Nearing age 60, William B. Dubin, biographer of Twain and Thoreau and (soon) D. H. Lawrence, wonders if he has "given up life to write lives." And one has to wonder if that's what Bernard Malamud is wondering--because this is his least symbolic, most seemingly autobiographical novel, a bleached, gray book that (like so much semi-autobiographical work) is only intermittently affecting despite the restrained allure of Malamud's fiercely polished, gently mocking prose. Like Malamud, Dubin is a Jewish man of letters who married at 31, has two grown children, and lives in Vermont; Dubin's wife Kitty was a widow with a small son when they "married as strangers holding to strange pasts"--he answered her discreet personal ad in The Nation And now they're alone together in often-snowbound Vermont, where rigorous Dubin slaves away at turning a desk covered with index cards into a life of Lawrence. Then, as if by some Lawrentian erotic command, voila!--Fanny Bick, a sometime student and sometime house-cleaner, whose casual sexual invitation Dubin at first rejects, then welcomes in adulterous excursions to Venice (a fiasco of nausea and betrayal as Fanny makes it with a gondolier) and Manhattan. Dubin, "bored with the bounds of marriage," sneaks and lies and revels in Fanny's demanding, inventive appetites (Malamud's conscientiously energetic erotica never quite convinces), but the rest of his life fizzles: he cuckolds, and loses, his only neighbor-friend; adopted son Gerry, an army deserter, has disappeared somewhere in Russia; daughter Maud is an unmarried, pregnant Berkeley Buddhist (though far more appealing than neurotic sex kitten Fanny). Worst of all, level-headed wife Kitty becomes understandably suspicious, especially when Dubin falls impotent, and the resulting kitchen/bedroom exchanges provide some of the most genuinely hurtful marital combat since Strindberg. "He lived in six sheets of glass, shouting soundless pleas for freedom," writes Malamud, and the apparently reconciliatory ending he provides for Dubin doesn't ring true. And neither does the joyful, risky rebirth through Fanny. What does come through is enough pain and aloneness (Dubin trudging through the snow, with no company but D. H. Lawrence) to make this a monumentally sad book brightened only by the inspiring, cheering perfection of Malamud's line-by-line, word-by-word artistry.