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The Toils of Bernard Malamud: Review of Janna Malmud Smith’s My Father is a Book

by Morris Dickstein

Janna Malamud Smith, My Father is a Book: A Memoir of Bernard Malamud
292 pp. Houghton Mifflin. $24 0-618-69166-9

Published in the Times Literary Supplement, May 12 2006

More than other leading postwar novelists, Bernard Malamud’s star has faded in the twenty years since his death. Younger writers, smitten with a nostalgia he never felt, still try with indifferent luck to recapture his magical sense of the immigrant generation in its encounters with the new world. Some readers know him best though his least typical work, the baseball novel The Natural (1952), lushly adapted into a film by Robert Redford. Malamud was at his strongest in his short fiction, especially the stories collected in The Magic Barrel (1958), and in his second novel, The Assistant (1957), as terse and gripping as any of the stories. But beginning in the 1960s, his demanding notions of form and craft, like his moral outlook, were going out of fashion, as were the old-world characters and second-generation misfits who fired his imagination. Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, and John Updike managed to reinvent themselves from decade to decade, liberated by the cultural carnival that surrounded them, even when they condemned it. In the underrated academic novel A New Life (1961) and the black humor of Pictures of Fidelman (1969), Malamud too tried to loosen up but real spontaneity eluded him. He could not play the celebrity game; his conscience was exacting, his sense of privacy absolute. In interviews and occasional lectures he vehemently shielded his private life, though he sometimes exposed it in his fiction, with unfortunate results in his autobiographical novel Dubin’s Lives (1979).

His daughter, Janna Malamud Smith, a psychiatric social worker, was particularly close to her father – almost incestuously, she now thinks – and even wrote a book defending this insistence on privacy. But now, in a striking turnabout, she has come to feel that the lack of a biography or a sense of the man himself has helped dim his reputation. An authorized life by an English scholar, Philip Davis, is in the works, and she has anticipated it with this uneven but revealing memoir. Part of the problem with My Father Is a Book is that the author has not decided what kind of book it is, or whether her father’s life was much more than the sum of his writings. By including things that happened before she was born or after she left home, she conflates biography, memoir, and a psychological profile. To this she adds personal excursions into Malamud’s fiction, where she finds that “the underlying themes possess an uncanny, sometimes creepy familiarity: they are the spooks of the familial unspoken returning to haunt.” Rereading Dubin’s Lives, where the protagonist, a writer, is having an affair with a girl his daughter’s age while the daughter is seeing a man her father’s age, she recoils from “a way-too-intimate view of my father’s confused feelings.” (241)

It becomes evident quite early that she was at once too close to her father and too distant to understand him fully. To protect his vocation, which meant the world to him, Malamud was guarded, formal, and slightly aloof even with friends and family. From the start their lives were organized around his work. Through an apprenticeship of almost two decades, with few financial or literary prospects, Malamud nurtured an unshakable ambition to write. In 1945 he sent a letter to his future wife reminiscent of Kafka’s warnings to his own fiancée, Felice Bauer:

Though my heart wants you with a single purpose, I must repeat what marriage to me will mean for you. Though I love you and shall love you more, most of my strength will be devoted to realizing myself as an artist. I will need your help to overcome weaknesses in health, finances and steadfastness. You will be called on for all the love, patience, courage, understanding – and paradoxically – selflessness that you are capable of bestowing. (79)

Callow as this sounds, it was prophetic of the stresses and bonds of their long marriage, marked by initial money troubles, patriarchal privilege, a lasting commitment to family life, some serious discord and infidelity, and eventually poor health – all this subsumed by his fierce devotion to art. This was the picture Philip Roth sketched of Malamud and his wife Ann in The Ghost Writer, not very different from the one Malamud himself drew in Dubin’s Lives and several late stories. He concluded an autobiographical lecture in 1984 with the wish that he might have been two men, one chained to his desk, living for art, the other leading the untrammeled life that would light up the writing. He envied the fluency of writers who could do both; his own effects, he felt, could only be achieved through unremitting labor.

This work ethic, with its stress on discipline and self-denial, was part of Malamud’s heritage from his immigrant family. In her father’s background Smith also uncovered a legacy of poverty, mental illness, and premature heart disease. His mother’s breakdowns began with the birth of her children; he himself interrupted one of her suicide attempts, which led to her hospitalization, and eventually to her death in 1929 when he was fifteen. His younger brother Eugene began showing signs of mental distress as a soldier in second world war. He recovered briefly but by the end of 1940s he too was hospitalized. He died of a heart attack in his fifties, without really having lived. Malamud’s parents, including his stepmother, were barely literate in English. Their pinched lives remained in thrall to the grocery store that serves as a kind of prison in The Assistant. The surreal, phonetically spelled letters his father sent him read like Malamudian inventions, comic and poetic in flavor, except that they chronicle the disintegration of the family after Bernard left New York with his wife and young son in 1949 to teach composition at a state college in Oregon. “Neither his father nor his brother really survived his departure,” Smith writes. “He was the capable person among them.” (103). If writing was his “exit visa” (75) from the constricted world in which he grew up, a sense of guilt, along with an unrelenting need for order and control, was the price he paid for his flight.

