. Greenfeld wandered on various roads. In winter, bundled up against the weather, Dubin, a five-foot-eleven grizzled man with thin legs, walked on ice and snow, holding a peeled birch limb. Greenfeld remembered him tramping along exhaling white breaths. Sometimes when one was going longitude and the other latitude they waved to each other across windswept snowy fields. He recalled Dubin's half-hidden face on freezing days when it was too cold to talk. Or they joked in passing. Had he heard the one about the rabbi, who when his sexton prayed aloud, "Dear God, I am nothing, You are everything," remarked, "Look who says he's nothing!" Dubin hoarsely laughed. Once, looking not at all well, he said, "This has to be the center of the universe, my friend." "Where?" "This road as we meet." He stamped his boot as he spoke. Once in passing he said, "Ach, it's a balancing act," then called back, "a lonely business." A minute later: "In essence I mean to say." There were times Dubin handed him a note he read later and perhaps filed. Once the flutist read the slip of paper on the road and tore it up. "What are you doing?" the other shouted. "This I've seen before." Afterward he asked, "Why don't you keep yourself a journal?" "Not for me," the biographer replied. "None of this living for the gods."
They embraced after not meeting for months. Nor was Dubin afraid to kiss a man he felt affection for. Sometimes they wrote when either was abroada card might bring a letter, but otherwise now saw little of each other. Their wives weren't friends though they spoke at length when they met. There had been a time when both men drank together on winter nights, and though the talk satisfied, neither was able to work steadily or well the next morning. Eventually they stopped visiting one another and were the lonelier for it. Dubin, as time went by, found it hard to bear the other's growing quietude, and Greenfeld did not that much care for confession. Dubin could stand still, look you in the eye, and say some intimate things. Greenfeld liked not to know all.
Although it isn't yet end of summer, William Dubin in a moment of his walk into the countryrural into pastoralbeats his arms across chest and shoulders as though he had unexpectedly encountered cold, clouds have darkened, a snowstorm threatens. He had, in a way, been thinking of winter.
The biographer had left the house in late-afternoon warm sunshine and had casually walked himself, despite nature's beauty, into a small gloom. He imagined it had come from sensing change in the season, one day to the next. August was a masked month: it looked like summer and conspired with fall; like February it would attempt to hide what it was about. Dubin had uncovered bright-green shoots under dead leaves in February. In the woods today he had spied a flare of red in a broad maple. A sense of short season: Northeast cheat. The days had secretly cast off ballast and were drifting toward autumn. Cold air descended to the roots of trees. The leaves, if you touched, were drying. The noise of bees sucking pale flowers, of crickets rasping, seemed distant. Butterflies, flitting amid trees, flaunted their glad rags a moment before generating and expiring. Dubin felt change and could not bear it. He forbade his mind to run to tomorrow. Let winter stay in its white hole.
Beating his chest he flails at time. Time dances on. "Now I am ice, now I am sorrel." He shakes his useless fist.
Dubin, the biographer, a genial angular middle-aged type with a bulge of disciplined bellythus far and no fartherand a grizzled head of hair, his head perhaps a half-size small for his height, walked briskly toward a dark-green covered bridge about a mile up the dirt road. His arms and legs werelong; deep chest; shoulders, when he straightened himself, upright. He had gray-blue eyes, a slender long nose, relaxed mouth; he smiled now, touched by a pleasant thought. The mild existential gloom he had experienced in the woods had evaporated; he felt serene, doing his walk. Dubin had a way of breaking into a run when something intensive rose to think of. He was running marvelous gait for a man of fifty-six. For a minute he shadow-boxed on the road, desisting when a woman in a passing car laughed aloud. He trotted on, enjoying the sweep of space in every direction. He loved the free pleasures of perspective. Fifty yards from the road, a narrow stream, turbulent and muddy after a heavy morning shower, wound through the pasture. To the east rose masses of green trees climbing New York hills; beyond were the looming low Vermont mountains in misty receding planes. Dubin remembered once, in approaching Capri in search of D. H. Lawrence, the hills like a big-breasted woman on her back, raising her head to kiss the sky.
Remembering his work, he unconsciously slowed to a brisk walk. He'd had thoughts while shaving that he ought to try developing a few notes for an autobiographical memoirtype a page or two to see if they came to life with texture, heft. Or do it the way Montaigne didyou start an essay and thus begin an examination of your life. "Reader, I am myself the subject of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a matter." His smile turned into snicker when he foresaw Kitty's judgment: "Why bother when there are so many unusual lives to write about?" She'd be right although any man speaking truthfully about his life should be worth reading. Still, no sense thinking about it until he had completed the Lawrence he was, after years of research, about to start writing. "My God, whatever brought me to him?" After several steps he ran on, a little in fright.
He was running lightly, forearms loosely lifted, watching a wheeling flight of birdsgrackles?when an orange VW with a battered door and a soiled cracked windshieldit looked as though it had passed through the bird flight roared out of the covered bridge, came to a halt, abruptly started forward, at last pulled jerkily to a stop at Dubin's side. He felt a flash of recognition on beholding the driver but it came to nothing: she was a stranger.
The young woman begged his pardon in a voice he would surely have remembered, vaguely drawing down her skirt over bare thighs. She was braless, her face attractive; he had noticed a few darkish blond hairs on her chin. Her loose fair hair she wore long; the well-formed sturdy body was feminine, appealing. A half-eaten yellow pear lay on the seat beside her butif she had enjoyed the fruit it no longer showed. The girl's curious eyes, he thought, were uneasy, as if she was staring at last night's dream instead of only good-willed Dubin. She wore wire-framed blue-tinted glasses that muddied her green irises, he saw when she removed them. Her smile was nervous, mouth sour in repose. From habit he tried to imagine her past but made no headway. Her first glance at him had seemed tight, as though she was calculating whether his visible interest went beyond what the moment required; or she wanted not to be quickly read by anyone who could possibly read; then her focus shifted, gaze eased; she asked if she was on the right road to town. She had, out of the window, touched his arm.
Dubin, pleased by the gesture, pointed a helpful finger in the direction he had come. "Take the left of the fork."
The girl nodded. This was no comfortable lady despite nature's favor of an impressive body and on-the-verge-of-beautiful face. Whatever she had she seemed to want less of. He was about to walk on but she was still unsure where to go. Dubin gave her a good word: "A lovely day." He was a deep-voiced man with a tentative laugh.
"Some would say so."
She did not reply.
"Be kind to yourself." He had stammered as a child, and the impulse to on occasion converted itself into a mild hoarseness of expression, sometimes a self-conscious laugh. Dubin cleared his throat.
She gave him an almost sullen look.
"Why do you say that?"
A man behind them, in an Oldsmobile with Jersey plates, honked to pass. "Whyn't you make love in bed?"
The girl burst into a nervous laugh.
Dubin told her he had no idea and hurried on.
It later occurred to him that the disquiet lady had been wearing a Star of David on a thin gold chain around her neck. If they had spoken names might they have touched lips?
Ah, Dubin, you meet a pretty girl on the road and are braced to hop on a horse in pursuit of youth.
There he stood by the tree that had wounded him.
The blow on the head and broken bones were not the wound; they hadevoked the wound, he had thought a minute after his car had struck the tree the aftermath when one cursed himself for suffering the wound. Dubin had tramped through the booming bridge, where the muddy stream turned west and he east, and was again at the point of the road he still shunned, twenty feet from the highway: it had iced up during a freezing late-fall rain last year and Dubin, on a trivial morning erranda container of milk Kitty had forgotten to buyslid into an accident. His thoughts had hardly changed. The car spun like an arrow on a board and the biographeras if trying to foretell the future: what begins with a wound?had struck a tree, the last lining the roadanother foot and he'd have skidded to a stop in the dead grass.
He had not at first felt pain as blood streamed down his face. He had stumbled to the highway waving his left arm, the other cracked at the wrist, bloody nose broken, right knee cut. It had seemed to him hours before anyone stopped to pick him up. Three drivers had seen him and sped by"Fools!" Dubin had cried in astonishment. She who had stopped for him was a girl in her late twenties in a red Pinto, on her way to work. He had felt ashamed to be bleeding in her car. It was years since he had seen his own blood flowing and he wondered if it was a portent; but nothing came of it except a week of pain and a mild depression for not being able to work.
Through his bleeding nose he could smell her incisive blooming perfume. Some responses have no respect for circumstances, characteristic of Dubin.
He told her his name. "I'm a biographer." And laughed embarrassedly. "Sorry to be messing your upholstery."
"It'll wash offdo you feel much pain?"
"Curiously not. I will, I'm sure."
"I'm Betsy Croy."
"Charmed. What do you do?" Dubin asked her, mopping with his handkerchief the blood dripping down his head. Better to talk.
"I bookkeep. What did you say you do?"
"Write livesMark Twain, Thoreauothers." He smiled foolishly; she didn't know the name.
Betsy drove awhile in concentrated silence, then said hesitantly, "I married this boy from my high school class when we graduated. Now he's twenty-eight and has got impotent."
"A shame," Dubin replied. "The composer Mahler was helped in similarcircumstances by a long walk with Freud in Leidenthat's in Holland. If he hasn't already, your husband ought to talk to a doctor."
"He has but it did no good." She said nothing more.
Dubin was moved to offer his services but surely not now; he bled quietly.
Afterward he had stupidly forgotten to thank her, express heartfelt gratitude for her kindness; he had wanted to send her flowers. Dubin had visited the State Police, hoping her address might appear on the accident report. It did not. Occasionally he dreamed of her. He had for an instant thought this was she whom he had just met on the road; she was another.
The bark of the oak had been obscenely skinned for months after he had hit it. Although an accident on the road was sooner or later almost certain, given the hard wintry weather and frequency of mishap, Dubin had felt insulted by fate. A year later he would still not look at the tree as he walked or drove by.
He ran across the highway when traffic let up, wobbling as his arthritic knee tightened, and limped a minute after entering a theoretically hard-topped roadsubject to winter potholes, spring mudthen went on with his country walk. Dubin thought of it as circular although it was in fact an irregular quadrilateral on the county map. He strode on at a steady pace, refreshing his lungs, exhaling with pleasure. He had put this walk together years agothe long walkand his route rarely varied. The short walk went to the bridge and back, about a mile each way. He left by the kitchen door; across the back lawn into a grove of tall gray-trunked silver maples with slender sharp-pointed leavesgave the elegant effect of elms but less lyric, more grandeurthrough a broad field with a pliant path he had worn into it; then, past the old barn, into the sunlit, still, pine-scented wood, drama of white birch with evergreen; in addition, sugar maples, aspen, ash. Kitty called it "Kitty's Wood" because she'd been in it first; explored it while he was unpacking his books after they'd moved into the house. And then up the road to the covered green bridge.
The walk he was into now Dubin estimated an additional four miles, the whole taking about an hour and a half or three quarters, unless he hurried. The way not to hurryto enjoy nature, not suffer obsessionwas to go the short walk; but sometimes he hurried the long. He felt he was taking his time today when he had the thoughtsensationthat the road was coming at him counterclockwisemoving as though the journey hastened its end.Dubin's mind ran ahead of itself. What's my hurry to get back? What must I do that I haven't done? The truth was he hadn't meant to take the long hike today and was probably hitting it up unconsciously; he had meant at the bridge to turn back but walked on remembering his accident. And Betsy Croy.
As he hastened on he warned himself to be attentive to what's present, namely nature. If you looked without seeing, the walk was more of the same the same subjectivity. The good of it beyond exercise was that it changed the mind's scenery after a day's work. He felt uneasy when not observingthe big ones missed nothing, had eyes that remembered. Thoreau: "The perception of beauty is a moral test." More test than moral but one ought to look. The road came at him in slow motionhe tried to explain it but couldn't. What's happening today that hadn't yesterday? Only this moving road, a device of time hurrying me home. Dubin runs to do what's next. The way to counteract forgetting to look was to join uptake courage in both hands, move your ass off the confining road, be involved. Hop a wall; follow a stream through pasturewhat's so sacred about private property when it's all God's earth? Walk up a hill; enter sunlit wood; swim bareass in a pond reflecting day's eye. Walk home wet in dry clothes.
