Malamud, in his daughter's eyes
Janna Malamud Smith tells about life with her father, writer Bernard Malamud.
Novelist and storyteller Bernard Malamud's daughter begins this moving, unostentatiously eloquent book by explaining a radical change of heart she underwent over the past decade and a half.
In 1989, Janna Malamud Smith believed so strongly in the right to privacy, she published an article in the New York Times Book Review outlining her - and what she also believed would have been her late father's - feelings on the subject.
"Troubled by 'pathographies' - biographies that gain their sales by demeaning their subjects - I applauded James Joyce's grandson, Stephen Joyce, for publicly claiming a family's right to destroy material as they saw fit."
She recalled how her dad had always admired Shakespeare's "relative biographical anonymity."
Now, however, in the preface to My Father Is a Book: A Memoir of Bernard Malamud, she sets forth the reasons she changed her mind with admirable directness and clarity: "In part, I have to laugh at myself: When I finally read [my father's] notebooks, I realized their content didn't require my protection. But the larger reason is that time has passed. Dad has been dead for nearly two decades.... One day I realized that my father's life had shifted from something overshadowing to something disappearing from view ... [and that] my own [ability to bear] witness had become one of a few remaining membranes holding the boundary between life and void."
With equal candor, she also admits that she wants to commemorate and shore up her father's literary reputation: "What once was a trio - Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth - became a dyad, partly because Malamud died first, but also because biographies are a way we designate writers as significant and keep their fiction alive."
Like his near-contemporary Bellow, Malamud (1914-1986) emerged on the literary scene in the years just after World War II, with the publication of a searching, mildly melancholy novel about a baseball player called "The Natural." It was the same year, 1952, in which Janna was born - the Malamuds' second child and only daughter.
Although Bernard Malamud was the son of poor Russian Jewish immigrants, himself unable to speak much English until kindergarten, he eagerly immersed himself in American culture and in the riches of the English language.
Indeed, as one reads about the truly superlative education this child (and others like him) received in the New York City public school system, it makes one sad, even angry, to reflect upon the extent to which our public schools have fallen. And young Bernie had a lot to contend with.
His father, Max, was a grocer who never made much of a living. Worse yet, as Smith informs us, "Dad was thirteen years old when he came home from school one day to find his mother, Bertha, alone, insane, sitting on the kitchen floor, an empty bottle of disinfectant ('something like Drano') in one hand, the poison foaming from her mouth."
He ran to get help, saving her life. "We were in his study ... in Vermont when he told me [the story]," Smith recalls. "I was in my twenties. He said nothing about his feelings at the time, focusing instead on his lifesaving effort. Fifty years later, it may still have been the only bearable cast."
As Bernie went from strength to strength in high school and City College, reading, writing, acting, and trying, without much success, to play a decent game of baseball, he was increasingly anxious over the fate of his younger brother, a gentle and intelligent individual who succumbed to mental illness.
He felt guilt, shame, and fear on one hand, while on the other, a passionate love of literature and a burning desire to become a writer. From this potent amalgam emerged the somewhat Chekhovian strain of his literary art: thoughtful, sometimes humorous, always poignant, and deeply humane.
Whether drawing on his father's struggles as a grocer for his Brooklyn-based novel "The Assistant," or going beyond that in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Fixer" to tell the far more dreadful story of anti-Semitism and injustice in the Beilis case, which took place in the Russia his parents had fled, Malamud was firmly committed to imbuing his fiction with an ethical vision. Which is not to say that Smith goes in for hagiography. Indeed, what's so impressive about her approach is its clear-eyed, thoughtful honesty.
Although she loved and admired her father, Smith is cognizant of the damaging ways in which his attitudes and actions affected their little nuclear family. Like many others of his generation, Malamud was an automatic male chauvinist. Not only did he assume that his wife's needs ought to be subordinated to his own, he feared self-assertive traits in women, dividing the gender into "good" ones and "destructive" ones. He married an intelligent, supportive Italian-American, who pretty much filled the bill. But while teaching at Bennington College in the '60s, Malamud didn't resist what his daughter calls the "harem" culture. The campus was rife with professors having affairs with students. Malamud had at least one affair with a girl who wasn't much older than Smith.
Compared to contemporaries like Mailer, Roth, and Bellow, Malamud wasn't much of a womanizer, but Smith rightly communicates the extent to which his behavior was hurtful to his family.
An unexpected pleasure of the book is Smith's portrait of her idyllic 1950s childhood, growing up in Corvallis, Ore., where her father taught college before landing his job at Bennington.
Analytical without being acrimonious, honest without wallowing in self-preening exposure, this is a wise, generous book full of insights on what it's like to be a writer and to be a writer's daughter.
• Merle Rubin is a freelance book reviewer in Pasadena, Calif.