My Father Is a Book
Biographies, after all, are books, not the lives themselvesa point that Janna Malamud Smith seems to acknowledge in the title of her memoir but which she can only fitfully support. After her father’s death in 1986, Smith wrote a piece for The New York Times exploring the novelist’s “complex sense of privacy and my own.” Although Bernard Malamud enjoyed reading biographies and had written a novel, Dubin’s Lives (1979), featuring a biographer as the protagonist, he did not like to divulge the “personal sources of his fiction.” Smith noted that he “delighted in [William] Shakespeare’s relative biographical anonymity.” She seconded Joyce Carol Oates’s outcry against “pathographies,” which demean their subjects by focusing on private failings, and Smith supported Stephen Joyce, James Joyce’s grandson, in his affirmation of his family’s right to destroy his grandfather’s papers. Smith concluded that it was “most unlikely that I’d ever make the contents of my father’s early journals public.”
Determined not only to safeguard her father’s life but also to call into question the right of others to publish biographies of unwilling subjects, Smith published Private Matters (1997), which included a chapter titled “Burnt Letters, Biography, and Privacy.” She approved of the bonfire author Henry James made of his correspondence because he was defending the integrity of the self: “My whole capacity to assert a self rests on not having your definition of events continually impede or drown out mine. But also because the gratification of writing, of self-expression generally ispsychologicallyabout nothing so much as control.”
Most biographers, whatever they think of Smith’s argument, would not abandon biography, just as Leon Edel did not forsake writing a biography of Henry James. There is inevitably a conflict of interest between biographer and subject. As Smith puts it, “Real memory, real experience, and real facts give way in fiction to the psyche’s urge to redress itself by reconstructing experience. Part of what writers like James seek to protect with reticence and burnt letters is the integrity of this transformation and, with it, their power and the power of their art.”
Smith, however, also argues the contrary: “If the story ended here, artists, like heroes in old cartoons, would sweep away their tracks and escape. But even as good fiction satisfies, it often creates hunger to know more about the teller of the tale.” While biography is often thought of as incomplete (how can the biographer know everything the way a novelist does?) and fiction is regarded as complete, a world unto itself, in actuality fact and fiction, the biographer and subject, are symbiotic.
Did Smith ever believe wholeheartedly that certain private matters ought not to make their way into biography? In Private Matters she did not chastise Edel, for example, but rather approved his idea that “a certain passing of time, respectfulness on the part of the biographer, are vital elements.” Edel did not reject, on principle, the proposition that a biography could not be published in the middle of a subject’s life. In Private Matters, Smith evinces no knowledge of Samuel Johnson’s insistence that:If a life be delayed till interest and envy are at an end, we may hope for impartiality, but must expect little intelligence; for the incidents which give excellence to biography are of a volatile and evanescent kind, such as soon escape the memory, and are rarely transmitted by tradition.
At various points in My Father Is a Book, Smith’s memory fails her. At other points she is still reticent, not wishing to offend. She does not heed Johnson’s injunction that “if we owe regard to the memory of the dead, there is yet more respect to be paid to knowledge, to virtue, and to truth.”
Nevertheless, in My Father Is a Book, Smith claims to be delivering the kind of candid account she deplored in Private Matters. “How do I justify my change of heart? I’m not sure...
(The entire section is 1682 words.)