Janna Malamud Smith My Father Is a Book

ISBN 13: 9780618691661

My Father Is a Book

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9780618691661: My Father Is a Book
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On the twentieth anniversary of Bernard Malamud's death, Janna Malamud Smith explores her renowned father's life and literary legacy. Malamud was among the most brilliant novelists of his era, the author of the Pulitzer Prize winner The Fixer, as well as The Natural and The Assistant -- named one of the best "100 All-Time Novels" by Time. He counted among his friends Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Theodore Roethke, and Shirley Jackson. Yet Malamud was also very private. Only his family has had full access to his personal papers, including revealing letters and journals that offer unique insight into the man and his work. In her candid, evocative, and loving memoir, his daughter brings Malamud to vivid life as no one else can.

Bernard Malamud, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, grew up in Brooklyn in a home overshadowed by poverty and mental illness. Unable to earn a living in New York, he took a teaching position in Oregon and moved his young family there. For Janna, it was an idyllic time and place. Her father was warm, funny, and passionate about his writing, which was gaining national attention. In 1961, an appointment to Bennington College brought the Malamuds back east and right into the middle of the heady, often hilarious free-for-all that was campus life in that radically changing time. But Bennington’s anything-goes atmosphere and Malamud’s growing fame came at a price to his family: his deep belief that one should live morally crashed into his premise that one should live fully.

Janna Malamud Smith speaks as only a daughter can of a fraught relationship with an adored father. In glowing praise of My Father Is a Book, Susan Cheever -- who also wrote memorably of her own father, John Cheever -- says, "This loving portrait of a writer's family from the inside describes good times and difficulties with affection and candor and provides a fascinating backstory for Malamud's great fiction."

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About the Author:

JANNA MALAMUD SMITH is author of two New York Times Notable books, A Potent Spell and Private Matters, which was a Barnes and Noble “Discover Great New Writers” pick. She has written for the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the Threepenny Review, among other publications. A practicing psychotherapist, she lives with her husband and two children in Massachusetts.

From The Washington Post:

Bernard Malamud was one of the most accomplished and appealing American novelists of the postwar years. From The Natural (1952) to The Assistant (1957) to The Magic Barrel (1958) to A New Life (1961) to Dubin's Lives (1979) -- to mention only five of the more than a dozen books he published -- he not only established himself in the first rank of American writers but also took the country's literature in new and important directions. Along with his contemporary Saul Bellow and the younger (by two decades) Philip Roth, he portrayed and interpreted the Jewish experience in America as something unique and discrete while at the same time he helped establish that experience as, ultimately, more American than Jewish.

As has been pointed out in this space on several occasions, all three of these men resisted being ghettoized as "Jewish-American writers," and with good reason, but there can be no getting around it: Their Jewish identity is essential to their fiction; indeed, it is impossible to imagine their fiction stripped of that identity. As is made plain by Janna Malamud Smith, Malamud's daughter, in this thoughtful, affecting memoir of her father, the sufferings of his forebears in the Russian pogroms of the early 20th century are the foundation upon which his life's work rests, as was his own difficult childhood in Brooklyn, with a loving but feckless father (the model, she says, for the Jewish grocer in The Assistant) and a schizophrenic mother who eventually lost all sanity and died when her son was a teenager.

For some time, it has been my impression that Malamud has faded away from the central place he once occupied in our literature. His name doesn't come up in discussions of important American writers as often as it did not so long ago. His publisher, Farrar Straus Giroux, faithfully keeps his books in print, and some of them -- notably The Natural and The Fixer -- still sell respectably, yet somehow he seems to have drifted out of the mainstream.

This, if my sense of it is correct, is a great pity. Not all of Malamud's work achieves the heights of The Assistant and The Magic Barrel, but it ranks with the best of his time, and far above what passes for the best of our own. Its most persistent themes -- the search for a new life and the struggle to achieve moral rectitude -- have lasting pertinence and have rarely been explored so subtly and perceptively in literature. His prose, at times melancholy and at others jaunty, achieves a near-perfect fusion of American and Jewish-American rhythms. He was as much fabulist as novelist, with the happy result that almost all of his fiction transcends time. It is true that things fell off toward the end of his life -- God's Grace (1982) and the posthumous The People and Uncollected Stories (1989) really should have been allowed to rest unpublished -- but his physical condition declined severely in the years before his death in 1986, and obviously his literary skills were affected.

Whether My Father Is a Book will do anything to reverse the slide in Malamud's fortunes cannot be predicted, but those of us who cherish his best work will be glad to have this intimate recollection of a very decent and very complicated man. The book is written with love and admiration -- Malamud seems to gave given his daughter no cause to do a daddy-dearest number on him -- but with a clear eye. Smith deals candidly with her father's tendency toward self-absorption, with his attendant habit of placing his work before everything else in his life, with his wandering eye and the love affair that weakened his marriage during the 1960s, with his imperfections as a parent. Like others who have written about famous parents, she cannot always resist the temptation to move herself into center stage when she may not really belong there, but on the whole she is self-effacing and good company.

