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 memoir. 

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24:57 - Abstract | Biography


Janna Malamud Smith:I'd like to read you a little bit from the memoir itself. It touches a bit on Corvallis. For those who haven’t read it, there’s a chapter on Corvallis in it. We were talking a little tonight at dinner. It’s a conversation I frequently have with people about how anything that mirrors back to something that you know personally is always a little askew in your own perspective of it. Sometimes it gets it a little right, sometimes it gets it very wrong. So you can read the chapter and decide for yourself how close I was on 1950s Oregon. I’m starting at the midpoint. I will just read a little section for you. I think it’ll make sense. [00:53]

My father's urgency to realize his talent led us to move often. I count nine houses plus one apartment in two countries and three states that we occupied before I left for college at seventeen. But the small white cape with the dark green door at 445 North Thirty-first Street in Corvallis was, for me, the family home - the soil into which I set my taproot, the inner lining of my mind. The smell of the laurel shrub on a rainy day; the intimacy of tiny, white, bee-ridden clover flowering throughout the grass; the way the water puddled and rushed drowned earthworms into the street gutter after a rain; the raw walnuts and acorns scattered or mashed onto the sidewalk; myself in pajamas in the early morning balancing on first my mother's, then my father's blanket-covered knees, and giggling as they collapsed them suddenly and I tumbled off. These impressions get overlaid or joined, but never replaced. And, of course, their disproportionate significance to me is me. When the wind blew from nearby Albany, the air would arrive loaded down with the paper mill's cloyingly sweet sulfuric stink. But more often it was perfumed with thick spring grass, flowering shrubs, rain-wet sidewalks, cedar sawdust, and, in early summer, the scent of rosebushes blooming in almost every yard. Needless to say, there were bad times: family tensions; a knee bloody, full of gravel, after a bike skid; a panicked ten minutes locked by bigger kids in the college sheep barns; tales of a neighbor girl's huge, overall-wearing father whacking her with the broad side of a knife.

Yet, after all these years, the word Corvallis still gives off a particular radiance, lives singularly for me much the way the ancient Greeks declared Delphi to be the world's omphalos, or "navel." If you think simply about each person's first impressions, his or her earliest memories of the physical world, as a measure of what American immigration and mobility have meant, you would have to imagine my father's parents carrying the primary landscapes of a different Russian Jewish shtetl outside Kamyanets-Podilskyy, while my mother's parents' minds would presumably have been built around Naples and its bay, and the densely populated Mediterranean city's deteriorated Baroque beauty. My father would recall Brooklyn - small apartments above the family groceries, his streets and neighborhoods, the seasonal changes of urban trees that he notes in his journals. My mother, who grew up in the still half-rural New Rochelle, recorded her Italian grandfather's devotion to his flower gardens, her grandmother's elaborate cooking, herself, an only child, dressed up by her mother or grandmother and proudly paraded before guests.

What did my father hear as a young boy about his parents' Ukrainian Jewish lives? Had they each left behind villages of kin, generations of local graves? To know so little has shifted from indifference to hardened emptiness, thanks to the quick, brittle edge made by letting myself wonder. After the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl, I put aside thoughts of visiting the area from which the Malamuds and Fidelmans came, for I believed, misconstruing geography slightly, that its soil had become radioactive - as if pogroms, Nazis, and Stalin hadn't burned it enough. Meanwhile, one day some years back, I tried on a dress in a shop in Naples and suddenly realized that it fit me as no American clothing ever had. The knowledge unsettled me, made me feel as if I belonged somewhere, that my body inscribed me as part of a tribe. The Italian tribe, the Russian Jewish tribe, who could say? This possibility in turn raised the question of whether I might ever have felt deeply at home, native in my body, community, religion, or land. For better or worse, and in common with so many Americans, it is simply not a feeling that I know. Meanwhile, self-appointed ethnologists usually tag me as a New York Jew. I've never lived anywhere near the city and remain largely clueless about Jewish ritual, but they have a point. [5:28]

My father's yearnings were different: he didn't like where he seemed to belong; he grew up hoping he could move into the new nation, away from his airless immigrant home, his family and cultural past. As much as anything, Corvallis showed him the limits of that fantasy, gave more information to him about who he wasn't, and with it greater voltage and definition for his fictions. Oregon, together with his marriage to a Gentile, revealed him to himself as more of a Jew than he'd previously grasped, or at least had to think about. The bland, friendly, Protestant place made him miss the combative, critical, Greenwich Village intellectual life, the arts scene, the political meetings, the private exchanges that by the next month would become public broadsides in Commentary and Partisan Review. When I attempt to encapsulate the meaning to his art of his encounter with the American West, I get an image of the Chagall murals in the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. My father's sensibility has a kinship with Chagall's. Like the painter born a generation earlier, the writer also, at a greater remove, carried tales of the shtetl, had familiarity with Yiddish folk literature, found freedom in fables, and could capture in a short story a seemingly naive moral complexity in which studiedly simple words evoked deep feeling. Dad never particularly talked about or sought out Chagall's work - the comparison is mine - and much of his best writing is fine exactly because it is not lyrical, folkish, or otherworldly. Nevertheless, I choose the analogy here as metaphor to give a snapshot of a Russian Jewish American man who arrived in a small western town where, against its particular backdrop, he viewed himself anew.

