Candid yet sensitive, this memoir by clinical social worker Smith (A Potent Spell, 2003, etc.) exquisitely captures “the particular psychic pleasure and confusion” of being the daughter of novelist/short-story writer Bernard Malamud.
Amusing, hardworking and decent, Malamud (1914–86) was also burdened by early poverty and an unhappy childhood. His father, an unsuccessful Brooklyn grocer, was the model for long-suffering Morris Bober in The Assistant; mental illness plagued both his mother and brother. While summoning all his ability and strength for writing, Malamud expected similar devotion to his needs from wife Ann and their two children. Smith rejoiced in her father’s presence as a girl, but as an adolescent and adult, she “found his need for me oppressive, felt angry at his oversize, insistent presence.” Complicating matters was Malamud’s midlife affair with one of his Bennington College students, which sparked retaliatory flings by Ann and Janna (the latter, fittingly, with a married high-school teacher roughly her father’s age). The novelist’s daughter also silently seethed over the peculiar ways incidents in her life served as fodder for his late-career novel, Dubin’s Lives. Nevertheless, the portrait here reveals mutual affection and commitment that, while strained, never broke. Smith’s recollections of her father’s contemporaries—Lillian Hellman, Howard Nemerov, Philip Roth, C.P. Snow and Shirley Jackson—are consistently trenchant. Even more memorable are passages from Malamud’s own journals and letters, which sometimes unfold in a wry and chatty voice but more often are ruminative. (On his parents’ influence, he writes, “I think I translated their endurance into my discipline.”) Above all, Smith enhances our understanding of how the larger themes of Malamud’s fiction mirror his concern with imperfect people balancing moral responsibility against the desire to transcend pitiless circumstance.
The author amply demonstrates that she has inherited her father’s unblinking moral scrutiny and sympathy for the yearning heart.