When had such happened lately? He could count the times on one finger. I rarely leave this road. Now and then a picnic under Sunday-evening trees. Sometimes I cut in along an old path to the pond in the quarry. Wild flowers scattered in clusters along the way. Once, with Kitty, we climbed Mt. No Name with the kidswalked up the low north flank. They'd been summer people who had stayed on. City peopleDubin from Newark and Bronx tenements, Kitty originally from Montreal; she had also lived in Augusta, Maine, with her grandmother. Dubin, after a decade and a half in Center Campobello, could recognize and name about twenty trees, a half dozen bushes, fifteen wild flowers, a handful of birds. He followed the flight of a crow elated to know who was flying. He had slowly learned to look, name things of nature. When he passed a flower he told himself to take it all in. What he couldn't name, or when names slipped his mind, he asked Kitty. She saw the flower wholecorolla, stalk, the shape of its leaves. He felt for a moment bereft.
In sum, William Dubin, visitor to nature, had introduced himself along the way but did not intrude. He gazed from the road, kept his distance even when nature hallooed. Unlikely biographer of Henry David ThoreauImore or less dared. Even in thought nature is moving. Hunger for Thoreau's experience asserted itself. Besides, great men are men; a genius in doubt is a man in doubtI got close to his human nature. Thoreau gave an otherwise hidden passion and drew from woods and water the love affair with earth and sky he'd recorded in his journals. "All nature is my bride." His biographer-tobe had been knocked off his feet on first serious encounter with nature, a trip to the Adirondacks with a school friend when they were sixteen. Before that he had hungrily sought signspromises?of the natural world on city streets and found, in walks out of his neighborhood, private houses with flowers on lawns; hedges; trees; and the dead leaves he was surprised to find in summertime. As a young man he had lived much in public parks; had sought, if not his bride, his bride's cousin? The first time in the mountains had turned him on in the manner of the Wordsworthian youth in "Tintern Abbey": "The sounding cataract haunted me like a passion." Dubin, haunted, had been roused to awareness of self extended in nature, highest pitch of consciousness. He felt what made the self richer: who observes beauty contains it. One is stabbed by the miraculous creation and interwoven whole. He wanted nature to teach himnot sure whatperhaps to bring forth the self he soughtdefined self, best self? Nature compelled him to feel what he hadn't felt so well before: "the shaping force," Hardy called it. He never forgot this although the experience, infrequently renewed, had diminished as youth had. My God, how nature moved me. Now "that time is past," as Wordsworth had felt it. Now, on the whole, in varying moods Dubin looked at scenery, and scenery, in varying moods, looked at him. But in his heart he still expected something he could not define. If you dared look you earned seeing. Dubin did his walks in nature's presence.
Still, what nature had meant to him, though not only nature, had inspired him to undertake and ultimately complete a fine life of H. D. Thoreau. In his mind he flipped through pages: close portrait of the solitary sensuous man, privately wounded, who lived on wonder, observed the bald fact and spun metaphor and myth out of nature. In his writing he celebrated his consciousness identified with the Absolute. Walden was a lied of death and song of resurrection: Thoreau had it both ways. Now and then someone argued the book was not literally true; it was fictitious: In truth, the man went home often to see his mama. If so, Dubin thought, it was nonetheless a masterpiece, nonetheless inspiring. It had stirred the imaginations of Proust and Yeats. How can it be less than it is? You write sentences and men aresensibly affected. Dubin, proud of the biography, contemplated with confidence his present work on D. H. Lawrence. Do the primitive labyrinth of the man, mystic flame-boiled essence, bloody simple human self.
He warned himself then as he often did, although it came to not much, that a good writer adventures beyond the uses of language, or what's there to put into words? Yet the truth is some do not: of them Dubin is one. As though to make up for his limitations, from his pants pocket he dug out one of his impulsive notes to himself: "Everybody's life is mine unlived. One writes lives he can't live. To live forever is a human hunger."
He was running. As the road dipped the hills rose. In spring light-green foliage raced up the rumpled hills and by June covered the scabrous shoulders of the mountains. Dubin trotted on the road going south. In the distance white clouds moving above patches of sunlight on the hills. The land sloped up to a line of trees advancing on him like a marauding army. For a while the wood rode on his head. Dubin rose on the road as the hills sank; he settled into a fast walk. A sparse quarter mile of old houses went by as on a rusty turntable, then broad fields with now and then a stark farmhouse, upright and spare to a point of principlewith weather-beaten barns, red or black silos, Angus and Herefords on cow paths in the pasture. Dubin liked to come by on rainy late-afternoons to see the steaming swollen-uddered cows lying in the wet waiting to be milked. When he passed in light fog, the ripe hot smell of cow dung from a barn nearby assailed him across the fieldhe knew where he was. One night, driving the road alone, he saw a cow cropping grass in moonlight. The farmland around gave pleasure: each neat walled field, each shifting shade of brown beige and green; furrowed, cultivated, harvested, plowed under: order of uses of men, animals, seasons eternal.
Robert Frost and his doomed brood had lived a summer on one of the farms not far away, and Dubin, long after the fact, had talked with his neighbors in Vermont and written an article: "Frost, the Season of His Wife's Death." The poet had been hard on her. His will, it had been said, could tolerate no other wills around. "Elinor has never been any earthly use to me." She had kept him from her bedside while she was dying. He waited in the corridor, saw her only when she was asleep, unconscious; dead. He'd had no last word from her. Her defense was silence. "She was not as original as I in thought but she dominated my art with the power of her character and nature." Dubin occasionally visited their anguished grave in a churchyard a dozen miles away. They were together now in the vault under thetombstone; their ashes were, with the remains of those of their children who were not buried elsewhere, although all their names were incised on the stone. "There's only one subject for a poem," Frost had said. Dubin had laid a small white stone on the marble tombstone.
The biographer had once wanted to do a full-length life of the poet and had written him a letter requesting a talk if he was interested. But the old man wrote back he had already chosen someone "to preserve my immortal remains." "I'd rather be in the hands of a man whose spit I'd seen." Dubin, after going through her papers in the N.Y. Public Library, had considered the life of Virginia Woolf, whose intelligent imagination and fragile self had drawn him to her; but her own nephew, Quentin Bell, was already into a biography of her. Dubin had then thought of D. H. Lawrence, a complex type with tormented inner life, if that's who you felt you had to get involved with.
Thinking of the biographies he had written, in particular Short Lives in a single volume, he felt a sadness come into him. Completed, most lives were alike in stages of livingjoys, celebrations, crises, illusions, losses, sorrows. Some lives accomplished much, some very little. One learned, as he wrote, the arcs, forms, consequences of the flight of lives. One learns where life goes. In fact he led them there. When you know the end the rest moves up only too quickly. Therefore, Dubin, what's on your mind? That he was about to create a new life would in the end shorten his own? When the work was done he was that much oldermore serious matter than a decade ago. He had sacrificed to his labors that many hours, that many years. Prufrock had measured out his life with measuring spoons; Dubin, in books resurrecting the lives of others. You lost as you gained; there's only one subject for a poem.
The last part of the country walk went west before it turned south again on an upward pitch to the highway, a length of solitary shaded road heavily wooded on both sides. Overhead, lightly laced branches touched and intertwined. The road was cool in the green shade, the air fragrant. Dubin breathed. He tramped on in the light-green dark. No sound except him walking along thinking his thoughts. At one place on the deserted road he broke into a run. He had more than once encountered a dog racing at him across a field, or bursting out of the woods, teeth bared, growling in its belly. His response was sternly to say, "Go home, boy," and hope for the best. Mostly they wandered away as he walked on; but he feared meeting an animal with no respect for human language. A black German shepherd hadall but treed him oncehis back against a tree, the hound snarling when Dubin attempted to inch forward. He'd been trapped a mad long time but kept the dog off by talking to it, his heart where it needn't be, telling it the story of his life. At last it yawned and trotted off. In afterthought it had seemed that a cardinal's shrill call, sounding much like a man whistling for his dog, had sent the animal on his way. Dubin waved to the invisible red bird in the trees. He's been set running by the thought of the dog and was running now. "Why, then, should man hasten as if anything less than an eternity were allotted for the least deed?" Who says?
As he ran, the road had stopped moving and he slowed to a walk. A reddish-brown bitch followed him, a shaggy Irish setter who sometimes appeared, a friend of the people. Ahead, where the bushes rose fifteen feet high on one side of the road, and the trees moved into the downsloping wood on the other, he observed a moving figure. It was Greenfeld in white cap and shirt, ambling along. He often carried his flute or recorder and would play as he walked. Dubin would hear a song in the trees. The flute got gut-close to primitive lament. "Ach, ich flöte." Greenfeld did one thing and did it well, not a bad way to live a life. Not now in a mood to listen or be listened to he felt a hunger for solitudethe biographer stepped behind a tree until the flutist had passed by.
Some other time.
He was looking at a grove of evergreens belowa pleasure to gaze down at the pointed tops of treesand a little farther on turned as the road grew level and approached the highway. Soon country merged into village, not a charming sight. After departing the highway Dubin walked north on an old sidewalk of broken slate. Center Campobello was a town of 4,601 souls in New York State, almost a mile from the Vermont border. He had lived there fifteen years, unknown to most: Wm. B. Dubin, who wrote lives, and who, it said in Newsweek, had once received a medal from President Johnson. There was a picture of them shaking hands. He recalled the clutch of the man's big paw. At the courthouse he turned and walked toward a crimson sunset until he came to the edge of town: his three-story yellow clapboard house with black shutters and wrought-iron widow's walk on the roof. A porch with white pillars ran half the length of the rear of the house. Dubin began his daily walk at the back door and returned from it, as from a journey, by the front.
He went around to the rear but Kitty was not in her garden. Dubin studied the dead elm coming down next week. And a skimpy-leaved maple was expiring"maple decline" the tree man called it. "Save money cuttin' them both down the same time." Dubin thought he'd wait till the maple was properly dead. Emerson had counted one hundred and twenty-eight trees on his property, lamenting they must ultimately fall. Dubin had counted sixty-one on his nine acres. Emerson could name every one of his trees; not Dubin. The biographer entered the house, called his wife, and when there was no reply, walked up the stairs. He stood solemnly in Gerald's old room, then in Maud's. Later he heard Kitty come into the house and she called up that they had a new cleaning person. "That's what she calls herself. I advertised today and she phoned while you were on your walk. Would you like your supper hot or cold? I feel dreadfully hot."
Dubin, in his study, had picked up his marked copy of Women in Love. A wasted walk, he had wanted to work.
"Why do you berate yourself in the poor mirror?" Kitty had asked.
"Because I'm handsomer in my mind than when I look in the glass."
"Don't look," she had said.
Rubbing in shaving cream, he was this morning in the bathroom mirror a solemn gent earnestly expostulating. "Next time round I'll do a comic life. Mark Twain's wasn't all that funny."
"Shush," Dubin warned himself, then remembered Kitty had left their bed. He tried to hold down the talk when she was in the bedroom because if she was awake or it woke herit made her uneasy; still, after these many years. If you shouted, groaned, or muttered for no apparent reason, or gestured Up Yours in her presence, you were showing loose ends, reminding her of hers. She would rather not be reminded. Kitty, when Dubin rambled on, made clicking noises with her tongue. He would then shut up, though he had more than once reminded her that Montaigne himself used to groan "Confounded fool" in the morning mirror. And Dr. Samuel Johnson was a noisy beehive of crackpot mannerisms.
"I'm not married to them."
"Montaigne's motto was, 'What do I know?' He was a wise man. And Johnson'winking and blinking,' Blake described himthough he looked like a mad hatter, inspired men to reason and courage. He had learned from life."
