Readers of Bookreporter.com share a commonality that comes from the
love of books and the joy of reading. All of us can recall the
books and authors that influenced our lives. Those works may still
reside on our shelves to be taken down occasionally and read again
in the same fashion that a photo album is reexamined to reawaken
joyous memories. For me, Bernard Malamud is such an author. The
passage of years has dulled my memory of my first Malamud novel. I
honestly cannot recall if it was THE NATURAL or THE ASSISTANT. In
either respect, one quickly followed the other and they in turn
were succeeded by THE FIXER and A NEW LIFE. Subsequent years
brought short stories and more novels, some disappointing but all
eagerly anticipated. Through it all, Malamud was to me a revered
writer who I considered to be one of the finest of his generation
of American novelists.
It was with great anticipation therefore that I obtained my copy of
MY FATHER IS A BOOK: A Memoir of Bernard Malamud, by Janna Malamud
Smith. To understand the author is to understand his writing, and
who better to provide that insight than Malamud's daughter. That
the daughter would undertake a reminiscence of her father
represented a substantial change in philosophy. Smith previously
had disdained and discouraged biographical studies of her father.
It has been twenty years since Malamud's death, and his daughter
recognized that in our society of instant gratification fame is
short-lived. The passage of years had diminished the reputation of
a man who along with Saul Bellow and Phillip Roth was considered
one of the country's great post-World War II Jewish-American
authors. Now is therefore an appropriate time to rekindle memories
of this outstanding author.
Malamud's first published novel evoked nothing of his religious
heritage. THE NATURAL was a melancholy baseball novel that combined
episodes of baseball mythology into a haunting work. The
Brooklyn-born Malamud apparently loved the game and read many
baseball biographies as research for his novel. It was published in
the same year his daughter Janna was born. By that time Malamud had
moved to Oregon and was teaching. His subsequent novels would rely
more upon personal experience and beliefs than did THE NATURAL.
Sadly for his devotees, Smith can offer little insight into the
author's thoughts about his novels and his characters. Malamud's
diaries and letters contain very little literary discussion of his
Malamud's father operated a grocery store in New York. That
experience provided much of the background for THE ASSISTANT. His
Pulitzer Prize-winning novel THE FIXER required Malamud, a
non-observant Jew, to confront the evils of anti-Semitism. S.
Levin, the English professor in A NEW LIFE, mirrored many of
Malamud's experiences in his first college teaching position. In
each instance the reader gains small insights into the life of a
novelist who wanted to be and ultimately became recognized as a
literary artist. Malamud wrote with an ethical vision shaped in
many respects by personal experience and the interaction of his
life with family and friends.
MY FATHER IS A BOOK is not a literary study of Malamud's works.
Rather, it is a view from the inside of a great writer and
complicated man. Great writers absorb all that is their life and
somehow use those experiences as the building blocks for great
works of literature. Those readers who remember with fondness the
extraordinary writing of Bernard Malamud will find this poignant
and loving reminiscence to be a worthy addition to their Malamud
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on January 12, 2011