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My Father Is a Book Hardcover – March 15, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. No biography of Malamud, one of the great Jewish-American writers, has appeared since his death in 1986, at age 72, so his daughter's beautiful memoir offers the first intimate look at his life. And it is intimate, drawing on correspondence and early journals that describe Malamud's struggle to define himself as a writer and express the anguish that afflicted him all his life: insecurity about his talent, sadness and shame over his childhood as the son of an unsuccessful and unimaginative immigrant grocer and a mother who went mad. Smith (Private Matters) is herself an accomplished writer, bringing a keen and nuanced intelligence to explain her father's efforts to transcend these feelings and transmute them into fiction; she offers a fascinating look, for example, at how Malamud's discovery of Freud helped him grasp that "grand moral struggles belong to the common man as much as to the hero." Refreshingly, Smith is more interested in understanding than judging her father, even when relating his affair, in the early '60s, with one of his Bennington College students; she reserves her rage for the "louche" environment—ruled by "patriarchal harem entitlement"—in which such affairs were a matter of course. Smith offers a profound portrait of a loving father, a writer whose struggles with his own frailties fueled enduring works of literature. (Mar. 15)
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Kirkus Reviews, Starred
"Beautiful memoir...a profound portrait of a loving father." Publishers Weekly, Starred
Thoughtful, affecting memoir...a book worthy of the man.
The Washington Post
How strange to feel the need to remark that a generous-spirited, relatively unsensationalistic memoir can achieve "compelling" status The San Francisco Chronicle
Smith is a passionate and uncompromising truth-teller Los Angeles Times
"My Father Is a Book" does what the best reminiscences of artists do: It leads us back to the work Boston Globe
Beautifully written In "My Father Is a Book," [Smith's] insightful eloquence takes pride of place alongside her father's.
Analytical without being acrimonious, honest without wallowing in self-preening exposure, this is a wise, generous book full of insights.
Christian Science Monitor
Smith is particularly adept at drawing parallels between the life and the art [of Malamud] Columbus Dispatch
[An] intelligent, loving, yet clear-eyed memoir The Denver Post
Smith has done a remarkable job of explaining her father without ever subjecting him to humiliation.
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Although at times somewhat disjointed, Smith uses anecdotal format and personal letters to describe how she perceives him as a human being.
There are occasional references to his literary works that crop up and are extremely interesting. More specifically, Malamud originally wanted to be known as an America writer-hence his first novel, THE NATURAL, is a baseball story inspired by his youthful experiences in Brooklyn. Smith also mentions that when, in later life, Malamud, whose parents had direct experience with Jewish unrest in Russia, began to work on the FIXER (based on the life of Mendel Beilis), he traveled to Kiev to see how realistic his visions of Kiev and the shtetl were compared to his imagination.
There are other interesting tid bits, but most of the book deals with the trials and tribulations of the author's life. All in all, it's a pleasant, simple read that throws light on Bernard Malamud as a father, a professor and a "regular man." For anyone interested in Malamud, Smith's book serves as a supplement to the books that deal with the analyses of Malamud's short stories and novels.
Janna Malamud Smith , Bernard Malamud's daughter and now biographer is wiser than this. She has said in interviews that it took her a long time before she could write this book, and one reason for this no doubt is that she had to establish enough confidence and faith in herself in order to present a balanced, humane and fair picture. Old enough and wise enough to deal with her own demons and resentments she could write a fundamentally understanding, sympathetic biography of a not easy, but deeply caring father.
As she tells it her father was beset by demons all his life. Two close members of his family suffered from mental illness. He last saw his mother at the age of fifteen at the asylum where she may have taken her own life. His brother Eugene who he tried to help also suffered from mental illness. Malamud had to make his struggle to make his second family alright, and perhaps even more to establish his way in the world of literature.
The most conscienscious of craftman, the American- Jewish Flaubert, the decent family man of the Hart- Schaffner- Marx, Bellow- Malamud - Roth trio of American- Jewish writers who came to the fore in the fifties and sixties, Malamud worked at his art with a concentrated dedication that raised no small resentment in the family. His daughter poignantly describes him standing before the mirror and shouting to himself in the early days when he was teaching at the University of Oregon,, " I am going to win. I am going to win."
For the children this meant that Malamud was in some ways a `book'. i.e. The title of this biography is taken in parallel from the great opening sentence of Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying." ("Mother is a fish") The book `Malamud' was so absorbed in his own literary matters that at times it became difficult to see how much he truly cared for the family.
Malamud- Smith in a previous book had argued for the importance of protecting the `privacy' of certain lives. Paradoxically in this biography she tells the family- secret, that darkens the image of Malamud faithful husband and family man. She tells of how in the loose and permissive atmosphere of Bennington College where Malamud taught, he began and conducted a long affair with a student of his. She wrote of this affair only after receiving her mother's permission to do so. And her mother who had a compensatory affair of her own told the NY Times Dinitia Smith that despite this in thinking of the years of their marriage together they had ` a very strong bond'.
Smith- Malamud shows a great appreciation for her father's struggle, a fundamentally decent man who overcame so much, to make his mark in Literature and to be a father to his family.
She is not without criticism as her father could be in her eyes insensitive to the emotional needs of her mother. But she nonetheless seems to be reconciled with him in the deepest way.
One problem of the book, at least for me, is that she does not really discuss the whole question of her father's relation to his Jewishness, to the raising of his children without real Jewish education. She does say that her father before her wedding had said to her that he wished she would have married someone Jewish. She also says that she was sent at one point to a Unitarian school, at which she did not last long But there is no indication that the whole subject of continuation of the Jewish family was central in his mind and conscience. And this paradoxically from a writer whose subjects were by and large Jewish, and for whom 'Jewishness' was so important.
But then again Malamud in his own work sees `Jewishness' and `humanity' as almost interchangeable and having their meaning in a kind of ` suffering' Frankie Alpine-like which makes the person virtuous. Perhaps it is not surprising that someone who so generalized the concept of Jewishness, did not concern himself with the transmitting of a specific set of traditions. But then too his own originally problematic Jewish family may have deterred him from wishing to enter his own children into what was so problematic for him.
Janna Malamud- Smith does not concern herself with this issue, but this has not prevented her from making a largely sympathetic portrait of a writer who did in fact `win', and have his best work become an enduring part of the American Literary canon.