"It's your voice I hear, not theirs."
He beheld in the mirror, under stress of courselike this morning beginning a new biographya flash of himself in his grave, and with a grimace clutched his gut where he had been stabbed. "Papa," he cried, wishing he had done things better, and made unhappy gestures of evasion and shame that irritated Kitty when she observed them. He would strike his chest with his fist, point at the sky; his nose twitched like a rabbit's. Or he would intone a single sentence like: "My daughter never learned to waltz." That, after six times, would awaken Kitty; she asked through the closed bathroom door what it meant. Dubin pooh-poohed it all. But here he was at it againa relief this particular morning, conversing with himself at length, glad she had got up and gone out, rare thing for her to do this early in the day. Through the window he watched her contemplating her flowers in thinning mist on the ground. Kitty, wearing blue sneakers and faded pink straw gardening hat, though there was no sun to speak of, looked up and casually waved. The biographer lifted his razor like a sword in salute.
When he arose at seven, usually she slumbered on. Kitty slept raggedly and liked to pick up an hour or more at the morning end. Her sleep, after a fairly decent springtime interval, had got worse in summer. She slept deeply awhile, then was restlessly awake for hours; and slept again in the early morning before Dubin awoke. He left her lying on her stomach, wound in a sheer nightgown, the coffee au lait birthmark on her buttock a blemished island, visible when it was too hot for sheet or blanket. Though she tended to deny itthis depended on how well she was presently treating herselfher figure was good, despite large slender feet and thin shoulders. Kitty, brown hair fading, was still an attractive woman. She said she slept best mornings, when he was no longer in bed; and her most memorable dreams were morning dreams.
He had asked her recently what she thought about when she was awake and she said, "Lately the kids againmostly. Sometimes silly things like a pair of shoes I paid too much for. Or a clerk who said something rude to me. Or I wish I had been born beautiful, or could lose weight. Some worthless things grind on all night." "Hemingway prayed when he couldn't sleep," Dubin said; "he fished and prayed." "If I prayed it would have been to be more purposeful, organized, kinder. One would have liked to do less harm." "To whom?" "Anyone.To Gerald," Kitty confessed. He asked her if she thought of death. "I think of those who've died. I often play back mylife." Sometimes she went downstairs to read if the house wasn't too cold. She'd rather not read because it woke her thoroughly and she could afterward not find her way back to sleep. She lay listening to the singing bird-world in the 5 a.m. trees. Or sometimes wept that she wasn't sleeping. Once in winter Dubin woke to soft stringed music and went downstairs to find her playing the harp in the dark.
Last night she'd waked him to say she had dreamed of Nathanael, her first husband. "This is the second time this month and I don't think I've dreamed of him in years. We were on our way somewhere, maybe to church to get married. He was young, about his age when I met him, and I was my age now. Somehow I was pregnant, though I couldn't tell whether it was with Gerald or Maudthat's what made the dream so weird. I wanted to say I couldn't go with him, I was living with you, but then I thought Nathanael's a doctor, he'll know. What a mishmash. What do you make of it?"
"What do you?"
"You're better at dreams."
"Did it frighten you?"
"Nathanael wouldn't frighten me."
"Then why wake me up? I've got to start my Lawrence this morning."
"I woke up, thought of the kids gone."
Dubin said that could be what it was about. "The kids are gone. You're floating around with time on your head. You want to be young again."
"People are always leaving," she yawned.
Irritated, he tried to sleepthe curse of an insomniac wife. Kitty crept close and held him; Dubin ultimately slept.
The house, she often complained, was all but empty. "Get some kind of work," he had advised, and now after months of unsatisfactory seeking she was reluctantly working as a volunteer in the town clerk's office. "I stop thinking when I go there." "You're overqualified," Dubin said. "I feel underqualified." She complained she had accomplished little in life. "I have no true talents, I've tried everything." He had given up arguing with her about her life.
Mornings she was active, sleep or no sleep, though she dawdled as she dressed. "Thank God, I have energy." Dubin, after half a night's loss of sleep, had to conserve his. Kitty went to the stores before noon, did her husband's errands, phoned friendsalways Myra Wilson, an old widow on a farm in Vermont, a mile and a half up the road, whom Kitty shopped forthen sheattended her house. She kept it well; sparsely furnished, suiting the cold climate. Center Campobello shrank, seemed to lose streets and people in wintertime. She was good with space, placed it where it showed. Each piece of furniture looked as though it had been set like a small sculpture. She hated accumulation, clutter; yet placed things around it was pleasant to discover: small antique bottles, oriental tiles, lacquered boxes and pieces of stained glass. Kitty was good with flower arrangements, although she mercifully picked them late and the flowers in her bowls and vases were often slightly wilted. She was strict with her cleaning women, yet patiently showed them how to do things she wanted done. Dubin appreciated the order of the household; it went with his work.
Outside, she was continually digging in her perennial border, pulling up bulbs and planting them elsewhere as though transposing the facts of her life. Dubin enjoyed the flowers brightening the back lawn, but when he complimented her on her garden Kitty said she had no real green thumb. He called it a light-green thumb. The biographer appreciated his wife's good taste. He admired her kind nature, her honesty, even when it hurt. Kitty was spontaneously generous; Dubin had to measure his out. She was empathic: a single string bean in the sink was "lonely" to her. One flower of ten, fallen from a vase, had immediately to be restored to its "home." When Dubin was thinking of the gains over losses in marriage, he felt he had honed his character on hers. In all she had helped stabilize and enlarge his life; but he was not so sure, after a generation of marriage, that he had done the same for her or why wasn't she at peace with herself? Though he thought he knew the answer he continued to ask the question.
Kitty, as he dried his razor by the sunlit window, seemed to be dancing on the lawn. The dance astonished Dubin although she had as a young woman thought of becoming a dancer; had taken lessons. Yet he had not seen her perform anything like this before, this flow of movementgiving herself to it so. Shows you can't know everything about those you know best. The soul has its mysteries. Kitty waved to Dubin, he waved back. It was a running dance, very expressivefertility rite? Her straw hat flew off and she made no attempt to retrieve it. She ran with her arms raised toward the flowers, twirled and ran the other way; then again to the garden. Her arms moved like a bird's wings; she swooped, turned, now hopped sideways toward the trees. He thought she'd duck into the grove of silver maples and dance theremarvelous sightbut instead she ran toward the house.
"Happy," Kitty called.
He opened the window wide. "What?"
She danced on the lawn, her body bent low, then rose tall, graceful, once more flapping her arms. He tried to figure out what the ceremonial meant: wounded bird, dying swan? My God, Dubin thought. He had seen her in some happy moments but nothing to dance to. He felt how strange life was, then began thinking of his Passion of D. H. Lawrence: A Life, before he realized Kitty was in the house, screaming as she sped up the stairs. Dubin opened the bathroom door as she rushed in, shouting to him, her face red, eyes angered, frightened.
"Why the hell didn't you come and help me?"
"A bee, William," she cried.
"My God, where?"
"In my blouse. It crawled up my sleeve. Help me!"
"Unbutton it," Dubin advised.
"I'm afraid, you do it."
He quickly unbuttoned her blouse. A dull buzz sounded as the bee flew forth, a fat black-and-yellow noisy bumblebee. It buzzed in the bathroom close to the ceiling. Dubin defensively seized his razor, waved the weapon. The droaning bee zoomed down on a course between his eyes, shot up, twice circled his head, and barreling down, struck him on the back of the neck.
He had expected it, he thought, but not, after her gasp and his grunt, Kitty's uninhibited laughter.
Not long after breakfast Dubin sat at his desk in his study about to begin. "What's my opening sentence going to be? Christ, it may point the way forever." Kitty, without knocking, entered quietly and handed him his mail. "It came early today." She read on a yellow slip of paper on his desk the daily list of things to do and quickly crumpled it. He pretended not to see. Kitty said she didn't think the cleaning person would work out. She was a college student who would stay on only till school reopened in September. "She's competent but I doubt her heart's in it. She's doing this to earn a buck and take off. I guess I'll have to advertise again."
On the way out she paused. "William, why do I have strange dreams of Nathanael at this time of my life?"
"You tell me."
She said she didn't know.
He impatiently begged off. Kitty stepped out of the room.
After calling up, "Goodbye," she left the house to go into town for her groceries, his newspaper. Dubin heard her back out of the driveway. He laid down his pen and waited with shut eyes two minutes till she had returned, easily imagining her strained face, compressed mouth, eyes mourning as she got out of the car. Kitty hastily reentered the house, hurried into the kitchen, fighting herself. Herself won. She approached the gas stove and drew long deep breaths over each of the four burners, as though after a time of drought she was taking in the salt breezes of the sea. She then pulled down the oven door and breathed in, as her chest passionately rose and fell. Slowly her body relaxed. There was no gas leak; there never was. Kitty then sang up, "Goodbye, dear," and Dubin once more picked up his pen. She swept out of the house, briskly, sensually, almost gaily, as he savagely wrote down his opening sentence. The biographer was in business again, shaping, illumining lives.
He had seriously resisted Lawrence, so intricately involuted, self-contradictory, difficult a man. He had traveled so mercilessly, lived in so many out-of-the-way places; had written so well, so badly, so goddamned much; was so vastly written aboutsomeone had said second to Shakespeare; or if not second, third, Samuel Johnson interveningtherefore who needs more by William Dubin? Who needs, specifically, yet another life of David Herbert Lawrence? Kitty, who had conscientiously traveled with her husband four summers as he had researched Lawrence's obsessive pilgrimages, had asked much the same question. But one fantastic day in Nottinghamshire Dubin had discovered, in an old miner's widowed daughter's slate-roofed attic, two dusty packets of Lawrence's unpublished correspondence: eleven impassioned notes to his mothersurly complaints against the father; and no fewer than twenty-six lettersonce thought burnedto Jessie Chambers, his boyhood girl, whom he had ultimately rejected because she had too much the genteel spiritual and intellectual quality of the mothervagina dentata, or so he thought; he had never visited her there. It was she, who by one means or another, became the Miriam of Sons and Lovers.
Later, in a London bookshop, Dubin had also found seventeen unpublished letters of Lawrence to J. Middleton Murry, loveless husband of KatherineMansfield; there'd also been a strange love-hate relationship between the men. "Weasel," "dirty little worm," "rat," the novelist had called him, "I despise you"; and after breaking off their friendship, Murry, drawn to Lawrence and Frieda, time and again returned to try once more. Dubin's elation at his discoveriesextraordinary good luckhad at last resolved his doubts and hooked him firmly to the biography of Lawrence, at the same time apparently convincing Kitty. He had more new material than anyone in recent years and felt he could do a more subtle portrait of the man than had previously appeared. That was the true battleground for the biographer: the vast available documentation versus the intuition and limited experience of Wm. B. Dubin, formerly of Newark, New Jersey.
Sometimes he felt like an ant about to eat an oak tree. There were several million facts of Lawrence's short life and long work, of which Dubin might master a sufficient quantity. He'd weave them together and say what they meantthat was the daring thing. You assimilated another man's experience and tried to arrange it into "thoughtful centrality"Samuel Johnson's expression. In order to do that honestly well, you had to anchor yourself in a place of perspective; you had as a strategy to imagine you were the one you were writing about, even though it meant laying illusion on illusion: pretense that he, Dubin, who knew himself passing well, knew, or might know, the life of D. H. Lawrence: who seemed not to have stepped beyond his mythic maskexplained himself without revealing himself; created an ur-blood mystique that helped hide who he ultimately was. Beyond that is more: no one, certainly no biographer, has the final word. Knowing, as they say, is itself a mystery that weaves itself as one unweaves it. And though the evidence pertains to Lawrence, the miner's son, how can it escape the taint, subjectivity, the existence of Willie Dubin, Charlie-the-waiter's son, via the contaminated language he chooses to put down as he eases his boy ever so gently into an imagined life? My life joining his with reservations. But the joining the marriage?has to be, or you can't stay on the vicarious track of his past or whatever "truth" you think you're tracking. The past exudes legend: one can't make pure clay of time's mud. There is no life that can be recaptured wholly; as it was. Which is to say that all biography is ultimately fiction. What does that tell you about the nature of life, and does one really want to know?
