Peering Into the Magic Barrel
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
Children’s memoirs about their famous literary parents are often perilous ventures. Some memoirs descend into scathing tirades about the ways that the writing life made for absent parents and the psychological imbalance such parents bequeathed to their children. In such memoirs, literary parents turn out to be inattentive and selfish ogres, and the child writes as an act of vengeance, settling the score with the now-dead parent. Other memoirs border on hagiography, with children admiring literary parents who managed to dote on their child in spite of the tortures and the deprivations of the writing life.
Bernard Malamud’s daughter, Janna, manages to avoid both extremes and offer us an affectionate yet honest portrait of one of our most beloved and brilliant novelists in My Father is a Book: A Memoir of Bernard Malamud (Houghton Mifflin; $24). With grace and clarity, she provides glimpses of Malamud’s shortcomings as a father and husband, his tenacity at the writing life and his loyalty to his family and friends.
In the twenty years since his death, no one has written a biography of the author of such prize-winning novels as The Natural and The Assistant. For years, Malamud Smith refused to write a memoir or allow a biography of Malamud because she wanted to protect her father’s privacy. “My initial reaction to having any of his intimate letters and journals made public was intense and negative.” As the years passed and she read his journals once again, she realized that she no longer needed to protect her father’s intimate life from the eyes of the world. In addition, Malamud Smith recognized that her “own witness had become one of the few remaining membranes holding the boundary between life and void.”
We can be grateful she changed her mind, for Malamud Smith brilliantly provides us with a miniature literary biography of her father as well as a memoir of her experience growing up as the child of a writer.
Drawing on Malamud’s early journals and his letters as well as on his novels, Malamud’s daughter vividly recreates the anxieties and hopes of a young Jewish boy whose immigrant father struggled to eke out a living in a small Brooklyn grocery store. Malamud’s mentally ill mother once tried to commit suicide by drinking drain cleaner; the boy discovered her foaming at the mouth when he returned from school one day, that moment forever etched in his memory and in his fear of death and loneliness. Malamud Smith points out that her “father’s writing was partly a gesture of repair, grounded in the hope that he might someday redeem his family, or, if not, at least be able to forgive them and himself.”
Malamud Smith and her novelist father shared a loving attachment that continued throughout her life. Although Malamud cherished his privacy and didn’t tolerate interruptions to his study, he frequently allowed his young daughter to join him while he was reading. Sitting on the couch next to him, she “learned the names of writers long before they had any particular meaning.” As she found comfort in these moments, her “father found singular balm in my little girl love and idealization of him.”
When she was sixteen, her father began an affair with an undergraduate at Bennington College where he was teaching. Suddenly the balm and idealization of the early years devolves into a sense of abandonment. “My father’s passion to someone so close to my age enacted a kind of quasi-incestuous symmetry, which raised bad feelings within me . . .. With a child’s presumptuous vanity, much encouraged by him, I had assumed myself adequate as the beloved alternative. So I felt quite particularly replaced.”
Malamud’s affair might rent the fabric of their relationship, but it never destroys it. Malamud Smith remains loyal and loving to her father, especially after the heart surgery and stroke that nearly killed him in 1982. Even so, as she re-reads Dubin’s Lives (1979), which contains the story of an older writer’s affair with a young girl, Malamud Smith feels again a “vague nausea” and observes the difficulty of reading a parent’s fiction. It “is rarely simply a literary experiment; it is, or can be, much more bizarre. The characters often share intimate traits but then go off on their own . . . The underlying themes possess an uncanny, sometimes creepy familiarity: they are the spooks of the familial unspoken returning to haunt.”
In the end, however, My Father is a Book offers an intimate glimpse of her father: “He liked to comfort, make peace, offer wisdom, teach, advise . . . He was funny and ironic, possessing a particularly Jewish wit.” Malamud Smith’s elegant memoir captures the life of a writer who, along with Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, provided brilliantly evocative insights into the experience of Jews in America in the early and mid-twentieth century.
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as publisher of T&T Clark and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at