Malamud daughter's memoir offers too little that's surprising, too much that's irrelevant

Review Memoir

March 19, 2006|By JOAN MELLEN | JOAN MELLEN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

My Father Is a Book: A Memoir of Bernard Malamud

Janna Malamud Smith

Houghton Mifflin / 304 pages / $24

The memoirist enters into a sacred pact with the reader. What is felt may be subjective, but memoir and biography both demand that what happened has occurred. When that pact is broken, the memoir shatters, whether it's by an aspiring "comer" such as James Frey or by a distinguished author like Lillian Hellman, who wrote in Pentimento that she had delivered money in Nazi territory to a socialist freedom fighter named Julia, a total fiction.

Assuming veracity, the reader asks that the memoirist charm by surprise. People are not what they seem. Reality, the truth of a person's nature, or their cultural loyalties, may be other than what at first appears. Memoir shares with fiction the reader's hope that the author will penetrate to the heart of the matter. Memoir offers a closer glimpse than that provided by the biographer, who, more often than not, has never met the subject.

This expectation of surprise, the revelation of how things really were, is compounded when insiders, not least family members, write. Such is the case in My Father Is a Book, by the daughter of novelist Bernard Malamud, author of The Assistant, The Natural and The Fixer.

In some ways, My Father Is a Book does not disappoint. Malamud belongs to a group of distinguished Jewish writers who came to the fore in the postwar period. With Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, he formed a triad of novelists grappling with the experience of being Jewish in America, exploring the ambiguity of the goal of assimilation.

Yet Malamud, Janna Smith reveals, had little interest in being Jewish. In their home, shared with his Italian-Catholic wife, Ann, no Jewish rituals were observed. His daughter did not even feel particularly Jewish, so that, upon the eve of her marriage to a Gentile, she is startled by her father's wistful remark that he wished she were marrying a Jew.

Smith, a psychotherapist, interprets this to mean that his desire is that she not marry at all but remain available to respond to his needs - a quality he demanded of the women in his life, including a Bennington College student named Arlene with whom he enjoyed a long affair. Jewish culture appears not to have interested Malamud at all.

Yet there is too much in this book that is not surprising. Malamud's sense of shame at his deprived childhood amid the little grocery store run by his father, Max, his sense of, as he put it, having been "gypped" by life, may be discerned from his writing. His preference that women be dependent, insecure and sad, the fact that assertiveness in women appalled him, are also apparent in his fiction.

Disjointed, My Father Is a Book degenerates into collage, as Smith poaches on the territory of her father's authorized biographer, British literary critic Philip Davis. Smith pads her book with bits and pieces from Malamud's journals and letters, undigested raw material that would be far better elucidated by a dispassionate biographer.

Smith's endless descriptions of nature, as if she is attempting to rival her writer father, have little bearing on their relationship and should have been cut. Rejecting linear chronology, Smith deprives the reader of the story she could have better told: the chronicle of the vicissitudes, of the growth and development of her relationship with her father.

When Smith addresses herself to literary matters, remarking that psychoanalytic theory led her father to "make the ancestral tradition his own by integrating psyche with society and soul," she is banal. In terming her Thanksgiving automobile accident on black ice, which resulted in her father being badly injured, as "near patricide," she is embarrassingly melodramatic. Psychobabble follows. Smith soon begins an affair with her white-haired, "fatherly" English teacher: "Having smashed one father, I suppose I sought another."

What remains are fleeting glimpses of Malamud: diligent, humble about the level of his talent, and politically unavailable not only as a citizen but in his insensitivity to the needs of his wife. Malamud apparently was a domestic autocrat, a self-centered man whose craving for worldly success seems, at this remove, a relic of a narrow immigrant mentality. Or was he?

Finally, My Father Is a Book seems untrustworthy. If ever a memoir cried out to be supplanted by the rigors of biography, it's this one.

Joan Mellen is the author, most recently, of "A Farewell to Justice: Jim Garrison, JFK's Assassination and The Case That Should Have Changed History." She teaches in the graduate program in creative writing at Temple University in Philadelphia.

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