By mid-afternoon he had done two pages and was feeling good when Kitty returned from the town clerk's office to pay the cleaning person. Dubin wassitting in the living room with a drink. The bee sting no longer bothered. The girl had gone after slantedly writing her name and address on an old envelope on the kitchen counter.
"I'll mail her a check," Kitty said. "What do you think of her? The house is fairly clean. Should I keep her for a while or look for someone permanent?"
He had barely caught a glimpse of the girl but felt magnanimous. "What have you got to lose?"
The cleaning personFanny Bickhe had read her name on the envelopewho had appeared Tuesday morning, returned to work on Fridayresisting it all the way, Kitty said. Fanny, a nervously active girl, vacuumed and dusted, and was supposed to do a wash but hadn't got to it the first time. Kitty had done the wash on Thursday and had left a pile of Dubin's underwear, pajamas, socks, to be ironedshe had tried to talk him out of ironed socks but he liked them that way. As he worked that morning he was vaguely aware of the girl outside his door yanking the vacuum cleaner from room to room; and he later asked Kitty to tell her not to come into the study, because there were so many note cards laid out on the desk and worktable that he didn't want touched. She could clean his room next time, once he had the cards weighted down. He'd have lunch meanwhile or would read upstairs in Gerald's old room.
The girl had left before Dubin stopped workinghe had eaten while she was in the master bedroom and as he went downstairs for coffee, had caught a look at her on hands and knees, shoving an aluminum hose under the double bed. But on the following Tuesday, when he left his study in mid-morning to visit the bathroomhe went sometimes to think a thought throughthere she stood barefoot, a brush in her hand, grimly swabbing the toilet bowl.
Fanny sweated as Dubin apologizedhe would use the downstairs toilet, no trouble at all. The biographer had recognized her; she seemed younger than he'd remembered, possibly because he now knew she was still in college. Or had he suddenly grown older? Her light hair hung loosely down her back, and he was again aware of the random bleached hairs under her chincounted four or five and wondered why she hadn't had them removed, a matter of esthetics. Fanny wore a faded denim wraparound skirt and black shirt without bra. Her abundant body, though not voluptuous, clearly had a life of its own.
Dubin stood at the bathroom doorway. The girl had retreated to the tub, holding the brush behind her.
"I'm Fanny Bick," she said, in annoyance and embarrassment. "I'm helping your wife."
"She mentioned it. Glad to know you." He spoke gently, sorry for her unease, apparently a persistent quality of her.
Fanny explained her situationafter a moment seemed calmerand he lingered to hear: that she was working in his house because there wasn't much else to do in town. "I tried the State Employment Office and all the guy there does is show you unemployment figures for the county and shakes his head. Makes you feel zonky."
"Twittery. So I bought the town gazette, or whatever you call it, and put together four mornings of work at three different housesthis and two others. I had no choice but I don't like cleaning." She made a face. "I do an absolute minimum for myself. I'm not a slob but I don't like housework."
He nodded seriously, not entirely approving.
She smiled dismally.
He clucked in sympathy. "You should have gone on to Winslow. It's a bigger townmore variety. You might have picked up something at the piano factory there."
"Not the way things have been going for me lately. My car pooped out after an accident. My fault, and all I carry is liability."
He shook his head at her luck.
She said with a tense laugh, "Please don't tell your wife I don't like this job. I wouldn't want to lose my two mornings here."
"Have no fear."
Her body eased and she brought forth the brush.
Fanny said she was broke and had to settle for whatever she could get. "I've had it with college and have just about made up my mind I'm not going back. Anyway, my father said he wouldn't support me any more, so I'm trying to put together enough to take me to the Big Apple."
"To do what?"
"Ask me when I get there."
"Haven't we met before?"
She regarded him with fresh interest. "On the road? I thought I'd got lost though I guess I hadn't. I was where I was looking for."
"You can't be much more than twenty-one or -two?"
Her glance was friendly yet reserved.
Dubin said lamely, "Maybe I'm intending to prove I know something about people your age?"
"Twenty-two," she said. "Yesterday, actually. My friends say I look older."
It struck him he had almost hoped so. Dubin said he was fifty-six and after a moment laughed huskily.
She mulled over the news, her face impassive.
"Don't cheat yourself on education," he advised. "College is limited but at least it's a beginning. That's what I told my daughter."
"Giving up college isn't giving up your education. Far from it."
"William James, the psychologist and pragmatist philosopher, reflecting on the social value of the college-bred, thought the major effect of a college education might be to help you recognize a good man when you saw one." Dubin laughed saying this; had often said it. I have a one-track mind.
He tightened his belt. "Here I am offering free advice again," he apologized. "I am a biographer is why. I often have this souped-up sense of other people's lives so that I don't always mind my business. Pardon me, I don't mean to offend."
"No sweat." Fanny was amiable. "You feel empathy for people?"
"That's putting it kindly."
He had noticed her Star of David. Nodding abruptly, Dubin broke off and returned to his study. He was surprised at the time he had given her; and it annoyed him a bit that he had felt her sexuality so keenly. It rose from her bare feet. She thus projects herself?the feminine bodybeautifully formed hefty hips, full bosom, nipples visiblecan one see less with two eyes? Or simply his personal view of her?male chauvinism: reacting reductively? What also ran through his mind was whether he had responded to her as his usual self, or as one presently steeped in Lawrence's sexual theories, odd as they were. He had thought much on the subject as he read the man's work. Despite his reservations it tended to charge him up some. Dubin counteracted the effect by recalling the continuous excitement of Thoreau, woodsy dybbuk, possessing him as he was writing his life. The biographer had for a time become the celibate nature lover, or so it had seemed.
He became aware he was leaving his study more often than usual; he would drift down into the kitchen to pour himself a cup of coffee. He'd be restless,Dubin explained it to himself, well into beginning a workit might take fifty, sixty pages before you were settled in, sure you were working right. He had the sense of having been more quickly into Thoreau, wasn't yet knee-deep in Lawrence. Once he was securely placed in the life he'd stick it out steadilyhours at his desk without a break, except for an occasional visit to the john. Holding cup on saucer he'd wander through the house, sipping absently, standing around thoughtful, probing his problems. If Fanny, on days she was there, happened to appear, Dubin nodded as though in thought and went on thinking.
Once when he lifted his coffee cup in greeting she said "Hi" cheerily and ducked out of the room.
"How come," Kitty inquired one morning, "you're drinking lots of coffee?" Years ago she had tried bringing up a cup of mid-moming broth to his study. This had soon come to an end: not really her style, not really his. It took time and added weight.
"Beginnings are tough."
"But you've begun."
One did not necessarily begin at the beginning, Dubin explained. "Beginnings may be more effective independent of strict chronologywhere the dominant action of the life starts, the moment of insight, cohesion, decision. You can search that out or perhaps define a moment as a beginning and let what follows prove it. I'm not sure I'm there yet."
"You will be," Kitty said. "Don't strive for perfection right off."
He ignored the remark. They'd agreed she was not to advise him how to work unless he asked her.
She poured herself a sherry; it was near lunchtime. He was aware how well she looked this summer, her long body retaining its shape, if slightly heavier than last year. She looked younger than fifty-one, but if you said so she tittered, or sadly smiled at all you hadn't tallied.
"How's the girl working out?" He poured from the coffee pot.
"Not badly. She tries. I told you she's off to New York in September. I'll advertise then."
"Has she said anything about herself?" Kitty had long talks with people who worked for her.
"Not very much. She's intelligent, has a mind of her own and the usual dissatisfactions of someone her age, plus a few I can only guess at. Her old man's let her down, but I don't know how or whythe usual crise deconfiance, I suppose. She's apparently decided to drop out of college, after a year in, two out, in again into her senior year and now wanting out for sure, she says."
"What brought her to Center Campobello?"
"She was living in an upstate commune, got fed up, and was on her way to New York City when she had an accident coming off the highway outside town. So she stopped off to earn some money to have her car repaired, et cetera. She's hinted some vague other reason, maybe looking up an old lover I don't know. She's a mild depressive, I'd say."
Kitty analyzed people; she'd long ago been psychoanalyzed.
"She reminds me a little of Maud," Dubin said.
His wife was incredulous.
"Lots of vitality," he offered. "Direct too, wouldn't you say?"
"She's energetic enough when she wants to be, otherwise tends to droop."
"Seems to present herself as sexy?"
"I'd say sodoes Maud?"
"Don't run it into the ground. Just an impression."
"Impressions either have or haven't validity."
Dubin was silent.
"She knows Roger Foster," Kitty said. "Apparently she applied for a job in the library but they had none. Now he calls for her after workwaits in his car in the driveway. I've asked him to come in but I think he's uneasy with you."
"What more could you ask for a single attractive slightly blowsy girl who isn't your daughter, or for that matter much like her?" Kitty asked. "Fanny strikes me as not quite put together."
"Is Roger her lover?"
"How would I know?"
He'd never liked him, a sandy-haired large-shouldered insistent young man. When Roger was in college he'd worked one summer for Dubin, theoretically assisting a carpenter who was altering the barn Dubin was in part turning into an outside study that he had since then not much used. Roger hadn't worked well, goofed off. Lazy bastard.
"Maud never liked him either," Dubin said. "He hung around when she was barely fifteen. She had his number."
"With your assistance," Kitty said. "That was years ago. He's a seriousman now and a really good librarian. Crawford isn't coming back and Roger, I hear, will replace him."
"He won't get my vote."
"He won't need it."
Dubin was uncomfortable with his judgment of Roger Foster, because he had disliked him on meeting him and forever thereafter. The biographer did not care to be the victim of that kind of response to people. It indicated objectivity missing, a quality he could not afford to be caught short of.
He glanced at his watch and whistled. "I've been talking to you for half an hour. Lawrence will fry me alive."
"Don't regret it," Kitty said. "I hardly see you once you're into a new biography."
"You see me forty times a day."
She wanted a hug before he left. "I've been feeling lonely."
They kissed affectionately as Fanny entered the room and at once headed out.
Dubin would wander through the house with his cold coffee cup, sipping from one room to another: a momentary break from workhe'd return refreshed. He enjoyed coming on Fanny in motion: forcefully stroking the rugs with the vacuum cleaner; the choreography with a mop over the kitchen floor; her intense private gestures of ironing; hurrying up and down the stairs. He enjoyed her hips in bloom, ample bosomshe wore a brassiere now after a glance or two by Kittyeverything in her figure more beautifully rounded because of the dramatic narrowing of waist between bust and bottom. She was gifted in femininity, Dubin had decided. Fanny wore miniskirts; on hot days she appeared in shorts and gauzy blousesblack, orange, yellowher white or black bra visible through the garment.
Intermission, he called his viewing of herthe serious looking when she seemed inattentive yet had surely invited. Is she flirting with me? Whatever fora man my age? When she bent it was a gracious act. A beautifully formed female figure suggested ideal formher ass a bouquet of flowers. Ah, my dear, if I could paint you nude, if I could paint. Fanny as "sexual object" was balanced by the responding thought that he wouldn't mind being hers if she could imagine it. Is she really so tempting a dish, he asked himself, or am I beautifying every cubit of her according to my need? Women move me to deepest feeling, of pleasure and loss. As if they are eternally mine yetnever belong to me. He felt at his thought, as it reverberated amid others, a mounting loneliness. Dubin waited till the feeling had passed. Afterward he reflected that this intense unexpected response to her had probably occurred at the thought she would soon be gonein a few weeks to the omnivorous city. A momentary source of innocent pleasure lostthe beauty of a vital young woman. Too bad she'd never know. My God, how long does this romantic hungerresidue of old forms, habits, daydreamshaunt the blood?