As Malamud’s New York family fell apart, his family in Oregon unexpectedly thrived. He occupied a humble academic position, barred from teaching literature for lack of a Ph.D., and he went through culture shock at the “cheerful blandness” (126) of college life in the Northwest. But on the days he didn’t teach, he devoted himself to writing with an iron will that astonished his colleagues. Soon he completed The Natural and began selling his stories for the first time. In this idyllic setting his daughter was born and he became the ordinary pre de famille that his conscience and family history demanded. A New Life exploits the comic possibilities of this suburban normalcy at the same time it underlines his sense of alienation, even exile, in the American heartland, which redoubled his need to write his way out. Like Joyce writing about Dubliners in Trieste and Paris or Sherwood Anderson remembering Winesburg, Ohio, Oregon sharpened Malamud’s perspective on the ghetto Jews he half recalled and half imagined. In his twelve years there he wrote his best books.

Oregon was his daughter’s first home; her book comes alive as she recalls the Andy Hardy atmosphere of the family’s life there. When her father began teaching at progressive Bennington College in Vermont in 1961 it was her turn to feel uprooted. Soon afterwards her father, like so many Bennington faculty, began an affair with a student that the daughter still resents today, for it strained her parents’ marriage and displaced emotions otherwise directed towards her. She is troubled as she goes through Malamud’s warm correspondence with this woman, who began as his lover but became a close family friend. With marked reluctance and distress, Smith rereads Dubin’s Lives, his lightly fictionalized account of this affair. But instead of blaming her father, she indicts the “louche,” avant-garde atmosphere of the college, in which a mostly male faculty freely exploited the largely female student body, choosing new favorites from each incoming class.

Malamud took the public posture of a stern moralist, almost a Jewish sage, yet his work has a mischievous streak in line with Lambert Strether’s message at the end of The Ambassadors: “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to.” His fiction is full of pale abstainers (like the rabbinical student in “The Magic Barrel”) whose defensive shell cracks under the temptations of the flesh. Such licence was out of bounds to immigrants like his parents whose lives were dominated by work and necessity. But the deprivations of his youth and his growing fame as a writer drove his sense of entitlement. He admired Hemingway and felt that an artist required adventure, even if it clashed with the rectitude of his self-image. At Bennington, it appears, he really became the two men he had longed to be, the ascetic devoted selflessly to art and the artist who takes his pleasure and enjoys his freedom. His daughter, still idealizing the father she adored as a girl, is hardly the ideal person to explore this paradox.

My Father Is a Book tells the story of a man who exited emotionally from his marriage yet wanted to preserve it, either for appearance sake, out of dependency, or because family so much mattered to him. Malamud felt he had a “thin family life” after his mother’s death. He charmed his way into the families of friends and grew up with a burden he tried to conceal, but also a quixotic determination to make his mark. His youthful pessimism drew him to Henry Adams, Matthew Arnold’s poetry, and T.S. Eliot. He wrote a master’s thesis at Columbia on Thomas Hardy and his early stories reflect this dour outlook, which the Holocaust did nothing to dispel. But as early as The Assistant and A New Life he granted his characters intimations of redemption and rebirth; disaster offers them the chance of spiritual regeneration.

Janna Malamud Smith tells her father’s story selectively, trying to put the best face on it. [She makes one touching love affair that led to a lifelong attachment stand in for other, more casual Bennington-style relationships. Her research into his early life feels haphazard, but the letters she quotes, though restrained, provide a window on his mind. Malamud’s clenched letter detailing his brother’s background and breakdown, written to inform his doctor, reads like one of R. D. Laing’s schizophrenic case histories. Smith’s book is less frank.] She gives a three-dimensional portrait of her father but obscures the living behind a veil of discretion. Her brother hardly figures here, though Malamud wrote harsh stories about father-son conflict, and she passes quickly over indications of her mother’s bitterness. It is hard to imagine that Malamud’s undramatic life and divided self will quicken interest in his work, but the book should fascinate those who already care about him. Even this partial portrait shows how autobiographical his fiction could be, why it prospered during his Oregon exile, then began losing its edge as success undid some of his inhibitions and made him a happier, less hungry man.

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