The literature of fathers and daughters is scarcely so extensive as the literature of fathers and sons, and My Father Is a Book leaves no doubt that this is to be regretted. The relationship between Janna (born in Oregon in January 1952, when her father was 37 and her mother 34) and her father was mutually rewarding. They were "intensely attached, at ease with each other, deeply compatible" when she was a small girl, though -- predictably -- "we became touchy and awkward when, as I grew up, I sought to free myself. Father-female child we grasped; father-woman baffled each of us in different ways. We did not trust that I could go and stay. I think he feared that I would try to depart from him completely. I feared that he would somehow tether me."

Everything Malamud did involving his daughter was done out of love. He wanted Janna to be happy and usually -- though not constantly -- kept a watchful eye on her. He was, in his attitudes toward women, at once old-fashioned and welcoming. On the one hand, he believed that "women were less than men, labile, damaging," that "female aggression was not simply unpleasant; it was uniquely destructive." Understandably, his daughter was offended by this and has "spent a lifetime trying to make sense of his view." Yet on the other hand, he delighted in women -- he was "a ladies' man from grade school on -- eagerly dating, continually speaking with his buddies about girls" -- and not only as objects of amorous and sexual attraction. His correspondence with the Bennington student with whom he fell in love (to the detriment of his marriage) in the early 1960s reveals considerable respect for her intelligence, and he seems to have held Janna in similar regard.

She leaves no doubt, though, that as much as he loved her, her brother, and their mother, the center of his life was writing. He had begun writing seriously in the 1930s, when he was in his twenties and strongly under the influence of Sigmund Freud, and he seems to have recognized that this was his true vocation. His apprenticeship was arduous, ending in 1952 with the publication of The Natural:

"Although he may have been writing lightly when he told his wife, 'Now I join the sacred company,' my father was stating his deepest meaning. Whatever hunger for faith existed within him, he had transformed it into a belief in the sanctity of literature. Nothing mattered more to him than joining the company of recognized, serious writers. And in Manhattan, the buzz about The Natural -- the lunches with editors and salespeople, the photo session, the early reviews -- informed him that he had stepped across that threshold. Twenty years of lonely practice preceded the moment. His had been a long apprenticeship through many a night tunnel. Finally, he'd found the baseball story, a good choice both for a Jew intent on becoming an American and for a Brooklyn boy and Dodgers fan who'd never been physically graceful. . . . When a publisher bought the novel, when admired writers praised it, their acts elevated its creator from the farm league into the majors. He returned to Manhattan amazed to find he had been given a uniform, chosen to play on the team whose banners had long decorated his wall."

The Natural did not make him rich or famous, but it set him on the road to the recognition he craved. He was modest and self-effacing, playful and at times garrulous, but his literary ambition was fierce. He certainly didn't huff and puff, à la Hemingway or Mailer, but in his quiet way he wanted to be recognized as the literary artist he properly believed himself to be. Though the books that followed The Natural were all received enthusiastically and though he began to be the recipient of prestigious awards -- he eventually won two National Book Awards and the Pulitzer Prize -- it wasn't until 1966, with publication of The Fixer, that he reached the bestseller lists and gained what passes for fame in the American literary world.

The Fixer remains his most famous book but is scarcely his best. That distinction belongs to The Assistant, not much longer than a novella, in which he explores all his most characteristic themes with extraordinary humor, compassion and tenderness. It is a masterpiece of postwar American fiction, albeit a miniature one, the story of a poor Jewish grocer in Brooklyn whose encounter with a young gentile -- the assistant of the title -- leads to a delicate, multi-layered exploration of suffering, redemption and other questions close to Malamud's heart. By contrast, The Fixer, though good-hearted and beautifully written, seems clumsy and obvious.

Janna Malamud Smith leaves no doubt that her father was as flawed as any of the characters whom he created. His remarkable self-discipline at his writing table often proved a barrier between him and the people who loved him, and his longing for the consolations of love led him into an extramarital adventure that left more pain than pleasure in its aftermath. Yet at heart he was a decent man, kind and solicitous by instinct, generous to other writers. Having had a hard, painful childhood, "he taxed himself hard to provide his children with what he had not had: stability, comfort, protection from the worst emotional horror." The extent to which he succeeded is revealed in his daughter's book, which is at once loving and lovely, a book worthy of the man.

Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

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9781619021013: My Father is a Book: A Memoir of Bernard Malamud

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