- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 11, 2006


By Janna Malamud Smith

Houghton Mifflin, $24, 292 pages


Of the preeminent Jewish writers in American literature in the second half of the 20th century — Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Edward Lewis Wallant, many others — I have always admired Bernard Malamud the most. I’m not sure why, though it may have something to do with what Daniel Stern, another Jewish writer, said of him.

Malamud, Stern said, once stated that “all men are Jews” — a cryptic statement, but true, Stern believed, for Malamud “took the Jew as his starting point for what was most human in humankind.” That sort of quality — what Janna Malamud Smith here calls “the quest for morality at the center of Malamud’s novels” — probably was what led me, a gentile, to carry a tattered, sweat-swollen paperback copy of his short-story collection, “Idiots First,” in the deep pocket of my fatigue pants all through Army basic training, stealing a read whenever I could.

It is always best to avoid the personal in a review, but it is difficult to resist explaining personal enthusiasm when a book about a revered writer appears, especially when it is as good as “My Father Is a Book.” There has been no biography of Malamud since his death in 1986 at age 72, so this intelligent, loving, yet clear-eyed memoir by his daughter — based on correspondence and early journals — is sure to be welcomed by all who treasure his fiction.

The central motif of Ms. Smith’s memoir, and of Malamud’s life, is caught in the title: Malumud valued the literary life over just about everything. “Whatever hunger for faith existed within him,” she writes, “he had transformed it into a belief in the sanctity of literature.”

Born in Brooklyn in 1914, he determined early on, while attending City College of New York and then Columbia University, to be a writer. Though always an affectionate son, he was disappointed in his father, an unsuccessful immigrant grocer, and emotionally scarred by literally seeing his mother go mad when he was 13. The latter fact, Ms. Smith says, may have damaged “his ability to live easily, openly, casually in the everyday world.”

In 1949 Malamud moved his young family to Corvallis, Ore., where he taught at the state college for 12 years. Malamud’s departure from Brooklyn may have pulled a prop from the life of his mentally unstable brother Eugene, the realization of which caused Malamud anguish.

Ms. Smith believes her father had to leave Brooklyn to be able to write. “What I didn’t understand until I read these letters was the price he paid.” It was only one source of the “guilt that underlay some of his best writing.” Indeed, she says, grief over his mother is disguised in some of the themes in “The Natural.”

Corvallis was pleasant, but whereas Ms. Smith, her mother Ann and brother Paul saw it as home, Malamud saw it as an “an exile’s way station;” as an urban Jew he was a gefilte fish out of water.

Still, he liked the place, and, as Ms. Smith says, its differentness doubtless nourished his writing. Some of his best, besides “The Natural,” was done there — “The Assistant,” “The Magic Barrel” and “A New Life,” a seriocomic campus novel published shortly after they left.

At Corvallis, as at Bennington College later, his writing always came first. Her mother’s support for and belief in her husband made his literary life possible, yet the tacit understanding was that it was his work that mattered and “that women were less than men.”

His inability to be comfortable at anything but writing is encapsulated in his insistence on going to his college office one Thanksgiving morning, while everyone else was caught up in the holiday, to write for a few hours. “His demand … was about the way his writing needs trumped all other hands, the way he lived in time so obsessively that settling himself other than by sitting down at his desk and beginning to place words upon sheets of yellow paper was often beyond him.”

Yet he was affectionate, dutiful and caring, and Ms. Smith loved him, so none of this is recounted bitterly or judgmentally. Nor is she judgmental about the affair he had with a Bennington student. Rather, she directs her scorn at the ethos of male sexual entitlement that she feels prevailed among Bennington’s faculty at that time.

Anyone who appreciates literature and its creators will appreciate “My Father Is a Book;” it has charm, warmth, insight, analysis and understanding. Not least, in these days of suspect memoirs, it also has a deep feeling of honesty and truth.

Roger K. Miller, a newspaperman for many years, is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor.

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