Though he foresaw her departure he might as well enjoy the time she'd still be around. As for interrupted concentration, so long as he produced his daily two pages he had little to criticize himself for. But Fanny, as though to prove that his foreboding of an end was itself an ending, seemed to tire of the entertainment: his seeking her; her unwilling continuous performance. How juxtapositions distort intent, pleasure. She seemed all at once actively avoiding him. Dubin, concerned, looked less her way, would play no wolf to her harried Pamela. Once when he accidentally came upon her in the kitchen as she was ironing his underpants, Fanny's expression was grim. Both were embarrassed as their glances met. Dubin drained his coffee cup and hurried off.
Afterward she hid when he appeared, or attempted to, whatever his amiability or good intentions; she dropped what she was doing and walked off. Fanny ducked into the bathroom or hastened down the cellar stairs and in a few minutes the washing machine was rumbling. Or she slipped out on the porch and had a cigarette, leaning against a white pillar, staring at the old hills; the hills at least were eyeless. But the biographer enjoyed the sight of her: Susanna turned away from leering elderlovely figure, something lonely about her. What sort of life does she have? Too bad she can't feel my admirationas admirationor perhaps she does and still would rather not. We can't all be friends and relatives as the world is; most of us have to be strangersterrible construction, and here's Moses-Jesus preaching love thy neighbor as thyself. He went back to his study, dejected. Old billy goatthese feelings at fifty-six, disjunctions of an ordered life. We are all clowns.
Dubin resumed work with affection for ittruly working kept one from useless emotionon keel, more or less content. The chapter was bestowing more, resisting less. The facts had been laid out easily enough though he wasn't satisfied with all they said or didn't say. But patience: good beginnings, those that assured the biographer they were right and so was he, blew in like spring winds; some like storms. Some you coaxed out of the blue. Thesky was in the process of yielding. What grew word by word grew in value. The young Lawrence had appeared, his face in a pool, or the pool his face. That is to say, the boy, from the first, reflected himself. Double selfnever, then, recognized as such? Was this one of the hidden keys of the lifeexplains the sexual things, never at peaceand his love of ideologized metaphordouble image defined as one? The essential broken self?unity achieved only in the work, his rainbow? Dubin, concentrating sentence by sentence, no longer ventures out of his room when the girl's around. Were she clinging to his door, he'd hold his water.
Fanny, he thought, a foolish name.
Summer was ending.
Winter waits in the wings.
One morning in early September Dubin hurried downstairs for a cup of hot coffee to keep him awake. Kitty had slept badly and borne him along part of the ride. When he returned to the study he found Fanny there, gazing at the pictures and mementos on the wall; she was examining in particular a framed blue-and-white beribboned gold medal.
The girl was standing close by the wall. Nearsighted, he thought, yet she rarely wears glasses, terrible vanity. In any case she was reading the citation of the medal in the frame. Dubin knew it by heart: "Presented by Lyndon Baines Johnson, President of the United States of America; to William B. Dubin, for his achievement in the Art of Biography; at the White House, December, 1968."
"Medal of Freedom," Dubin explained; formalwould not impose.
"Far out," Fanny said, amiably turning to him. "I've seen it here but never read what it said because you like to get back into your room so fast. The reason I came in just now is the door was standing open and I thought you were reading in Gerald's room so I could dust here."
He set down the cup on his desk, trying to keep it from rattling. A puddle of coffee had formed in the saucer.
"It was presented to me after the publication of my H. D. Thoreauyou've heard of him?American essayist, 181762, author of Walden and other works. He was a disciple and somewhat ambivalent friend of Emerson idealized his wife Lidian, might have been in love with her but there's no impressive evidence. A biographer can't afford to lean toward guesses of that sort, no matter how sympathetic his nature." "I've read Walden. Some chapters turn me onthe scenes in winter and at night." "Wonderful." Dubin had been about to say they had much in common but caught himself.
"You may not think so but all my life I've wanted to live close to nature, except I've never figured out how."
She said she had joined a Buddhist commune near Tupper Lake that summer. "Which was to be no sex and very vegetarian, including growing your own lettuce and beans. I liked it at first but one of the swamis there, a secret acid tripper, got on my nerves, so I split."
The swami pursued her with his naked eye? Dubin felt drawn to the girl in a way that saddened him.
He pointed to a small photograph in a hand-carved frame on the wall. "That's Henryhe was called Davy when he was a boynot exactly a handsome man but people liked his looks. Hawthorne said they became him more than beauty." He beamed at her.
Fanny looked closely at the picture.
"Note the longish nose," Dubin observed. "Emerson said it reminded him of the prow of a ship. They say Thoreau would pretend to swallow ittried to get his lower lip over it for laughs. He also tooted a flute as he danced with himself. In winter they skated on the frozen Concord, our boy waltzing like Bacchus on ice. Emerson leaned his ministerial face into the wind and self-reliantly shoved off. Hawthorne, his daughter Rose wrote, skated like a Greek statue on runners. Henry clowned on the ice. With luck he might have been a comedian. Mostly he settled for a solitary life in the woodsone makes his fate: he was there in every wind and weather. Some say eventually it undermined his health and shortened his lifebut it's the old business of what for which. Out of this experience came his journal, where he appeared as a figment of his own imagination. And from which he extracted many treasures, including much of Walden. Or it might have worked the other way: he had started a journal on Emerson's say-so and went into the woods to let it find its world."
Fanny gave him the first warm smile he'd had from her.
Dubin went on, "He was ambitious to be greatbecome a major American artist. He is said to have felt a guilt-ridden desire to surpass at all costs and did so by turning nature into a personal possession. Perry Miller made him more conscious of every move toward his literary destiny than I. Noteverybody knows what his personal metaphors mean or what he's secretly becoming, though one may sense it, of course. To my way of thinking his major concern, given who he assumed he was, was learning how to live his life. 'One doesn't soon learn the trade of life,' he said. He spent years trying, which is to say he lived to learn, to apprehend and control the forces that shaped him. He said he didn't want, when it came time to die, to discover he hadn't lived."
"Neither do I," said Fanny.
"Nor I," Dubin allowed. "Once he accidentally set fire to the Concord woods and burned up several hundred acres. The townspeople were furious. His behavior was strange: he watched the fire and made no attempt to help put it out. Death, one might expect, inhabited the journal. His brother John's short life was something he never ceased mourning. They'd been rivals for a young woman who turned them both down when each proposed marriage."
"I know he wasn't married. What did he do for sex?"
"Apparently he died chasteas they say," the biographer soberly answered. "He's one of those people who live on sublimated sex. There are more around than one would think. You marry nature and live in solitude, having it both ways. But given how he lived, and considering what he accomplished, who's to say how much he missed, or that he missed much?" Dubin seemed to put it tentatively.
Fanny made a face. "I don't buy that. I don't care what he accomplished in his books, when you get right down to it he missed the most satisfying pleasure of life. I mean we're human, aren't we?"
His glance fell on her bosom. Dubin quickly looked up into her light-green eyes. Fanny observed him with nearsighted intensity. Her expression momentarily surprised.
"One of his best friends," he admitted, "said, 'No man had a better unfinished life.' I'm not attempting to justify his celibacy or whatever part of it he practiced, Fanny. I simply say he found his way. In essence, like many men of his type, he was a happy man. 'I love to live,' he said, and I believe him."
"Do you?" she asked.
He listened for mockery but heard none.
"Why do you ask?"
"Because I ask myself."
"What do you answer?"
"It's my question."
"Affirmative," Dubin replied.
Her eyes, he thought, reserved judgment.
"I have my doubts about how happy he was," Fanny said. "It must be a pretty dry lay, banging nature."
"There are many ways of love," he ventured.
"Not if you have to do it to a tree, Mr. Dubin."
He laughed warmly. "Please call me William."
To hold her there he went on concerning his medal: "I didn't want to accept it at first because I didn't like what Johnson had done to escalate and prolong the Vietnam War. But my wife said it wouldn't be courteous to turn the medal down if my country wanted to honor me and my book; so I took it."
Fanny mildly grunted.
"After dinner Johnson took me aside and asked me to write his 'truthful biography.' He held my hand in his big hand and said that Lady Bird had loved my book and there was no doubt in his mind that I could do a first-rate Life of LBJ. I said I was honored but couldn't accept his kind suggestion."
"Good for you."
"That's what my daughter said. Anyway, I backed off as best I could. I said that though I'd done a life of Lincoln, on the whole I preferred to work with literary figures. 'You son-of-a-bitch,' his eyes said, 'I'm a better man than you.' 'Yes,' I thought, 'I took your medal.'"
"Later he told my wife, 'No man worked harder for peace than I did.' And when we left he loaded us with presents. She got a green scarf with border designs of a million LBJs strung together, and a glass bowl embossed with the Presidential seal. He gave me a waterproof watch engraved, 'Do Unto Others As You Would Have Others Do Unto You.' The watch never kept good time but I had the medal framed and there it hangs on the wallI feel a certain affection for it nowand here we are, you and I."
They were standing within inches of each other, Fanny leaning against the wall, breathing audibly, her pelvis casually thrust forward. She seemed relaxed, as if she'd forgiven him for having burdened her with his desire to know her. Now that she was about to quit working for them, perhaps she had decided that he had wanted not very much from her. She's sought afterby men, Dubin thought; yet even in the best of circumstances he doubted he would have tried to entice her into bed. She was only a couple of years older than Maud and he sensed in himself something resembling incest taboo once removedyou don't bed down a girl your daughter's agelet alone other inhibitions. I like to look at pretty women, though in her case maybe I overdid it considering I had her cornered in the house.
"Here's a picture my wife snapped of Johnson handing me the medal."
Fanny examined it closely. "You look like a puppy dog who doesn't want to bite the bone."
"That's more or less the way I felt."
Neither of them spoke for a moment. He thought she was about to leave but she wasn't.
"What are you writing now?" Fanny asked, not at all concerned she wasn't doing her work; neither was Dubin.
He responded quickly: "A new life of D. H. Lawrence, English novelist, poet, prophet, superb letter writer, man of genius and rages. He lived almost forty-five yearsfrom 1885 to 1930just about as long as Thoreau. They both died of TBshort lives."
"Was he as important as Thoreau? I mean why did you pick him after the other one?"
"He'd been in and out of my mind for years," Dubin said, his voice grown gravelly. "One day I woke up in his presence. Not that he was actually there, you understand, but I couldn't put him aside in my thoughts. So far as I could remember I hadn't dreamed of him, yet I could not shake the sight of this fierce consumptive bright blue-eyed red-bearded man hectoring me. The experience was puzzling because, try as I would, I couldn't understand what he was saying. To answer your question, maybe I decided to write about him because I wanted to elucidate the mystery."
"Are there two?"
"I wouldn't know," Fanny said.
Dubin said he had read nothing by Lawrence for years. "But he and Thoreau, though they led vastly different lives, had more in commonapart from being major writersthan is apparent. As writers their themes were alikedeath and resurrection. As men both were oppressed by dominating possessive women. Both greatly loved and celebrated the natural world. Both were puritans. And both were less than fully heterosexual. Thoreau, as I said,sublimated his sexuality. Lawrence seemed never entirely at peace with his sexual nature. He felt he needed a man's love as well as a woman's to complete him, but he never seemed ablemaybe he lacked the good fortune to realize a bisexual relationship. He apparently proposed a blutbrüder-shaft to Middleton Murry, who though he seemed to be homoerotically inclined, was afraid of Lawrence. He grabbed his hat and ran. Lawrence once said that the idea of putting his arm around a woman's waist and dancing with her appalled him. If it weren't for Frieda, his sexually talented wife, he'd have been a lot more limited. She wrote someone that she had fought with Lawrence over his homosexual inclinations and had wonwhatever that meant. She apparently could handle any kind of sexual experience. Ultimately he made a mystique of sex, preaching it as a dark force of blood-consciousness through which man experiences the primal mystery. It's a paradox that his theories occupied him, especially toward the end of his life, more than the physical sex that by then had failed him." "What about Lady Chatterley's Lover? That had a lot of real live sex in it. Didn't he write that near the end of his life?" "It too is ideologically charged, but you're righthis sensuous world is real, affecting, no matter what the theories come to."
