A friend once remarked how grateful he was that his parents were nobody. He had nothing to live up to or to live down in public. He didn't have to drag around with him the burden of a famous parent. Of private burdens he had his portion, but he wasn't obliged to share them with the rest of the world or to betray a parent in order to gain his own five minutes of fame. Janna Malamud Smith has not had that luxury. Daughter of a successful and lionized novelist father, she has spent her adult life fending off the biographers, the scholars, and the well-wishers (everyone thinks well of Bernard Malamud) in order to protect not only her father but also her mother, her brother, her family and herself.
She even once took to print in the New York Times to applaud the most famous literary heir and scrooge of our time, Stephen Joyce, who has petulantly held the entire scholarly world of Joyce studies at bay and claimed to have burned the correspondence of his Aunt Lucia (James Joyce's schizophrenic daughter). Though she is light years from being a Stephen Joyce, Janna Smith did lament that "when a biographer reveals the . . . details [of a life] to a massive audience, one's life is witnessed, but without the love, loyalty or privacy that make revelation meaningful."
Now, with "My Father Is a Book," Janna Malamud Smith has reversed herself and gone public about her father in a tattling but cautious and affectionate memoir that opens a window onto the writer's life and lets in enough light to let us see him plain. Where intuition is the only guide, there is no formula that tells the memoirist what to reveal and what to keep under wraps, and Janna Smith has done a remarkable job of explaining her father without ever subjecting him to humiliation.
Bernard Malamud was as unlikely a candidate for literary success as you could imagine. The older of two sons to Max and Bertha (Fidelman) Malamud, he grew up in grinding poverty in a home where Yiddish was spoken and an ever-failing candy store was the family burden. Bertha Malamud suffered a breakdown when Bernard was thirteen. He came home one day to discover that she had drunk disinfectant and was lying on the floor, and only his intervention saved her. Soon afterwards, when he was barely fifteen, she would die in a mental hospital, probably by her own hand.
From a life that promised to crush him as it had crushed his parents -- a home without books, without art, without money, without protection -- how did Bernard Malamud become a major novelist and one of the signature American short story writers of the 20th century, whose name rightfully belongs with those of Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever, Flannery O'Connor and Raymond Carver?
Janna Malamud Smith tells us: beyond talent and intelligence lay will and tenacity, a refusal to fail because he knew what failure had in store for him. From his teens he kept notebooks. He read voraciously and indiscriminately through literature -- from Shakespeare to Verlaine to Freud to Buddha. He read his way out of the grocery store and into the international world of letters. He was rescued by books; by reading, he declared himself a serious, moral being.
Attending City College of New York in the depression -- in those days virtually free -- he sometimes had trouble coming up with the nickel for the subway. Friends remembered him as spirited colleague and a ladies' man, though his notebooks are mournful, a tone that he would strike again and again in his fiction, as though his emotional possibilities were ever pressed earthward by his primal experiences.
Success came late but hit with terrific force when "The Natural" was published to great fanfare in 1952. Already married to Ann de Chiara, he had picked up a teaching position at Oregon State University, where he would remain for 12 years until moving to Bennington, Vermont in 1961. But for twelve years at OSU he remained a composition instructor and was not permitted to teach literature, even after his first collection of stories, "The Magic Barrel," won the National Book Award in 1959.
Janna Smith's book is a vividly impressionistic account of her own disorienting experiences, starting out her childhood in the wholesome, progressive, and sunny world of small-town Oregon and being suddenly immersed in the depressive and angry world of working class Bennington. And then there was the college itself, an arena of caged libido in which the precociously sexualized undergraduate women took it as virtually their birthright to bag a professor for a lover, whether he was married or not.
Malamud himself was one of those bagged in mid-life by an undergraduate known here as "Arlene," and Janna Smith includes a good many of the letters between her father and Arlene, which turn out to be notable not for their erotic confessions or romantic moonshine but for their traffic in book chat. What does a novelist write about to his paramour? Why, his work. What else? Bernard Malamud, we get the impression, took on a lover for the chance at conversation and to make his contribution to that great literary genre: the artist's enduring, collectable letters.
But beyond everything else Janna Malamud Smith gives us the indelible impression of her father as the dedicated writer, the "man of exorbitant will," who disappeared into his study with metronomic precision to bring forth his daily miracle of words and pages.
Of the private miracle of imagining life afresh every day she tells us very little, because, really, who can? It happened behind closed doors, where the distracted father was transformed daily into a ferocious writer whose extravagant dreams could not be revealed to any individual -- wife, child, friend, or lover -- until they were in final draft and ready to be unveiled before the whole world.
Mark Shechner is the chairman of the English Department of the University at Buffalo.
>My Father Is a Book
A Memoir of Bernard Malamud
By Janna Malamud Smith
Houghton Mifflin, 304 pages, $24