The Unfixable Father
By JON PAPERNICK
My Father is a Book
By Janna Malamud Smith
304 pages. Houghton Mifflin. $24.00
long after I moved to the Boston area from Brooklyn, where I had lived since
graduate school, married, and become a published writer, I discovered that
Bernard Malamud, one of the authors closest to my heart, was buried less than a
mile from where my wife and I rented an apartment. I joked to friends that
Malamud lived nearby, as though he and I met regularly for coffee. Of course, I
was nearly 20 years too late to meet the man himself, but I could still visit.
Understand that I'd never been one to fetishize the dead and their final
resting places. Once on a serendipitous Sunday drive through Concord,
Massachusetts, I came within sight of Author's Ridge
and the burial place of Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne, and opted to eat
lunch, rather than climb the slope to pay my respects. But Malamud was
different. His work showed me the possibilities of fiction, and the pain,
yearning, humor, and magic of his writing seeped into mine the way a hard rain
will soak deep to the roots.
I decided to visit and was surprised to discover that no great monument stood
where the writer lay; in fact, his grave was marked by a nondescript marble slab
that lay flush with the earth as if in death, he were trying to hide from the stone
angels and cherubs that dotted the verdant hills of Mount Auburn Cemetery.
There was an inscription in Hebrew that I, a committed monoglot, could not make
out. I called out to my friend, a fellow writer who had accompanied me, a Cohen
who, following his own interpretation of Judaism, would enter the cemetery but
refused to leave the path.
"What does it say?" he shouted.
"I don't know," and I called out the letters to him. And through this
comical game of broken telephone the message from one world to the next eluded
us that day.
Now, with the publication of, My Father
is a Book, a memoir by Janna Malamud Smith, the picture I was unable to
piece together the day of my grave-side visit, comes into focus through the
refracted lens of a daughter’s memory and the aid of the writer's own letters
and journals. The younger Malamud, a clinical social worker and an evocative,
sometimes moving writer in her own right, paints a complex portrait of her
relationship with her father, from his bookless childhood in Brooklyn—he was
the oldest son of Russian-Jewish immigrants fleeing the czar's pogroms—to his
first success with the publication of The Natural,
to Bennington College and its libertine ethos, to the heart troubles that wore
him down and ultimately killed him. On the surface, there is nothing unique in
Malamud's trajectory: early, overwrought, romantic journal entries; a failed,
burned novel manuscript; near pathological self-centeredness and desire to be a
renowned writer; an on-again off-again romance; marriage, children, financial
struggles; employment at a small college, publication, affairs—you know the
rest. His books are still in print to mark his success.
It is Malamud's approach to suffering that makes him singular as an American
writer, and his attempts to transform suffering into some sort of redemption are
analyzed at some length by his daughter. Her detailed commentaries on his early
letters illustrate a life of guilt, and the desire to better himself. Malamud's
father Max was a sad, defeated Brooklyn grocery clerk, and likely the model for
Morris Bober in his novel, The Assistant, as well as the
protagonist for his first published short story, "The Cost of
Malamud Smith writes about her father, "He continued to feel deeply oppressed
by the narrowness of Max's existence—the way the grocer never left the store
and his apparent lack of curiosity. He felt terrified about somehow losing—forsaking,
giving over—the lone exit visa he possessed from that fate: his hope of
becoming a major writer.”
His suicidal mother suffered from extreme mental problems and died in a psychiatric
hospital when Malamud was a boy. Similarly, his only brother endured a life of
mental illness before having a fatal heart attack.
In one of his early journal entries, Malamud writes, "I have been looking
forward to healing myself with the writing a novel,” and "I must live as I
write—or I'm sunk." In a letter to his future wife he writes, "Though
I love you and shall love you more, most of my strength will be devoted to
realizing myself as an artist," and later in a letter to a friend he
writes, "all places are places to work," or as one of his characters,
struggling writer Harry Lesser writes in The Tenants,
"Home is where my book is."
Malamud was clearly writing against the darkness, internalizing his fears and reflecting
them back to the world transformed into art. He lived a sober, almost rabbinic
life, spending hours at his writing desk each day. Living in 1950s Oregon and
later in Vermont [two solitudes nearly absent of Jews], Malamud had escaped the
fate of his parents, but could not escape his traditions. "There seemed to
have been a dybbuk inhabiting him from beyond the Pale, suggesting the phantom
endurance of disembodied familial traditions, severed during immigration but
extant in an invisible continuity with the past," writes Malamud Smith.
Once, while tucking his young daughter into bed, Malamud announced that had she
been living in Germany during World War II, the Nazis would've killed her
because she was the daughter of a Jew. Interestingly, years later he upbraided
her for not marrying a Jew.
With the publication of his masterpiece, The Fixer,
in 1966, "he must have recognized himself as a member of a particular
tribe, as one of the human creatures whom the preceding decades had spent such
great effort verminizing and eradicating.”
The process of writing The Fixer
depressed Malamud, absorbed as he was for nearly three years in almost
masochistic suffering as he breathed his creation Yakov Bok, the Job-like fixer,
to life. The Fixer won the National
Book Award and Pulitzer Prize and solidified his fame as a major American
writer. But it was a hard-won fame, and Malamud observed once, "I'll bet
none of the great ones ever labor. This comes to my thoughts because my own
labors are unending."
My Father is a Book, is illuminating
reading for those interested in learning more about Malamud and his writing
process, his family life, and his relationships both sexual and professional. Of
course, his own books are the most lasting monument to Malamud, and they live
on in the timeless pantheon of authors that he strove so hard to join.