Fanny, after a moment, wondered if Dubin's coffee was cold.
He thought it might be.
They gazed seriously at each other.
"You sure know a lot about him."
"I wish I knew more. I don't pretend to see him plain. For instance, in his letters he speaks as if he were telling the factual truth but one can't take him at face valuethe letters give autobiographical information yet there is a sense of their belonging to his creative work. I hope to figure him out as I go deeper into the life."
"I was thinking what you said about sex failing him"
"You understand, Fanny, he was never an exponent of free sex? He didn't like people aimlessly copulating. He said sex should come on us unaware, 'as a terrible thing of suffering and privilege and mystery.'"
The girl seemed, then, troubled. "I think we're entitled to have sexual pleasure any way we want. Not worried or afraid, I mean. Why should we be?"
"I'm not ashamed of the way I live my life, Mr. Dubin."
"William," he said.
"I should hope notWhat I'm saying," he went on, "is that too many people think of Lawrence's sexual doctrine as exactly the opposite of what it was. Though an innovator in fiction, he was in many ways a conservative person. Marriage, for instance: his own with Frieda was rough-and-tumble there was much they were at odds about, especially her desire to see her children. Katherine Mansfield saw bruises on her body when they went bathing together. In the presence of Frieda's daughter he threw a glass of wine in her mother's face. She once socked him with a stone plate across the skull. Yet, beyond question, it was a vital enduring relationship. A true marriage, he said, established an unconscious connection 'like a throbbing blood-circuit'; and he once wrote a correspondent something like this: 'Your most vital necessity in this life is that you should love your wife completely and explicitly in entire nakedness of body and spirit.'"
Fanny said she couldn't have guessed.
"On the other hand, despite her marriage to him, Frieda sought and had sexual experiences with other men. She thought of herself as a liberated woman. She told people she was close to, that Lawrence, who was always shaky in sex, was impotent at forty-one."
Fanny sighed. "It sort of wipes you out. I mean a man like that. You wouldn't think so."
"What stays with me most from the biographies I write," Dubin went on, "apart from what one learns about the map of human livesthe unexpected turns and dramatic twists they takethe joyous ways they do, and the tragic ways they don't, work out"the biographer's eyes momentarily misted and he had to cough a huskiness out of his throat"what stays with me most, is that life is forever fleeting, our fates juggled heartbreakingly by events we can't foresee or control and we are always pitifully vulnerable to what happens next. Therefore what the poets say about seizing the day, dear Fanny, is incredibly true. If you don't live life to the hilt, or haven't, for whatever reason, you will regret itespecially as you grow olderevery day that follows."
"Do you regret it?" she serenely asked.
Dubin gazed at her gravely.
"I'd regret it beyond bearability if I were not involved in the lives of others."
"You mean in your books?"
"Largely so, but not only so."
"And that gives you your big charge? To me life is what you do. I want it to enjoy, and not make any kind of moral lesson or fairy tale out of it."
He felt momentarily let down, despondent.
She seemed, however, affected by him, her color heightened, and in her eyes something resembling affection seemed to show.
Dubin impulsively drew a book out of one of the shelves. "Accept," he said, handing it to her, "a copy of my earliest work: Short Lives. Nobody in it lives to forty."
After momentary hesitation she took the book and pressed it to her breast.
"You're beautiful, Fanny," Dubin whispered.
She touched his arm with four fingers.
Moved by her, though he told himself he had wooed her falsely with the business of his Medal of Freedom, his refusal to write President Johnson's life, his too long account of the lives of his betters, Dubin drew Fanny into his arms with immense relief. She rose to him on bare toes, with pointed breasts, forceful hips, hairy chin, hungry tongue. They kissed deeply.
They passed on the stairs as strangerssometimes she brushed against himhe felt her hair graze his forearm. Dubin, returning to his study, forcefully concentrated; let her flow off in a flood of facts. Sometimes he sensed her presence outside his door but did not open it. He thought often of their embrace. It had caused Fanny to reverse direction, stop evading Dubingave him satisfaction: the small victories of life. But while he worked his study was a privileged place, really sanctum. He was headily into his chapter and feeling a long sense of future pleasure: savored the joys of accretion, of laboring and constructing order; appreciative of the self who served him best.
One early afternoon a few days after they had kissed, Fanny tapped on his door and Dubin opened it imagining she had finished Short Lives and would want to know if they could talk about it. But she apologized for not yet having read the bookhad merely knocked to say hello. She seemed unsure of herself calling on him in his study. Her eyes were characteristically tense. Observing this, Dubin invited her in. He had known he would if she came to the door.
Fanny sat in his armchair, crossed her fine bare legs and smoked. Dubin lit a cheroot. She had washed her hair and it hung loose and light. Pendant silver hoops dangled from her ears, a fine touch while working. Dubin turned his chair to face Fanny. He regretted the menial work she did in the house. He knew she typed and had thought of asking her to type for him, but only Kitty typed for him.
Fanny wondered if she could borrow Sons and Lovers and Dubin, with a bound, got her his copy from the bookshelf. She said as she fingered the book that she had enjoyed their recent talk. "I also wanted to sayand I'm sorry if I'm taking your time but I don't know how else we can tatkI just wanted to say that the real truth about my own sexual experience, at least as I am now, is that I have become a better person because of it."
"I wish I were a better person," Dubin said.
He imagined she had felt a need to say this and might just as well to an older man. If you said it to a young man he would want to put you to bed to make you a better person.
"I'm not kidding," she said.
He acknowledged it with a nod. "You're gifted, Fanny."
"How do you mean that?"
"Truly. Some people are gifted in life."
Her body eased. She seemed about to reach out her hand but they weren't within touching distance.
Dubin then asked her why she had joined the meatless sexless commune on Tupper Lake.
"I like to try things."
The biographer, touched by her remark, said he wished he had her kind of freedom when he was her age.
"What kept you from having it?"
"I was a satisfied romanticloved longing. It made an occasional poem for me."
"Did you have any affairs?"
"I enjoyed the presence of womenI'm describing an almost aesthetic need, not saying it was all."
He said that his mother had been a sick woman and he had no sisters. He had had a younger brother who had drowned when he was nine. His mother was a disturbed woman afterward. She had died when he was thirteen. Thereafter his only company at home was his father. "He never remarriedand I missed a feminine presence in the house. I missed a woman. I tried to appease this lack by often falling in love."
"Did you sleep with any of them?"
"Not usually those I loved. Not often others. It was a different world in those days, Fanny, though perhaps I was not as daring as I might have been. There was much I missed."
"Not that different," Fanny said. "My father, who is about your age, screwed around a lot."
They were interrupted by Kitty. She had knocked once and walked in. "Oh, I beg your pardon, I had no idea you were talking."
Fanny got up quickly.
"Don't go, please," Kitty said.
"Your husband loaned me a book."
"We were chatting," Dubin explained.
Fanny left the room and, later, forgot the book she had come to borrow, when she went home for the day.
Dubin, that evening, had thoughts of asking her to go for a walk with him sometime, the short walk.
The next time Fanny was in the house Dubin spied her on the porch, taking time out for a cigarette. He went out with his coffee cup and sat on the bottom step as she sat behind him on a canvas chair. Fanny's legs were parted and her lemon underpants were visible at the crotch. Her feet were bare.
Dubin turned to the hills. To the north was the nameless mountain he looked at when he wanted to look at a mountain.
He asked Fanny what her plans were in New York.
She said she didn't know.
He talked facing the hills, his back warm in sunlight.
"Plans are not my strong point," Fanny said.
Dubin, after a moment, asked her where she had got her name.
"My name? My mother was the one who named me."
"After a relative, friend? Who?"
"No, she named me after Fanny Price in Mansfield Park. She was on a Jane Austen kick when she was pregnant."
"You don't say," said Dubin, turning to her. "Do you know Jane Austen had a favorite niece named Fanny Knight? She was charmed by the girl, reread her letters the day she was dying. The sad thing was that Fanny laterwrote her sister their Aunt Jane had lacked refinement. She was ashamed of her aunt and, in essence, betrayed her memory."
"I don't think my mother knew that," Fanny said.
She had made no attempt, as they talked, to bring her knees together.
Dubin drank up his coffee and went upstairs.
A few minutes later he was jolted, at his desk, by a single swift knock on the door as the girl slipped into the room.
He was about to wave her out when she untied her wraparound skirt and whipped it off. Her blouse and underpants came off and she was naked.
Dubin was struck by her youthful beauty.
He mumbled his gratitude.
Fanny tossed her yellow underpants at him. He caught them and tossed them back. They struck her breasts and fell to the floor.
The girl studied him curiously, nervously.
"Whatever you're offering," Dubin said, "I regret I can't accept."
"Your wife went to the flower farm. It's an hour each way."
"This is her house."
"It's yours as well."
"Under the circumstances I can't accept."
Her face had reddened. She was angered. "All this beautiful bullshit about seize the day and what life is all about."
He hoarsely laughed at the jest.
Fanny pulled her clothes on in a grim instant and was gone. Nothing of her remained that he could find.
Dubin reached for his pen and after a while slowly began to write.
Fanny quit. She had told Kitty she was off to the city, although Kitty had heard she was still in town, living with Roger Foster. Dubin one day at lunch asked his wife what she had thought of the girl.
"She is sexy," Kitty said, "but I'm better proportioned."
Kitty had waked that morning saying she ought to go to Montreal to see her father's grave, then possibly her mother's in Augusta, on her way back.
"I owe him a visit. I've never really made my peace with him. Will you come with me, William? We could do it in a day there and one back."
"Is something bothering you?" When Kitty thought of visiting graves she was asking her life questions.
She seemed distracted. "I wish you'd come with me. I hate long drives alone.
"Why didn't you suggest it before I began my chapter?"
"It wasn't on my mind then."
Dubin said his work was going well. "It'll take me a week to get back into it if I go off with you now."
Kitty, as she dressed, thought it through at the bedroom window. He watched her watching a flicker in the chestnut. A maple, barely missing the house, had fallen in a storm shortly after they had moved in, and Kitty had planted a chestnut there, now a luxuriant tree.
"I guess it's something I'll have to do myself."
He tried to persuade himself to drop his work and take off with her. But the journey was to cemeteries and he wasn't in the mood. He had his own graves to visit, that he hadn't been to in years.
Kitty said, "I have to go, why am I lingering?"
After lunch she slipped on two silver bracelets and a large ring. She painted her toenails, packed an overnight bag, and drove off toward the Northway.
They had kissed at the doorgoodbye, not for long. She squeezed his hand. He regretted he could not go with her. She asked him to check the burners and Dubin promised but forgot.
On occasion he liked eating a meal out of a canspaghetti, baked beans, carry-over from boyhood, youtheating alone; but he prepared instead a hamburger Kitty had left defrosting. The meat burned in the pan, so he called a cab and went downtown. Dubin ate a plate of soup and a roast-beef sandwich at a restaurant counter, and since light still glowed in the evening skyearly fall had run a cool hand through the airwalked home. The stars appeared in misty swarms, Dipper brilliant. The biographer pondered the mystery of northdirection of deathwhite, silent, frigid, sans soul. Where was Kitty now? He hoped she would not drive at night. The moon had not yet risen. Walking alone in the dark he felt sadness of a sort. He thought he would listen to Schubert lieder, then decided, forget it, I'll go to a movie. Schubert, dead at thirty-one, was the first life Dubin had written for Short Lives. No one had written a good long life of Schubert. He had lived long in music and short in life.
