In His Daughter’s Eyes: A Partial View of Malamud

Can you ever really know your parents? I don’t think so. There’s just too much information that’s unavailable, not to mention experiences you childishly misinterpret or simply misremember.

And yet Janna Malamud Smith, Bernard Malamud’s daughter, a therapist with a master’s degree in social work, indulges in the kind of facile speculation about her father’s needs and motives that only the most careless biographer would put to paper.

Her memoir, so far the only life of Malamud, is riddled with Freudian clichés. Remembering the bedtime stories her father used to invent, Ms. Smith writes: “Having [his fictional hero] Rattledox defeat the milk-withholding witch and deliver the goods seems emblematic of the kind of continual creative act my father must have felt his psychic survival required, albeit often unconsciously.”

Here’s another (of many): Malamud once told Janna a short morality tale about Abraham Lincoln working as a grocery clerk and running after a customer in the severe winter cold in order to return five or 10 cents’ change. Ms. Smith later found a similar story in his novel The Assistant (1957); she speculates that it was actually Max, Malamud’s father, who chased the customer through the frigid streets, and then asks herself why Malamud might have substituted Lincoln for her grandfather: “Maybe, in the novel, he wanted to offer the dead storekeeper some of Lincoln’s stature. Or maybe, child in lap, he unconsciously wished that his daughter had had Lincoln as her grandfather, and that he had had a great, heroic American, rather than a sad, defeated Jew, as his father.”

Oy.

Squeezed in among the speculations, surrounded by the irritating therapeutic language, are some actual facts. Bernard Malamud was born in Brooklyn in 1914, to immigrant parents: Max, a grocer, and Bertha, who gradually became depressed and delusional. When Bernard and his brother, Eugene, were still children, their mother was institutionalized; she was still in the asylum when she died a few years later—probably a suicide. As a young adult, Eugene too became mentally ill and was briefly hospitalized; he remained impaired for the rest of his life.

In 1945, Bernard Malamud married Ann deChiara, the child of Italian Catholic immigrants. They remained married until his death, despite difficulties that Ms. Smith leaves mostly unspecified. Their son, Paul, was born in 1947; Janna was born in 1952.

In addition to writing, Malamud taught: first at a high school, then at an agricultural college in Oregon, and finally at Bennington, an all-girls school where the “decadent” moral code—the students went braless and the male faculty had no qualms about seducing their students—anticipated the cultural revolution to come later in the 60’s.

While at Bennington, Malamud fell in love with a writing student, Arlene, with whom he maintained some kind of relationship to the end of his life. Arlene was only a few years older than Janna, and she too ultimately became a therapist: She attended medical school and worked as a psychoanalyst.

Malamud himself was fascinated by Freud’s theories, having discovered them as a young man still groping for a style and a subject. It was Freud, Ms. Smith believes, who showed him that “it’s just possible that God’s impossible laws initially sprang from some poor schlemiel’s overactive conscience. The step from this discovery to the one that powers his fiction is small: grand moral struggles belong to the common man as much as to the hero. Therefore, a Brooklyn storekeeper’s son can take on the big questions by writing about the characters he knows from his days behind the delicatessen counter. By attaching the pain and effort of their familiar, mundane lives to larger mythic or moral frames, he can create resonant, uncanny stories.”

Malamud’s first published book was The Natural (1952), followed by The Assistant, the story collection The Magic Barrel (which won a National Book Award in 1958), The Fixer (which won both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize in 1966), The Tenants (1971) and Dubin’s Lives (1979), among others.

A distant though adoring father, he worked constantly, either teaching or writing, and seemed to have no idea how to relax. He fought depression all his life. He died at age 71, of a heart attack.

Quoting liberally from Malamud’s diaries and letters, Ms. Smith attempts to make public the private man. The virtue of this memoir is its unique, very personal access to its subject, but sadly, Ms. Smith has left out key elements. There’s no description, much less characterization, of her own brother, Paul; no portrait of the relationship between her parents; and no sense of the relationship (if there was one) between her mother and Arlene, whom Ms. Smith describes as weeping side by side with Ann at Malamud’s funeral. She refers to Arlene’s child but never mentions who that child’s father might be. Nor does she have much to say about Malamud’s Judaism, despite his having achieved fame as a distinctly Jewish writer. She does quote this intriguing line from a letter her father wrote to Arlene: “All men are Jews.” Here, where analysis would have been welcome, Ms. Smith doesn’t bother.

As for her own relationship with her father once she became an adult, Ms. Smith drops only a few hints: “He gulped down my little girl admiration, I his fatherly delight. But we became touchy and awkward when, as I grew up, I sought to free myself.” And unless I somehow missed it, she never explains the odd title she chose for the memoir: My Father Is a Book—it sounds significant, but what does it mean?

Finally, Ms. Smith provides virtually no literary insight into her father’s fiction. About Dubin’s Lives, for instance, a novel about a middle-aged, married biographer who falls in love with a younger woman, she writes: “In truth, I could make no objective assessment of the literary work, for I experienced it as a … way-too-intimate view of my father’s confused feelings. Lately, as I reread it for the first time, I felt again a vague nausea, and the notion ‘virtual incest’ came to mind.” I suspect she experienced even more complicated and painful emotions when she read through 22 years of letters between Bernard and Arlene.

Ms. Smith’s memoir is much more about herself than her father, and that’s no surprise. What’s surprising is how ordinary Bernard Malamud’s daughter turned out to be.

Nan Goldberg reviews books for The Boston Globe and writes a monthly column for nyc-plus.