Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

My Father Is a Book: A Memoir of Bernard Malamud

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

My Father Is a Book: A Memoir of Bernard Malamud

Article excerpt

Janna Malamud Smith. My Father is a Book: A Memoir of Bernard Mahmud. Boston: Houghton, 2006. 292+xi pp. $24.00/$ 14.95.

Janna Malamud Smith's new book-length memoir of her father, Bernard Malamud, is first and foremost an acknowledgement of her family history, which for nearly thirty years was, in the Freudian or post-Freudian sense, "unspeakable." Insightful, ambivalent, analytic, and, in moments, poignant - the author ironically provides snapshots of herself as a complex daughter attempting to son out the recollections and feelings about her equally complex father. If she offers the reader unexpected revelations about Bernard Malamud long after his death, it is the result of a gradual shift in her reflections about the condition of privacy both from the vantage points of daughter and practicing psychotherapist. In order to understand the motivations underlying Smith's new and provocative book, we need to take into account her growth as a woman and a writer over the last three decades.

When Smith made herself known to the readership of The New York Times Book Review in her 1989 article, "Where Does an Author's Family Draw the Line," she was still recovering from the loss of a father to whom she was deeply attached and with whom she had a special relationship, confidences she shares with her readers in her subsequent writing. Under the tutelage of this often demanding father and respected author, Smith's vocational interests reveal that she was, humanistically speaking, very much her father's daughter. Like Bernard Malamud, she was influenced by her readings in Freud, as her eight citations of Freud in her bibliography to her first book, Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life (1997), would suggest. Indeed, upon graduation from college, her father gave her a complete set of Freud as she had requested, and her subsequent writing would eventually reflect in their own way her father's concern with the defense of the human.

In Private Matters, Smith attempted to provide an overview of the changes that had taken place in the "cultural, psychological, sexual, historical, intellectual, and emotional dimensions of privacy and private life" (12), but clearly it went beyond its intended purpose and also became an exercise in self-therapy. Her second book, A Potent Spell: Mother Love and the Power of Fear (2003), challenges the "cultural authorities" that have inspired guilt and fear in women when they deviate from the socially prescribed roles for motherhood and child rearing. In her vocation as a psychotherapist, for years serving the needs of her clients living at the edge of poverty in a multi-ethnic housing project, she put into practice her father's humanistic concerns. In this respect, she reminds us of her father's empathetic treatment of his imaginatively conceived Jews, Italians, and blacks in his first collection of stories The Magic Barrel. Smith was also an aspiring writer, and given her vocation, it follows that her mode of writing would be the psychological, sociological, and feminist narrative. However, feelings of anger also coexisted with her warmer sentiments but remained largely repressed until she permitted herself to write about him in two memoirs three decades later. By 2001 she apparently felt secure enough to lift the protective veil from her father's image in order to present what was then a paper called "My Father Is a Book" for the "Panel on Patrimonies, Jewish Identities and American Writing Conference" held at Oxford University. Subsequently, it was published in The Threepenny Review in 2003 and later reprinted in The Best American Essays 2004. The reappearance of her essay in this prestigious collection may have led Smith to think about it as the basis for her recent book-length memoir.

In her 1989 article in the New York Times Book Review, Smith in retrospect appears as a protective and loving daughter who, appointed as the family spokesperson, was obliged to address the disposition of her father's letters and personal papers three years after his death as potential biographers came knocking at the door. …

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