The house, once he was insidehe had hesitated at the doorwas surprisingly empty. Dubin was staggered, as he entered, at the surge of lonelinesshe felt, like acid invading the bone. Ridiculous, he thought. Standing at the foot of the stairs the biographer, shaken, tried to puzzle out what was affecting him. As a rule he enjoyed solitude. Being away from home, or occasionally remaining alone there, awoke moods he rarely experienced when his life was geared with Kitty's. What he felt now was more than a melancholy sense of being alone, or perhaps remembrance of that feeling in the past; this seemed a spontaneous almost soiled awareness, more apparent than ever, of one's essential aloneness: the self's separate closed self-conscious subjectivity. Dubin defined it for all time, as previously defined: death's insistence of its presence in life, history, being. If so, nothing new but why once more at this moment?
What had set it off? The absence of his children, a constant remembrance? One day their childhood, and your enjoyment of it, was over. They take off as strangers, not confessing who they presently are. You tried to stay close, in touch, but they were other selves in other places. You could never recover the clear sight of yourself in their eyes. They had become, as though by need, or their own definition, distant relatives. Dubin thought he had got used to the thought. Therefore it must be mainly Kitty's unexpected going to her father's grave? Perhaps he should have gone with her? He switched on the light, waiting as if expecting more light, then trod up the stairs, uneasy still, as though he were a man with three legs who remembered having only two. He wandered in the silent empty house, avoiding his study. What was Lawrence up to when Dubin was away: magicked the circuits of his dark blood? The biographer went up to the third floor to Gerald's old room, sat on the boy's bed. The pall of loneliness hung closenegates the sufficient self. Who rides Dubin's back? It occurred to him it wasn't so much he was missing his wife as being oppressively aware of himself.
In Maud's room he put in a person-to-person call to Berkeley. She wasn't in; he left a call-back message. Dubin was looking up Gerry's number in Stockholm in Kitty's address book when the telephone shrilly rangMaud returning his call?
It was Kitty saying she was in Philadelphia.
He listened very carefully. "Weren't you going to Montreal?"
"When I left the house I felt I wanted to see Nathanael's grave. I've not been there for years. I hope you don't mind?"
He didn't think there was any reason he'd mind.
"I honestly almost never think of him any more. But when I got to thehighway I had the impulse to see his grave, and drove south instead of north."
"I don't mind."
"You're easier on me these days," Kitty said.
"One learns," Dubin said. Then he said, "One thinks he does."
"You sound constrained. Are you all right?"
He was fine.
"I'll go to the cemetery with some flowers in the morning, then drive home."
He said he was surprised to hear her in Philadelphia as he was thinking of her in Montreal.
"Your voice sounds distant. Has something happened?"
"I called Maud. I thought you were Maud calling back."
"Give her my love," said Kitty. "I wish they weren't so far away."
Dubin said he'd go out for a short walk before turning in, and Kitty said she was sorry she wasn't there to walk with him.
When he hung up she called back.
Dubin said he'd thought it was Maud again.
"I'm not Maud, I'm me. Please tell me what you're worried about. Is it the Lawrence?"
He said no.
"He's a hard person to love."
"I don't have to love him. I have to say truthfully who he was and what he accomplished. I've got to say it with grace."
"Then is something else worrying youmoney, for instance?"
He confessed he worried about money.
"Are we spending too much?"
"We'll be all right for another year and then we may be tight."
Kitty said if she had to she would look for a paying job. "Good night, love, don't worry. I'll be home tomorrow." She was tender on the phone when either of them was away.
The night was dark deep and starlit, and Dubin walked longer than he thought he might. He was standing at the poster window of the Center Campobello Cinema when the last show broke and he saw, amid two dozen people straggling out, Fanny Bick in bluejeans and clogs, carrying a shoulder bag. She was wearing a white halter tied around the midriff, her hair bound with a red cord. Dubin sensed her before he saw her. He watched, thinkingshe would look up and see him but she didn't. She seemed to be still into the film, conscious of herself; he recognized the feeling. He had not expected to lay eyes on her again and now he felt he would have regretted not seeing her. Roger Foster was not in the crowd. To make sure he hadn't stopped in the men's room, Dubin crossed the street and let Fanny walk on; when he was sure she was alone he recrossed the street and followed her.
No more than a diversion, the biographer thought. He doubted he would talk to her; then he thought he must talk to her. His odd loneliness still rode hima discomfort he wanted to be rid of, something from youth that no longer suited him. He felt a hunger to know the girl, could not bear to have her remain a stranger. The lonely feeling would ease, he imagined, if he knew more about her. Crazy thing to feel it so strongly, as though he'd earned the right to know. Here I am hurrying after her as if we are occupying the same dream.
Fanny sensed something. Her pace quickened, the clogs resounding in the shadowy lamplit street. At the next corner she nearsightedly glanced back nervously.
"Wait up, Fannyit's William Dubin."
She waited, austerely, till he caught up with her. If she was relieved she hid it. But her face, pallid in the street light, and restless eyes, offered no welcome.
Dubin was about to tip his hat but had none. He hoped he hadn't frightened her by pursuing her.
Fanny denied the importance of it.
He explained, with a gesture alluding to the loveliness of the night, that he'd been out for a stroll before going to bed. He was, this evening, alone in the house. "I happened to see you leave the movie and thought I'd say hello. Do you mind if I walk with you?"
She said it was a free country.
"Come on, Fannyyou'll have to do better than that. I'm sure you know I enjoy your company."
She seemed to hesitate. "I don't mind if you don't, Mr. Dubin."
"Was it a good film you saw?"
"Good enoughsort of a love story."
"Anything I ought to see?"
They were walking together, her clogs setting the rhythm.
"It's better than nothing."
He laughed at that, felt awkward, as he had in his house when she was conscious of him observing her, imposing himself.
"I'm sorry you left without saying goodbye," Dubin said. "I'd bought you a copy of Sons and Lovers. Would you like me to bring it to you?"
"Where can I send it? I heard you were living with Roger Foster. He used to do odd jobs for me when he was in college. He wore a green sweater and his beard had a green cast. I confess I never liked him very much. Perhaps the fault is mine."
"Well, he has a blue sweater and a dark beard now and doesn't do odd jobs any more, and neither do I, certainly not house cleaning."
"It seemed to me a curious experience for somebody like you. I hope I conveyed my understanding, my respect. I regret we hadn't met under better circumstances."
"Who said I was living with Roger?"
Dubin cleared his throat. "My wife happened to mention it."
"She sure is all over the place. I live in a room in his house but not with him. His sister and brother-in-law live there too."
"Fanny, I'm sorry about the incident in my study," Dubin said. "I regret we couldn't be congenial."
She made no reply.
He asked her if she had left because of that.
"Not that I know. I just got awfully tired of the cleaning crap. I'll never do anything like that again."
He asked her if she had read Short Lives, the book he had given her.
Fanny said she hadn't.
"I've wondered," he remarked a moment later as they were walking along the store-darkened streethe had no idea where she lived"why you wear that Star of David?"
"I wear it because I own it. A friend of mine gave it to me and I wear it when I think of him. I wear other things too." Then she asked, "Your wife isn't Jewish, is she?"
He said she wasn't.
"How did you happen to meet her?"
He said he'd tell her the story sometime.
"What was she doing when you met her?"
"She was a widow with a child."
"She sure is conscious of everything."
"She has a sensitive nature."
"So have I," Fanny said.
The stores were thinning and there were more private houses. At the corner she turned and he followed her into a short street. In mid-block an orange VW was parked in front of a dour narrow wooden house with a thin high gable. The two-story house was dark, its window shades drawn.
A bright half-moon shone through a copper beech on the lawn. The dark-green house in dappled moonlight looked like a piece of statuary, or an old painting of an old house. Dubin had on a light sweater and loafers, Fanny her jeans and white halter.
He told her D. H. Lawrence used to go wild in the glow of the full moon.
"I'll bet it doesn't do that to you."
"I'm a controlled type," he confessed.
Dubin pointed in the sky. "Look, Fanny, the Big Dipper. And that's Andromeda, really a galaxy, like ours heading into infinityif there is an infinity and not just a finite wheel with no apparent end, if we crawl forever around its rim. In this universe, finite or infinite, man is alive amidst an explosion of gases that have become stars in flight, from one of which we have evolved. A marvelous privilege wouldn't you say?"
Fanny, momentarily silent, said she thought so too.
"Lawrence called it 'the great sky with its meaningful stars.'"
"Does he mean besides astrology?"
"Does everything have to mean something?"
"Where there's mind there's meaning. I like the idea of the cosmic mystery living in our minds, and that enormous mystery reflecting our small biological and psychological ones. I like that combination of mysteries."
"Like our minds are the universe, sort of?" Fanny reflected.
"Yes," he told her. "Perhaps we were invented to see the stars and say they're there."
"That's not why I was invented."
"Tell me why."
"I wish I really knew. Why do you bring all that up now?"
"So that I shan't appear naked when we meet again."
She smiled dimly. "I guess I better go in now. Thanks for the astronomy lesson."
Dubin asked her when she would be leaving for New York.
"Next week I plan to go."
The biographer had had a thought: "I've got some research to do at the New York Public Library. Can I drive you down?"
Fanny said she'd be driving her own car. "Roger's going with me."
Dubin had to conceal his disappointment.
"He's coming for the ride and going back by bus. You can tell your wife I'm not living with him. He wants to marry me but I don't dig getting married just yet. I have other things to try out before I do."
"Marvelous. What sort of things?"
Fanny raised her arms in the moonlight. "I'm young yet. I don't do everything for a purpose. I do some things for fun."
"Fun is a purpose."
"It's a purpose that doesn't take away your fun."
"May I hope to see you in the city, Fanny? Couldn't we have dinner together?"
She gave it a moment's reflection. "That fine with me."
"Good. Where shall we meet? Where will you be living in New York?"
"I don't know yet. I haven't looked for an apartment. Do you want me to come to the restaurant?"
"Would you care to meet me at my hotel?"
She said that was as good as any other place.
They arranged a meeting a week hence. Dubin said he would be at the Gansevoort. "That's Melville's mother's maiden name."
Fanny stifled a yawn. "This night makes me sleepy."
"I won't keep you," he said. "I'm happy we're going to meet again. I was inept the last time we were together. In afterthought I realized how kind you were being."
"I don't think I want to."
They had parted friends, he hoped.
The house, when he returned, had lost its lonely quality, although Maud, if she had telephoned, did not call again.
Dubin, standing at the darkened bedroom window, looked up at the washof stars in the night sky. In the universe even the dark is light. "Why should I feel lonely?" Thoreau had asked. "Is not our planet in the Milky Way?"
He would tell that to Fanny.
Dubin talks to his mirror: he weighs how some things happen to happen: Kitty's letter, many years ago, had crossed his desk shortly after he began a new job.
There were two handwritten letters in green ink, the second cancelling the first: "Please don't print my recent 'personals' note. I should have known not to write that kind of letter when I was feeling low. Could you kindly destroy this with the other I sent you?"
Having read it because someone had mistakenly laid it on his desk, Dubin searched through a folder in the next office for the first letter. It read, "Young woman, widowed, fairly attractive, seeks honest, responsible man as friend, one who, given mutuality of interests and regard, would tend to think of marriage. I have a child of three."
Dubin would tend to think of marriage.
After a night of peering into his life, of intense dreams; of being tempted to take a chance because the time had come to take a chancehe was past thirty and neither his vocation nor his relationship with women satisfied him he wrote her in the morning: "My name is William Dubin. I'm an assistant editor at The Nation. Your letter happened to cross my desk. I've read it and would rather not destroy it."
He had had the job a week and had recently also been writing obituaries of literary figures, on assignment for the Post. Dubin told her he was thirty-one and unmarried. He'd been in the army two years. He was Jewish. He was responsible. He wrote that he had practiced law for a year, had finally, like Carlyle, decided it was not for him, and was no longer practicing. He said he loved law but not practicing it. His father had lamented his giving up his profession. He had for a while felt lost, a burden of loss. Wherever his life was going he did not seem to be going with it. "People ask me what I'm saving myself for. Whatever that may beI want to change my life before it changes me in ways I don't want to be changed."
