Peeling back paternal layers

While sorting through her father's past, Janna Malamud Smith nourishes her own mixed memories.

By ELAINE MARGOLIN
March 15, 2006 13:48
malamoud book 88 298

malamoud book 88 298. (photo credit: )

 
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My Father is a Book: A Memoir of Bernard Malamud By Janna Malamud Smith Houghton Mifflin 304pp., $24 She needed him more than he needed her. It had always been that way for the now 51-year-old Janna Malamud Smith, the only daughter of Bernard Malamud, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Fixer and The Natural and other esteemed works of fiction. The Malamud family unit had always had its own peculiar constellation, with her father Bernard fixed firmly in the center; both a feared and revered presence. Janna's Catholic mother had receded into a brittle domesticity common to women of her era and her brother was continually lapsing into bouts of disturbing silence. Only little Janna was still doing pirouettes to get her father's attention; never an easy task. Bernard Malamud was a demanding workaholic who spent hours re-polishing his prose and oblivious to the needs of those around him. His disciplined daily routine of reading and writing and research was imposed on the entire family; his schedule became theirs; no one was permitted to disturb his momentum. Even with all of these restrictions, Janna remembers the intense love she felt for him. "As a little girl, I presumed he and I loved each other best, though I think he conveyed that sense generally to intimates. It's more accurate to say we had a passionate bond, kept fertile as much by my idealization of him in his absence as by those moments when I'd catch his pleased attention," she says. Winning her father's notice was a gargantuan task for this sensitive little girl, who also remembers sensing the "massive, silent sadness" that seemed to engulf him, a sorrow she would try to abate with her childhood cleverness, her desperate and nervous love. But daddy had too many ghosts in his closet, the kind that never disappear. Her father, Bernard Malamud, came home at 13 to find his mother trying to poison herself. Two years later, she died in an asylum, leaving a then 15-year-old Malamud bereft. Janna remembers her father telling her the story of his mother's death when she was already well into her 20s, remembering how his voice seemed flat and lifeless, as if he had somehow managed to disassociate himself from the event, so deep was its traumatic impact. It seems Bernard Malamud learned to survive by remembering selectively and transferring his deepest suffering upon his often thinly disguised fictional characters. Janna makes a convincing case that her father's basic sense of trust was severed by his mother's tragic death, but she is less forthcoming about how his wounds eventually became her own. Like her father, she clung to the hope that time and distance and space would free her from the ache of her own emotional inheritance. BERNARD MALAMUD received his M.A. from Columbia University in 1942 and began his writing career far from the Yiddish speaking home he came from in Brooklyn, where his father struggled to make a living as a grocer. He showed an early talent for making friends, then girlfriends, then literary mentors and soon was immersing himself in the works of Sigmund Freud, who captivated him with his notions on pain and loss and suffering. He began to think about writing his own experiences as a means towards healing and self-comprehension. Freud allowed him to understand that his psychic pain could become his ally, particularly as a writer, and much of Malamud's work explores his feelings of shame and fear and guilt and desire to flee a family of pathological sickness. But although Freud was able to offer him insight into his troubled psyche, he could not calm his restless soul. The Malamud family moved often and Janna remembers living in over 10 childhood homes before she left for college at 17. Before she began her writing career, Janna Malamud Smith worked for many years as a psychotherapist in a job that took her far away from her father's world. It was here that she began to understand the complexities of emotional truth; how people could have conflicting desires which keep them at war with themselves. When her father died in 1986, she was besieged by academic biographers anxious for her cooperation in researching her father's life. She refused to work with them, feeling they would exploit his memory, shame him and expose his flaws. She knew her father was a fiercely private man. Yet, even then, she was fighting her own temptation to write about her life as his daughter. Twenty years after his death, Janna felt determined to break her silence and tell her own story. The reader can sense that she is still struggling with the decision to do so. The book contains selected reprints of his most personal papers; his diaries and journals, love letters to his wife and to his lover and notes to friends and colleagues. Janna Malamud Smith clearly understood that her father would have found such public scrutiny intolerable, and her choice to go forward with this book seems to be a direct challenge to him, or perhaps it is just the pent-up frustration of a middle-aged woman trying to come to terms with her own feelings about her father, a complicated and challenging man. Frequently her tone shifts; sometimes she writes about him with a childlike sense of awe and idolization, other times she seems angry and confused at how self-involved and controlling he was and still other times she seems to be trying to protect him and the legacy that she feels is his due. But ultimately Janna seems to be trying to nourish her own empathy for him. While sorting through her father's personal papers, Janna came across a note where her father had scribbled the words "Looking at Mama with match," among a list of random thoughts. At first she thought nothing of it, but later found herself obsessed by what he might have meant by that thinking: "What was he doing? If I could ask him a single question, this one might be it. I imagine darkness, silence, a late hour, all but my father asleep. He tiptoes to his mother's bed, lights a match and stares at her for the flame's instant. What does he see? A poor, ill, still youngish, black-haired Russian Jewish woman sleeping. If I am correct to surmise shame as the list's coalescing affect, what was this moment's contribution? Feeling drawn to examine her secretly or something he saw? Perhaps he hoped her insanity would still itself in sleep; allow him to find his mother beneath its surface. Or maybe, after he caught her trying to kill herself, he simply wanted to watch her breathing and felt ashamed of the need. Did he do it more than once?" In this complex and eloquently written memoir Janna Malamud Smith has found a way to connect herself to the essence of her father's often distant heart.

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