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Public Faces, Private Places: Bernard Malamud's daughter tells all

July 20, 2006 By:
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My Father Is a Book, recently published by Houghton Mifflin, is a curious artifact of the literary life as it has evolved in the United States over the last 30 years or so. It's the work of Janna Malamud Smith, the daughter of novelist and short-story writer Bernard Malamud. Like her father, she has been a writer, though in a wholly different field than he. A practicing psychotherapist in Massachusetts -- where she lives with her husband and two children -- she has penned two previous books, Private Matters, a personal disquisition on the importance of privacy, and A Potent Spell, about mother love.

The more pertinent of the two in this particular context is the former work. As many critics and commentators have already pointed out, it's a bit odd, even ironic for the writer of Private Matters, a defense of keeping quiet about personal issues in an age that rewards tawdry confessions, to have written My Father Is a Book, which reveals a good deal about Bernard Malamud, who did his best to guard the details of his private life.

As she wrote in her earlier work, "My father sought privacy because without it he could not create fiction, and our family was organized to protect this need. We hesitated before we knocked on the door of his study; we tiptoed through the late afternoons, diving at phones to prevent a second ring, so he could nap and prepare for an evening of reading; we accepted that he distanced himself from his relatives and rarely spoke about the past."

It's not easy being the child of a driven parent, and Malamud Smith made it clear that her young years were not always fun.

But Private Matters' entire argument was centered on her unwillingness, following her father's death, to reveal the nature of what went on behind closed doors. She didn't want a meddling biographer exposing what she thought was sacrosanct. Her book was a defense not only of her decision about her father's legacy but a plea for a wider acceptance of privacy as a necessary tool of survival in the modern world.

So what changed her mind? In her brief preface to My Father Is a Book, Malamud Smith even asks rhetorically, "How do I justify my own change of heart?" Her short answer -- "I'm not sure I can" -- seems evasive and disingenuous, but at least she doesn't stop there.

"In part I have to laugh at myself: When I finally read [my father's] notebooks, I realized their content didn't need my protection. But the larger answer is that time has passed. Dad has been dead for nearly two decades. My grief has abated. I am older. Our family past has come to feel distant enough to approach. When I wrote my first book, Private Matters, I broadened my own understanding of privacy -- and subsequently needed less of it. So, too, as my mother moved through her 80s, a balance tipped for me between shielding her and capturing her knowledge."

Malamud Smith also says that one day she realized that her father's life had been altered, moving from something "overshadowing" to something "disappearing from view." The aging of her mother and death of so many of her parents' friends also made her realize that her "witness had become one of a few remaining membranes holding the boundary between life and void. Writing more also altered my perspective. Years practicing allowed me insight into his effort, and left me with a better understanding of him. My loyalties gradually shifted."

Oh, boy, did they ever.

But my understanding of this change of heart has more to do with the whole business of writing than even Malamud Smith acknowledges. She is a splendid writer, and not just "in her field." And as a writer, with a fine set of writerly instincts and a supple style, she recognized a good story when she saw one and I imagine became protective of this treasure, not wanting to let some snooping biographer have first crack at it. She would be the custodian of the family legacy and she would tell the truth as best she knew how. (A biography, though, is in the works but some years down the road, obviously.)

There are only two real "revelations" in My Father Is a Book but they are doozies. As might be imagined, they have to do with family and with sex. Malamud, it seems, came from a background plagued by mental instability; and he also fell in love with a Bennington co-ed (Malamud taught at the college for many years). Both of these facts might have been gleaned from the fiction but they still have the power to startle, and Malamud Smith makes the most of both of them.

This memoir instantly becomes required reading for any fan or student of Malamud's work, since the story it tells, like most writer's stories, fits in at strategic points with the subject's creative output. Malamud, as any devoted reader knows, grew up in Brooklyn, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants who struggled against the vicissitudes of life without much success (the source for The Assistant and any number of short stories). Malamud, after struggling himself, realized that he could not make a living as a writer alone so took a teaching job at a small college in Oregon as he plied his trade and slowly made a name for himself (in part, the source of A New Life).

What could not have been known was how wrenching his immediate family life was in New York and how much determination -- how much steely resolve -- was necessary for Malamud to extricate himself from Brooklyn. The first intimations of how bad things were came when Malamud was just in his teens.

"Dad was 13," writes his daughter, "when he came home from school one day to find his mother, Bertha, alone, insane, sitting on the kitchen floor, an empty can of disinfectant ('something like Drano') in one hand, the poison foaming from her mouth. He took the scene in for an instant, then ran to the neighborhood drugstore for aid -- a powder, a medicine -- that he and the druggist spooned into her. He credited his quick response with saving her life."

Bertha was taken away to an asylum soon after her son found her on the kitchen floor. The last time he saw her was on the hospital grounds with his father. "[S]he, whom he'd loved, who had loved him more than anyone, waved to him briefly through a barred window. That was it. He wasn't allowed in, nor she out; he could neither speak to her nor touch her, nor tell her goodbye. He was told that pneumonia killed her, but his father's vague and evasive telling made him believe that suicide was more likely. Many years later, he wrote requesting her records, but without luck."

Malamud Smith tries to sum up what a devastating effect all this had on her father. She suggests that only writing could "temper" her father's pain. "When you tell stories, you can pack your feelings onto your characters. Meanwhile, your privacy is preserved. You can rewrite; you are not helpless before circumstance."

The struggling writer had to extract himself from this familial hell and so took the first job offered to him, heading for the far west.

For Malamud Smith, Oregon was a paradisiacal place in which to grow up. She felt safe, nurtured and happy. However, as the years passed and her father's writing credits piled up, he felt as if he were stifling in a cultural backwater. When Bennington College called, he came running and never looked back.

"Vermont made a bad impression," writes Malamud Smith. "After Oregon, I found its landscape gnarled, convoluted. The lush woods and wildlands seemed crowded, overgrown and mosquito-ridden, its vaunted Green Mountains worn dentures beside Oregon's pristine Cascade Range. After a while, I began to grasp the perfect beauty and, looking back, can summon November air frosting into winter, the last yellow leaves on white birches in late autumn, but I never successfully rerooted. ... My father's experience was different. He found the college intellectually stimulating, and within months of arriving, he met a student with whom he fell in love."

I've made this memoir sound as if it strikes only two notes: insanity and carnality. There's much more to it. Malamud Smith tells the story of her parents' courtship and long marriage. She paints a portrait of a funny, dedicated, sometimes warm, sometimes guarded father. And she shows how she, too, had to pull away from her father's influence in order to grow and survive.

 

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