Then, too, there was the historic moment. After World War II and the discoveries of its genocides, American Jews became creatures of interest. They were neither exactly exotic nor yet fully embraced and integrated. But rather than simply despised, they unexpectedly found themselves to be the recipients of both guilt and sympathy, subjects of significant curiosity. Seizing the day, they elbowed their way into the postwar world. My father, Saul Bellow, Alfred Kazin, Clement Greenberg, Lionel Trilling, and Irving Howe, to name a handful among many, were original, opinionated men born at the right time. Coming back to Corvallis from Italy in 1957, when I was five, we stopped in New York and went one day - perhaps to Long Island - for lunch with the Trillings. I imagine Dad, receiving the invitation, felt anointed. There was an apple tree outside the house, and their son, James, Paul, and I got into an apple fight. I winged one that struck young Trilling's back, and he turned and shot another hard into my eye, breaking my glasses on its way. It hurt sharply at the time but years later became a source of amusement; I'd privately summon the moment when strangers expressed envy about my childhood witness of the literary life.

Dad liked himself as father to a young family. Spring and summer evenings, he would occasionally go with us to the school playground across the street from our house and toss a baseball for my brother to bat, then for me. My mother did the lion's share of kid duty, but Dad would show up at significant performances. He might play checkers and gin rummy with us if we were ill or persuasively bored. When I was six or seven, my mother surprised me with a perfect, blue, twenty-inch English bicycle. For the next several days after work, Dad held the tan leather bicycle seat and walked, then ran, beside me as I learned to ride. I remember family Sunday afternoons at Kiger Island, a tiny pebbly beach on the then filthy Willamette River, my father showing us how to skip stones, teaching my brother how to row a boat on nearby Colorado Lake. On Friday or Saturday nights in the winter, the whole family would watch the Oregon State Beavers play basketball in the big college gymnasium. I'd gather with the other girls at the locker room entrance, autograph book in hand, yipping to the team "stars" for their signatures. Dad often found the games exciting and enjoyed being a shouting member of the local crowd. I can see him in our living room, kneeling, ear against the brown Zenith radio, agitated, muttering encouragement, intently following Sugar Ray Robinson's middleweight title boxing match. [10:20]

My father's biggest Oregon domestic coup was buying our house. My mother, more familiar with homes and real estate from her family, urged him on. He paid $12,750 in 1955 or 1956. However much more he would later make, I'm not sure anything rivaled the distance the purchase signified he'd traveled from a young man who could not afford slippers to one who owned a place on the block. A year or two after I was born, he bought a used car, a pale green Plymouth. When I was maybe three years old, he taught my mother to drive it. He'd take us all over to a paved lot in the tiny next town, Philomath, where the motor vehicle registry ran its driving tests, and arrange orange cones so she could practice parallel parking. In 1959 he purchased a small black-and-white television, in 1960 a hi-fi and a set of 33s of Pablo Casals playing Bach cello suites.

On some level, my father was deeply amused by what Oregon asked of him, and in many ways the labors grounded him. He dutifully pushed the heavy, wooden-handled lawn mower across our small front lawn. On autumn weekends, he would rake and then, in the gutter, take a match to the gathered leaves. Our small corner house lot had six trees, including a pear tree that ripened more sweet, yellow Bartletts than we could pick. I recall a family friend, John Haislip, a poet, on a ladder, helping my mother and grandmother harvest them one late-summer afternoon. My father sometimes picked a few himself, or carried in fallen ones to ripen on the kitchen windowsill. The walnut tree, on the north side of the house, each autumn dropped a crop we gathered up. Dad would spread them on old window screens and dry them over our furnace in the basement. Sometimes the project usurped the Ping-Pong table. In adulthood, Ping-Pong was the closest he came to sport. He taught the game to my brother and me and would play with us some evenings after dinner.

