Oregon State UniversitySpecial Collections & Archives Research Center

“My Father is a Book,” Janna Malamud Smith

November 9, 2007

Video: “My Father is a Book,” a reading from the Threepenny Review essay. 

27:12 - Abstract | Biography


Tracy Daugherty: As a friend of the Benton County Library, I’d like to welcome you to the second event of this year’s Visiting Writers Series. And if you all received a brochure, there are some in the back of the room that tells you a little about the series and how you can continue to help support the success of the series. We have a wonderful event coming up in April, “Medicine, Writing, and Humanities,” which is the first kind of this event, where we are exploring the intersection of medicine, writing, and the humanities. There will be readings and workshops so it is a very special event. You will hear more about it in the months to come, so please pick up a brochure and learn more about the series. I’d like to thank Keith Scribner, Karen Holmberg, Marjorie Sandor, Karyle Butcher, and Mary Fagan for helping to arrange tonight’s meeting.

This fall we have been celebrating the legacy of creative writing here at Oregon State University as well as celebrating individuals who are fine writers in their own writing. We are happy to continue that tonight. To the world at large, Janna Malamud Smith is a writer, psychotherapist, and the author of three acclaimed books, Private Matters, which the New York Times Book Review called “a gorgeously-written anecdotal cultural history of the emergence and the fragile sanctity of the modern creative self,” A Potent Spell: Mother Love and the Power of Fear which the Ottawa Citizen said “reads like a deep, intelligent conversation with a valued friend.” And My Father is a Book, which the novelist Mary Gordon called “a beautiful memoir, a must.”

To the literary world, Janna Malamud Smith is the daughter of the novelist and short story writer Bernard Malamud, whose work along with that of Saul Bellow, Isaac Singer, Phillip Roth, Grace Paley, and others, established not only a powerful strain of Jewish American fiction following the Second World War, but a significant body of work that reinvigorated all of American literature in the latter half of the twentieth century. And to a number of folks here in Corvallis, Janna Malamud Smith is still that little girl who grew up in a neighborhood over near the old Harding school. Her mother was active in the community and maintained life-long friendships here and helped establish a wonderful scholarship for undergraduates in the English department that has benefited numerous students for years of which we are very grateful. And her father taught composition courses over in a quonset hut on the campus of Oregon State College.

The challenge for any writer, particularly of a memoir, is to balance all of one’s selves, to know and discuss one’s selves honestly, with rigor, with passion, and with the broader perspective of individual’s place in society. Janna’s training in psychotherapy and abiding interest in the interplay between public and personal lives have served her splendidly as a writer, giving her a deep understanding of human character, human frailties, and human possibilities. And who can measure the influence of a blundering writer parent around the house? What is certain is that Janna’s love of and ear for the music of language is keen. My Father is a Book is a tender tribute to a father and a mother, to a town, to literature, and above all, to self-understanding and self-forgiveness. Janna Malamud Smith is a brave and lovely writer, and we’re delighted to welcome her back home. Janna. [3:44]

Janna Malamud Smith: ... I am glad to be here. Some of you were here this afternoon, I am glad you are back. For those of you who weren’t, just, first off, you have to promise you'll tell me if you can’t hear me. That’s the most important thing for the moment. I am going to read to you tonight from both this essay that I wrote anticipating the memoir that, for the sake of having some irony and posterity, I gave the same title as the memoir. It is called "My Father is a Book" but no part of it appears in the book. Then I am just going to read you a slight bit of the memoir section, a little bit about Corvallis. So, this is probably about 25 minutes, 30 minutes, something like that for this piece I'll read. I wrote this originally to go to a conference on Jewish identities that a friend of mine invited me to go to at Oxford. It emphasized a little bit about my father’s Jewishness which I didn’t know too much about before I wrote it, so if you get a slight cast ... I was speaking to a particular question about which I had been asked.

When I was seventeen or so, I read William Faulkner's novel As I Lay Dying, about a poor Southern family. As you might recall, the youngest boy, Vardamon, has caught a large fish the same day his mother dies, and in the density of emotion he becomes confused, merging her with the dead creature that the assembled mourners eventually cook and eat. "My mother is a fish," he observes, and then intones the expression to himself, a wacko mantra that - in the midst of the grievous chaos and staggering adult incompetence - becomes his guidepost, the queer story he tells himself.

As soon as I read the sentence, it was mine. "My father is a book." The parallel was obvious...and yet pleasing. I knew there was something more serious within, but I didn't consider exactly what it might be. And while, in the intervening thirty years, whole continents of knowledge - for example, almost every other detail of Faulkner's novel - have disappeared from my brain, this sentence stayed.

My real father, Bernard Malamud, not the book, died in 1986. One odd part of a writing parent is that they don't die in the same fashion as everyone else. Certainly there is the obvious correspondence with any lost love, the way that the grief gores and tosses you, and then you slowly recover. But unlike other people, deceased writers are dead and not-dead. The flesh rots and leaves behind the words. You read a page, and it is as if you have found some still animate piece of them broken off from the rest and in motion. It is disconcerting - at its worst lacking in propriety, like a voice of someone deceased kept too long on the answering machine; at its best providing a kind of eerie companionship. Mostly, it is what you imagined they always wanted. The inessential has evaporated; the mind's glory remains.

By which I also mean that my father was frequently uncomfortable with the messy, fleshbound reality of his life. He rather preferred himself as a book - at least sometimes. I know during his childhood he felt humiliated by the on-and-off bizarre behavior of his schizophrenic mother, Bertha Fidelman. And for that reason, among others, he was often a little formal or cautious. While he was funny and enjoyed sociability, he was rarely casual; one had a sense that he was uncertain if a spontaneous remark would show something unacceptable - or foreign, or even mad. Not only were his parents poor Jewish shtetl immigrants from Russia who misspoke American, and couldn't guide him, but his mother was insane. When I asked him, he described feeling loved by her, and yet on the street, her misdressed, lopsided carriage, hat skewed upon her head, mortified and terrified him. I imagine that her condition was part of what kindled his urgency to tell stories. He wanted to cover them both; he wanted, if you will, to create a cover story.

Dad's maternal grandfather was the chief shochet in their village. His great-grandfather may have been a rabbi, though no one is certain. And while Yiddish was the primary language spoken in the home, the transmission of religious practice was disrupted both by Bertha's illness and by Dad's father Max's adherence to a more secular, agnostic socialism. Furthermore, my grandfather's little grocery store (where they also lived) was in Flatbush, a neighborhood of Brooklyn in which Jews were a minority. Max was uncomfortable. He was a kindly man, carrying poor customers on credit. Sometimes he appeared ineffectual to his older son.

I don't know how Dad felt as a little boy about being Jewish. As he got into adolescence, he made friends in school with Jewish kids from better-off families. He spent time at their homes but did not bring them to his. When he was about fourteen, he demanded to know why he had not been bar-mitzvahed, and his father performed the ceremony for him himself. Some years later, after the Second World War, he read books about Judaism and Jewish history. [10:02]

My father disliked the label "Jewish writer." My mother recalls how, when they visited Mexico in the early 1980s, a taxi driver identified him as Jewish and he answered stiffly, "I am an American professor." I suspect that the source of his pedantic correction was not simply his resistance to being boxed, nor the immigrant son's renouncing of Old World categories, but also the reinforcing of a deeper bulwark: I am not my mother. I am a writer. I am a teacher. I am a book.

Dad was fourteen or fifteen when his mother died in a mental asylum, possibly from pneumonia, possibly suicide. His father remarried - Lisa, a woman whom Dad did not much like. Soon after, though he lived at home, he left home - first to the free City College, then for a year of graduate school at Columbia University, where he wrote his master's thesis on Thomas Hardy. Later, he worked in Washington, and moved, after World War II, to Oregon, - for a New York Jew, truly the frontier edge of the continent. When he and my mother and brother arrived there in 1949, the bread was white, the cheese a local orange cheddar, and smoked salmon meant not lox but pungent chunks of native Pacific fish. During the Oregon years, Dad occasionally returned east for visits; mostly he wrote letters. After his father died in 1952, first Lisa and then a cousin looked after Dad's one brother, Eugene, who had become psychotic- -later diagnosed as schizophrenic - while serving in the Pacific in World War II. I think I met Lisa once and Eugene twice.

While he openly claimed the identity among intimates and friends, Dad addressed his Jewishness and his past almost exclusively in his writing. I believe that my great-great-grandfather was a rabbi because I still have a note I wrote on a yellowing piece of paper one of the few times Dad and I talked about family history. On one or two occasions I asked my father specifics about his family, and learned a few names of relatives and a few stories from him. For a man who loved narrative, he was markedly silent with me about both his personal and religious past. He told us lots of stories when we were kids, but they were whimsical, funny ones about raccoons and brave knights. The little I now know about Passover or Yom Kippur I have mostly gleaned from friends. The only direct teaching I remember him giving me about being Jewish occurred when I was eight and we still lived in Oregon. One night, as he was tucking me in, we got to talking about Hitler. He used the occasion to offer what I experienced as a rather pointed lesson: "If we lived in Nazi Germany, you would likely be dead," he said. "The Nazis would kill you because you are my daughter and half Jewish." The larger Jewish patrimony he embodied and expressed was richer and less dire. My father passed on to us - in truth, both parents did, though in somewhat different terms - a humane code about how one ought to try to live: decency and an effort at honesty were two of its tenets, together with a great valuing of art and books.