He said he had never written to anyone as he was writing to her now. "I am touched that only you and I know about the letter you sent and withdrew. I know something I have no right to know; in that respect I'm privileged.I sense you understate yourself. You seem to be capable of a serious act of imagination: to be willing to love someone willing to love you. Plato in the Republic says that marriages between good people might reasonably be made by lot. I assume we're that kind of people. Obviously, for whatever reason, you've been flirting with the idea yourself. I have the feeling I've been predisposed to it all my life, although I can't say why. Your letters have excited me. Mayn't we meet?"
She wrote: "Dear Mr. Dubin, Yours disturbs me. It does because it moves me terribly. I amat least at the momentafraid to go further. Let me think about it. If you don't hear from me, please forgive me. It will be best not to have said no. Ever, Kitty Willis."
Another letter from her came in less than a month. He almost tore it apart as he tore it open.
"Dear Mr. Dubin, I am twenty-six, my little boy is three and a half. I wish I could believe I know what I'm doing. I thought I ought to say I don't think life will be easy for anyone living with me. I sleep poorly, fear cancer, worry too much about my health, my child, our future. I'm not a very focused person. It took my husband years to learn what I'm telling you in this short letter. I want at this point to get these things down: My father was a suicide when I was four. My mother went abroad with a lover when I was nine. She died in Paris of lung cancer and is buried in Maine. I was brought up by a loving grandmothermy rare good luck. My poor husband died of leukemia at forty. It's such a chronicle of woe I'm almost ashamed to write it."
"Of course I'm more than the sum of my hangups and traumas," she wrote. "Nathanael and I were reasonably happily married, and I ought to make someone a decent wife. I can't say my emotional season is spring but I love life. Fortunately, I have a strong reality element that keeps me balanced against some of my more neurotic inclinations. You have to know if we're going to be serious about each other. I had hoped to write earlier, but it took me some time to put my thoughts together. I don't want to ensnare you with my unhappy history, Mr. Dubin. I sense you lean to that tilt."
They had met at the Gansevoort bar. Each recognized the other. Kitty looked as though she was looking for him. She was a tallish slim-figured woman with bright brown hair and luminous dark eyes. Her eyes, as she greeted him, were contemplative, unsure, not very gay. She hadn't, Dubin thought, fully joined her resolution.
"I'm glad you came."
"I had to."
He agreed they had to.
"How serious we are," she said after a moment. Kitty laughed breathily. "I admit I ask myself why I'm here."
"What do you answer?"
She looked at him with a vague smile, shook her head.
He tried to tell her why, a way of telling himself.
She listened as though she had come to believe in him and all he had to say now was what he had already said in his letters.
This he managed to do.
They ordered drinks. It was not a bad meeting, though they were constrained. Kitty studied him, not seeming to care that he saw her studying him. Dubin was not at all sure of her, much more the gentile lady than he had supposed. Then he placed his hand on hers and Kitty did not withdraw it. She looked at him holding her hand, then withdrew it and pressed it to her cheek. He remembered that gesture for years. One night they went out and enjoyed themselves, enjoyed each other, gambled a kiss. She kissed with passionate intensity. They were hungry kisses he thought of many times. Not long afterward they agreed to be married.
"Let's be happy," she said.
He was willing.
"I hope you know what you're doing."
"I don't want you to be disappointed in your decision, or in me."
Dubin said he thought it would be a good life. He had gone through it often in his mind and thought they were doing the right thing. "All it takes is character."
"That's not all it takes."
"Whatever it takes I think we have."
She laughed as though he had said something very witty. Her dark clear eyes were eyes to dance to, he thought. Sometimes she looked older, less pretty. She sometimes looked as though she didn't want her looks to influence his decision.
"I trust you, I think," Kitty said. "You seem to say the right things. In a way you remind me of my husband."
He hoped not too much.
Her eyes grew anxious. "Let's not get married until we know and love each other."
"Let's get married and know and love each other." He said it with doubt like a cold stone in his gut, yet felt he had to say it.
"Where do you get your nerve or whatever it is?" she asked.
He said he had drifted enough in life.
They were married one cold day in spring. Dubin felt inspired. The bride wept at the wedding.
"That isn't how I remember it," Kitty said behind a yawn in the bedroom. "A lot happened that you've forgotten."
Dubin drove to New York with Evan Ondyk, the Center Campobello psychotherapist, who'd been practicing in town for two years. Ondyk had heard through a patient, a friend of Kitty's, that Dubin was driving to the city. He had called him to ask for a ride. His Buick was in the garage for a new transmission. The biographer respected Ondyk's poker playing but not his mechanistic judgments of people, as though possibility did not go beyond Freud. On the other hand he read a lot and talked well about books.
"Why did you pick D. H. Lawrence to write about?" Whoever knew Dubin sooner or later sprang that question.
"Someday he'll tell me."
"Why didn't you try Freud?" Ondyk asked. "We could use a good biography of the mannobody's done very much past Ernest Jones unless he goes at Freud to attack psychoanalysis. It would be useful, for instance, if someone could find out how he felt about analyzing his daughter Anna. Or from her how it went. Also what his relationship was to his wife's sister. That's ambiguous territory. Jung, in an interview, is on record as saying Minna told him that she and Freud were intimate. Freud himself saidI think to Fliess that he was forty-one when he gave up sex with his wife. Why, if true? It would be interesting to know." "I was considering Chekhov," Dubin replied. "He died at Lawrence's age of the same disease, tuberculosis. There were other similarities: problems of loving, impotency, what-all." "Why didn't you do him instead of Lawrence? He's a much more sympathetic person."
Dubin said he didn't read Russian.
He pondered Ondyk, wondered about his judgment of him. Is there more to him than I think? One has so few facts to go by. He had the reputation of being a good practitioner. He was a deliberate effective card player, peering over his hand to psych out who was holding what. He often called when Dubin bluffed. Eyeball to eyeball, who would best understand the other? the biographer wondered. Someone said Ondyk was not content in his marriage and went off periodically to the city for his sexual pleasure.
Dubin would have liked to be alone but the ride was pleasant. It was a fine autumn day. His vision was stereoscopically sharp, his heart light. A resurgence of sadness had occurred and gone. Here I am, a single man on a date. He felt at peace, serene, had in the mirror that morning looked youthful. He hadn't talked to himself. Fanny had been in his thoughts. It was early October and on the Taconic many of the sun-filled trees, although in high color in the hills above Center Campobello, were yellow-green and growing greener as they drove south. This was a rented car because Kitty needed theirs. She'd been surprised that he had not asked her to go with him but Dubin reminded her how rarely he got out of the house alone. "Being married doesn't mean being tied like cats by our tails." Afterward he recalled the simile was Montaigne's; and Kitty reminded him that lately he'd been making remarks about marriage. "Have I?" Dubin asked. He explained he liked a long drive alone once in a while and she said she understood. He wore tartan slacks and a blue blazer, and in his briefcase carried a bottle of perfume and a Schubert record as presents for Fanny.
"Well, have a good time," Ondyk said. "What are you here for?"
Dubin said he hoped to relax a little from work.
"How's it going?"
"She's well," said Dubin.
"Attractive woman," Ondyk said.
He didn't say what he was in the city for.
After Dubin had left the psychotherapist at his hotel and checked into his own, it seemed to him he could use a brighter tie so he went out and bought a yellow one, and while he was at it, a new belt with a heavy silver buckle. He had got to the Gansevoort shortly after three. At four he showered, changing into fresh underwear although he had changed into fresh underwear that morning; and he dressed again. Dubin imagined Fanny would appear at about five. Hewould order drinks sent upno, it might be better if they went down to the bar. Afterward he would invite her up and she could say yes or she could say no. They'd go to bed, have dinner late, and let the evening find its way. They would not have to decide one minute what they were going to do the next. If Fanny liked, they could either go for a walk along Fifth Avenue or see a movie. It would be a nice thing to do between twice in bed.
It was a long wait doing nothing, so Dubin unlocked his briefcase and read several of his notes about Lawrence and Jessie Chambers, a good companion but bookish and apparently not much interested in sex. It was a stillborn affair, hard on them both. Lawrence had wanted to love her but couldn't. It was said she reminded him of his mother. The girl had a broad tremulous mouth and uneasy eyes. "I could never love you as a husband should love his wife," he had frankly told her. Lawrence never kept bad news from anyone. The letters Dubin had discovered showed him at his hardest to her.
The biographer thought it must be close to five when he discovered it was close to six. He hurried down to the lobby to see if Fanny was there. Dubin waited for her amid a crowd of new arrivals. He had not waited for her before; it was difficult to say how late she was when she was late. The lobby was afloat with men, single and married, meeting pretty women in bright dresses and pants suits, single and married. Dubin admired an Indian stewardess in a golden-red sari, standing with a white-turbaned bearded Sikh pilot; they were waiting for a limousine to the airport. In the bar the pianist was playing an aria from Puccini. The lobby stirred with expectancya sense of adventure, sexualityFaust ascending, but no Fanny. Fearing he had missed herperhaps she had gone up as he was coming down, Dubin entered an elevator and rode up to his floor; but she was not in the corridor by his room, nor had he expected she might be. The years I've wasted being on time.
He descended in the elevator, then stood for a while in front of the hotel, trying not to dislike the girl for desiring her. At seven he waited outside till eight. Dubin felt his age. When one is my age the old and maimed stand out in a crowd. One recovers of youth only what he can borrow from the young. Perhaps this is not my privilege. It was a pleasant evening. He eyed passing couples, young with young; and young women with older menthese he envied mostlooking as though they had been intimate or were about to be. The young ones did not look at him. Those his age knew whom he was waiting for. Waiting Dubin thought he did comparatively well. It was a matter of temperament, perhaps. He waited not so well for the small thingsof life but better for the important. Some wait badly. Kitty waited badly. "Un bel di vedremo," the Puccini went in the bar. Puccini, the cantor of longing. Kitty sometimes plucked the aria on her harp. But waiting in expectation is easier than waiting in doubt. It was easier to wait for one who was coming than one who was not.
At nine Dubin ordered a roast-beef sandwich on rye and a bottle of ale sent to his room. If she still came the long wait would have been worth it. He had decided that Fanny had planned not to come because he had not taken her when she had offered herself. There are some things one ought not to do. There are some chances one ought to take.
Looking in the mirror over the bathroom sink, Dubin disliked the yellow tie he had bought. He changed it for a purple one before going down to the bar. He washed his hands and face and went downstairs.
At the bar Nixon was lying on television. His expression was sincere as he sincerely lied.
Dubin ordered a brandy, sipping as he observed the middle-aged bartender.
He told the bartender he seemed sad.
"You look kinda wiped out yourself."
The biographer confessed his lonely nature.
"I have my daughter dead about a year," said the bartender. "She took an overdose when she was twenty."
Dubin was sorry to hear it. "I have a daughter myself."
After a while he said, "Mark Twain lived in heartbreak after his daughter Susy died: 'The mind has a dumb sense of vast lossthat is all.'"
"They stay in your thoughts," said the bartender, rubbing the wood with his cloth.
Dubin in his heart of hearts mourns Dubin.
Copyright © 1977, 1979 by Bernard Malamud
Meet the Author
Bernard Malamud (1914-86) wrote eight novels; he won the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for The Fixer, and the National Book Award for The Magic Barrel, a collection of stories. Born in Brooklyn, he taught for many years at Bennington College in Vermont.
- Date of Birth:
- April 28, 1914
- Date of Death:
- March 18, 1986
- Place of Birth:
- Brooklyn, New York
- Place of Death:
- New York, New York
- B.A., City College of New York, 1936; M.A., Columbia University, 1942
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >