In August 1965 my twelve-year-old son Peter and I visited the Malamuds for a weekend at Bourme on the Cote d'Azur in southern France. With academic friends, they had rented a house high on a steep hill overlooking the Mediterranean. The house was unique in being built around a stone tower from medieval times that had been used to watch for Danish invaders. I had not known that those raiding seafaring Danes had sailed so far away from home.
That summer I was teaching in Paris, and Bern had recently returned from the Kiev area in southern Russia - where his parents had come from - to check on details he was using from books and pictures in the New York Public Library for his fourth novel, The Fixer. One detail he had to change in his script was the side of the street the streetlights were located on.
I believe Bern had been uneasy about his traveling in Russia - possibly because he was a Jew - and relieved to be in France and with family. In Moscow he had been met and shown around by members of the P.E.N., an international writers organization. I don't remember his telling details of the trip - as though he would just as well dismiss any reference to it, but then I was visiting for a very short time.
On the second day Bern beckoned to me to follow him into the room he used as a study. He pointed me to a chair, sat at his desk, and read aloud the chapter of The Fixer that he was currently revising. He had never before read to me privately, and he was trying out certain selections of prose and narrative which we discussed in detail.
Once the book was published and I was able to read it in its entirety, what I found particularly interesting was a problem he had created for himself. Much of the novel is about a prisoner in an isolated prison cell. Bern had boxed himself in. How does a writer keep his narrative going when the prisoner is so confined for so long and rarely out of his cell? I read closely to see how Bern overcame the limitations.
The title of the book, by the way, had originated in Corvallis. It was a street sign for a bicycle repair shop on Second Street, the inside of which overflowed with bicycles, bicycle parts, and the overweight proprietor. As far as I know, Bern had never entered the shop - only seen the sign from afar.
On a bright blue-sky day, we all went swimming at the nearby beach. Bern and I wandered into the calm Mediterranean up to our chests in warm water. I looked southeastward across the expanse of the sea not seeing - and not expecting to - the sparkling white sand beach that curved in a Moroccan cove in North Africa where I had waited for body-surfing waves. That first aquaintance for me with the Mediterranean had been 22 years previously, and about six weeks prior to my flying over the Mediterranean to parachute into Sicily and two months later into Salerno in Italy. Six months after that when I landed on Anzio Beachhead in Italy, the water's height at the bottom step of the lowered LCI's ladder was up to my shoulders, making me hold with one hand my pistol in the air and with the other keep the short paratrooper in front of me from drowning as a strafing German plane swept down on us. Ten years later my wife and I had bathed on the rocky shore of Capri, south of Naples. So now on the Cote d'Azur of France, I was renewing my association - getting the feel of it - with the body of water that had played so great a part in European history and that I had experiences in.
An odd pair of New Yorkish Oregonians, Bern and I stood on a comfortable mound under the slightly undulating waves to wiggle our toes in the sand and talk about literature, since we had seperated ourselves from the others so as not to be interrupted. We never did swim, and I question whether unathletic Bern even knew how. Whenever I recall the specific fragment of our conversation that lingers in my memory, I simultaneously feel the torso-high water and see an inner snapshot of our intellectualizing in the Mediterranean as if it were the custom.
In response to something I had just said, he half-turned to me without making a ripple and responded, "Chet, you're one for the book." My impression was that he had indicated either that I was unpredicatable or that he was having difficulty evaluating me as he regularly analyzed people - my measurements failed to coordinate a conclusive picture of me for him. I could only ponder over his statement, as he had caught me so unawares that I didn't ask him what he meant. At least I could have the satisfaction that my discord was more interesting than boring.
In one respect, the remark is not out of keeping with the reaction people have upon hearing that I had been a paratrooper. At our first Dartmouth class reunion after the war, for instance, Tom Braden pushed his way over to me to comment that he had trouble adjusting to the fact that the soft-spoken English major he had known had become a paratrooper - in combat, no less! I had thought that I had chosen quite logically. After having been exposed to the military, I had decided that only the best of the Army was good enough for me: the paratroops, who were young and vigorous rather than older and even arch-falled, experimental rather than traditional, and exciting - after all, I had been a swinger of birches.
Of my four dippings in the Mediterranean, the one in France was the least energetic or scaresome and the most bland. Although I can clearly summon up any one of the four of them, the fragmented detail from the last creeps on its own volition into my recall. Whatever did Bern have in mind that persists in periodically making me ponder? I don't think he was being critical. Whatever, the words bring with them the intonation of his voice - a Proustian experience.