Dad was a slow reader, which continually distressed him; but he read steadily. Most nights after dinner, he would sit down with a book. He underlined words or phrases and occasionally made notes in margins. He envied his Bennington College colleague, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, because Stanley could read a book a day, though - as Dad noted - the feat often required at least a fifth of bourbon. I believe it was Stanley with whom, in the mid-1960s, he had the argument about whether, forced to choose, you would save one baby or the only copy of a play by Shakespeare. It seems that any wag's first question would be, "Which play?" But Dad hung in tenaciously for the baby - and then proudly dined out on the story. What strikes me as remarkable now about their conversation is that they had it. Two things were most precious, each human life and each great work of art. If the baby won, it was by a hair's breadth. I suspect that part of Dad's delight was that Stanley gave him the opportunity to argue the side of himself he liked better. He was torn about how to divide his energies. He always supported the family by teaching. How much of the rest of his time should go to writing, how much to the people around him? [15:13]

All and all, I think any rabbi would have found deep resonances in the debate about the baby, would have recognized it for what it was - a Talmudic discourse rooted in Solomon, a Jewish moral legacy partially stripped of its context. And although my lapsed-Catholic mother, herself the child of Italian immigrants, tried to instill a bit of formal religion by briefly sending my brother and me to Unitarian Sunday school, it was books - or at least the ideas and artistry they contained - that were held with reverence, and a large part of the patrimony I inherited. In fact, although we never had any money until after The Fixer was published in 1966, when I was fourteen, from early on Dad made a point of buying me books. Every so often he would sit me down with the children's book reviews in the Sunday Times and have me circle those I wanted. His rule was that you had to read fifty pages before you decided that you didn't want to finish it. On occasion, he would time how many words my brother and I could read in a minute.

For six years or so starting in 1962, we lived in college housing in Bennington, Vermont, where Dad had his first study. He also had the hi-fi. And when he was not home, I would sit in a chair or lie on the guest bed, listening to records and staring at his floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, reading the iconic titles. Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, a two-volume biography of Dickens, groups of novels by Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Virginia Woolf. His shelves were serious. I remember that And Quiet Flows the Don and The Don Flows Home to the Sea by Mikhail Sholokhov sat at eye level. Their somber brown and black paper covers were worn, yet steadfast. Many books came into our house, but only some stayed. The rest were boxed and carried by him or my mother to college and town libraries. The ones he kept became a second family tree.

I experienced my father's study as a kind of sanctuary. I liked the quiet of it when he wasn't there, and I liked the way we talked when I would knock on the door and briefly join him. He could be curt about interruptions, yet I knew that I had privilege - and was often welcomed with a smile, especially if I came to speak about a book or idea, or a notion that amused him. At the same time, I found his book collection imposing, an iron gate that both invited and intimidated. As well as reaching toward the past, it marked something beyond - some place that I might or might not eventually enter. Books, writing, writers, became confused; all were magnified.

At the same time, I feared my mind would always be in the thrall of their and his authority. In my mid-twenties, I wrote a poem about Ariel's feelings at the moment in The Tempest when Prospero sets him free. In my version, Ariel is uncertain, aware that liberation entails loss. The poem ends, "Without him, I am the playwright's fantasies untethered from the pen, bounding too fast for human eyes to see. No servitude, no art. No way to enter time." My parents had taken us to see The Tempest at the Shakespearean Festival in Ashland, Oregon when I was seven. It made a big impression. On the most personal level, it became a story about the ambivalence of being held in or released not only from the spell of a father's love but, in a broader sense, from the overwhelming larger-than-life quality of his unattainable talent, his standards about art: how good something had to be before you could like it and, indirectly, how good you had to be at something before you had permission to esteem yourself a bit as its producer...even as its admirer.