Our living room bookcase of stacked bricks and boards was his effort. He also had painted several rooms. But mostly he lacked time and interest to work on the house or fixing things. Once when they got together at their friends the Erlichs' home in Seattle, or maybe later back east, he and Victor Erlich and Alex Inkeles formed a club called the League of Lopsided Men. They claimed ignorance of all home repairs: not one of them, it was said, could mount a can opener on a door frame - though I think they may have manfully exaggerated their ineptitude. [13:05]

I'd welcome any questions or comments or memories or disagreements or impertinences?

[Audience Question] The question was would I come back to places I’ve lived since there’s been so many of them and do I like to knock on the door and go back and see what they are like. Now I have only actually done that only once in my lifetime. I did it the last time I was here. I went back to 425 North 31st Street and I knocked and some very kind man let me in with a friend who I was with. He looked a little taken aback from my request and we explained that we wanted to see the house. He let us see the downstairs of the house and I was very grateful to see it. I walked out on the street and started weeping without knowing why. So you do those things advisedly. What's that wonderful line of Faulkner's? "The past isn't over, it isn't even past?" We manage to forget that a lot until you go back someplace and all of a sudden, the past catches you. [14:41]

[Audience Question] The question was about A New Life and what my father’s thoughts were later in life about not so much about the book but about Oregon. I think he and my mother were both incredibly very fond of the people they came to know here. And I think that my father was well aware of how much it meant to him creatively to have the privacy of being a writer away from New York City writing about New York City. We talked a little bit about it this afternoon. I think he reacted with the insecurity of a young person coming to a place that didn’t immediately appreciate him and he had not immediately appreciated back. I think he had a caustic sense of humor and I think there were also some truly legitimate things... So there was his bad and there was the college's bad, and it made a novel. [16:02]

[Audience Question] The speaker is pointing out that A New Life is as much about McCarthyism and about a kind of sordid era in American history, one that was politically so narrow. I think that’s true. I also think that fiction writers go to their graves swearing to you, "it’s all fiction," and they have to. So you always take them with a grain of salt. In fact, I’m sure somebody back there are fiction writers and you can do this better than I can. I think what’s so important that a fiction writer must have a scrim, have a curtain, that shields them and gives them adequate privacy to say the incredibly intimate things that the rest of us probably won’t say publicly. You have to claim fiction even when it’s not. And you also have to, in fact, be able to keep transcending the fact over and over again in order to keep manipulating the fact and distorting the fact. That whole question of what’s fact and what’s fiction is ultimately the wrong question. It’s what we all ask, and I ask it all the time, particularly of my father's work. But it’s the wrong question. Maybe because it’s like asking if a centaur is a horse or man. [18:24]

[Audience Question] I think, as was pointed out, certainly in A New Life, it was reflected. Also, what you're making me think about is, the first screenwriter, he just died, I'm not going to be able to pull out his name, but maybe you can, who wrote the first draft of "The Fixer" movie, had just been blacklisted by McCarthy, so it circled back. But remember, my father didn’t start publishing until his first novel in 1952. So the Army hearings were in 1954? But basically, the major part of his work was after McCarthy. So it wasn’t so much about him, I think it was about slightly older writers of that moment. But I’m sure that anybody in America at that point in the literary world had a piece of that. Now, I have to tell you a completely paradoxical story about that. I had a very interesting friend who was a Polish communist who had survived the Warsaw ghetto and come to America and he was a very big communist. And one day after the Yale archives was opened up at the end of the Soviet Union, she looked at me and she was kind of pale and she said, “You know, McCarthy had a point.” This from a communist, okay? Even though he overstated it, the left wing had phenomenally understated the degree of which the Russian Soviet world was involved in the American Communist party. And so, giving the devil his due, I just want to end that piece with history. What goes around comes around in certain ways, however. [End 20:47]

[Story relayed by audience member] Probably the back lost the whole story, but it was about...you got it, you heard it? Thank you.

[Audience Question] Yes, actually that came up this afternoon, and I am quite certain that he was aware of that sign.

[Audience Question] How do I use my knowledge of the literary world in psychotherapy? It's really interesting. If you go back and read Freud now, what you’re really reading is very good literature. You’re not reading science but you’re reading very fine writing, even in the...translation, which is a mixed-bag. And the best psychotherapy and the best literature have exactly the same realms of nuance, of subtlety, of ambivalence, of tragedy, of life as it is in a more redolent glory than in a way it is often conveyed in everyday language. One of the things I think one tries to do as a psychotherapist is to make a space in which people can take the time to find the words to say it. It is not unlike a writer does, so I find the roles very compatible. The only incompatible part is their's is supposed to be anonymous and that has become problematic for me a little bit when patients read my books before they get a chance to know me so that they sort of know more about me than is considered kosher [...]

Thank you very much for having me. [24:40]


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