Just out of college, I taught in a summer school program at Phillips Academy, Andover. I was assisting a senior teacher in a course called "Growing Up In America." We had the teenage students read a three-page short story published in The Atlantic Monthly called "The Day No Pigs Would Die." About a father who could not bring himself to force the slaughter of a pig his son had raised, the tale moved me. In fact, I loved it, and I brought it home. My first teaching experience had been exhilarating; I felt I had something to offer. One morning I gave Dad the story to read, and then asked him about it later over lunch. "Second-rate," he announced with quiet irritation. "Let me show you how it ought to be done." He got up from the table, disappeared into his study, and returned a few minutes later with a copy of Jude the Obscure. He opened up to the scene in which Jude's wife, Arabella, sets him to butchering their pig, and where he fails to do it correctly - so the blood can drain slowly - because he can't stand to see the creature suffer. Dad read the page aloud. "This," he announced, "is how a first-rate artist talks about killing a pig." [20:59]

When, in the process of writing this piece, I returned after twenty-five years to that page in Jude the Obscure, I found I had remembered it exactly. His pedagogy was effective. In truth, I am still almost incapable of knowingly reading a bad book. You can imagine how foolhardy, almost kamikaze-esque I felt as I gradually realized how much I wanted to write. Flying out of a blinding sun, I would surely augur in and self-destruct...upon a pig.

Needless to say, at the time I felt put down - and, in fact, spent much of my twenties trying to use the anger from such exchanges to free myself from the knotted golden rope of his overbearing influence. But the question that interests me now is why he felt the need to teach that lesson at that moment. When I recall the scene, I include my husband, then my new boyfriend, in it. Certainly, a rival male presence might explain the outburst - on one level a kind of simian chest-thump asserting dominance. But David, whose recall tends to be keen on these matters, does not remember such a lunch. So there must have been other forces at play. Perhaps I disappointed him. How could his almost grown daughter in whom he had invested so much not be able to distinguish sentimentality from high art? Maybe he took it as an insult, felt that his own labor and sacrifice were being slighted. How could someone he loved reveal that she missed the whole point of his life? Or perhaps he simply felt bad about the page he had written that morning, and I was handy.

Yet there is another dimension to the exchange. At the time, I experienced his comments as ruthless, at least in miniature. By which I mean that at that moment he was completely indifferent to any feelings but his own; he didn't care if he humiliated. And, more than coincidentally, it is Jude's inadequate ruthlessness - as manifest when he ineptly knifes the pig - that symbolically muddles his chance to realize himself, and renders him obscure. As with the quandary between the Shakespeare play and the baby, I think Dad struggled mightily with this dilemma of ruthlessness. How much should you allow yourself to pain, or harm, or simply not take care of the people around you in the service of art-making? Jude's cry to Arabella, "have a little pity on the creature," could have been my father's central moral tenet. In truth, it comes as close as possible, for a one- line summary, to capturing the moral essence of how he tried to live - and to raise me, day in and day out. At the same time, he had mostly left family and Brooklyn behind in order to write.

Once, when I was twelve or so, we were visiting New York City. Dad was to give a reading. With time on our hands, we went to grab dinner at a small diner. Eating nearby was an older woman - layered in filthy clothes, muttering over her plate of fried eggs, clearly poor and crazy. When we went to pay our check, Dad asked to pay for the woman's meal, too. He caused a bit of a scene. I think the cook was insulted. I suspect the ill diner was a regular whom they looked after themselves and they thought the stranger was intruding. I felt embarrassed, convinced at the time that he had made the gesture for my benefit - another lesson. Retrospectively, I don't know. Certainly adolescents are too quick to jump to such conclusions. But the question captures the slight paranoia that his growing fame brought into our relationship. What was still genuine, and simply between us? After one day when he read me excerpts from F. Scott Fitzgerald's letters to his daughter Scottie, I started experiencing his occasional missives to me differently. I became suspicious that they were written with an eye on posterity - seemingly private, but really for a larger audience. Who knows. It has taken me way too long to grow up enough to see him with fair perspective; and in truth, though I was thirty-four when he died, it was still a work in progress. [End 25:46]

My father's cremated remains are buried in the arboretum-like Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, not far from where I live. Every year or so, I drop by. His stone lies flat on the grass under an old tree overlooking a small pond. When I was struggling very hard to write my first book, oppressed by the weight of his ghost, I visited and sat next to the grave. "Did you talk to him?" a friend asked later. I hemmed and hawed. The question seemed quite personal. She repeated it. "Did you talk to him?"

"Yeah," I grudgingly acknowledged.

"Well, what did you say?" she pushed.

I paused, and then confessed. "I told him...I told him to drop dead!"

We both laughed hard. Several years later I returned for another visit. I had finished one book and was onto a second. Not intending anything, I found myself teary. I touched his stone, on which I had already placed a lilac.

"Thank you," I said. [27:00]


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