Janet Malcolm finally reveals herself


Janet Malcolm finally reveals herself

LOUIS GAIGHER writes about the legacy of a remarkable journalist and record keeper.

JANET Malcolm handled photography and design columns for The New Yorker (and sometimes for The New York Review of Books) for nearly sixty years. She did court reporting and wrote long-form journalism about psychoanalysis and the arts. But she viewed the genres she practised and her work's theoretical-philosophical basis critically and with an ironic distance. She is explicitly present in her work, but the “I" remains elusive and intensely aware of splintering subjectivity and Freud's theory of transmission. This makes the recent appearance, a year-and-a-half after her death, of a book that resembles an autobiography, Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory, all the more surprising and gratifying.

The Journalist and the Murderer (published as a book in 1990) is Malcolm's best-known work, and the declamatory opening (“Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows what he does is morally indefensible") her most quoted sentence.

It is the true story of a convicted family murderer who was able to convince a jury that he was a victim of a journalist's manipulative intervention. It shows the inherent immorality of journalism and the flip side of the relationship: the journalistic subject who should be silent thinks the journalist is going to serve up his version of events and tries to persuade the journalist to keep listening.

Voyeuristic and curious

According to Malcolm's masterful The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes (1993), the biographer, too, is, a voyeuristic plunderer. Readers take issue with the literary value of biographies because, like journalists, biographers go through the trash and try to peer through keyholes.

In the fierce, polarised battle over how Sylvia Plath is remembered, and her literary legacy — which includes Ted Hughes and deep-seated beliefs about his complicity in her suicide — Malcolm finds herself, as a literary biographer, in front of Hughes' house, in the dingy apartment of Plath's insufferable former neighbour who still has has an axe to grind with her over bad neighbourliness, and having a cup of tea with Jacqueline Rose, about whom she pitifully remarks: “That she was an adept of a theory of criticism whose highest values are uncertainty, anxiety, and ambiguity was a curious but somehow unameliorating facet of her formidable clarity, confidence and certainty.”

Ironically, Malcolm leans towards the camp of Ted Hughes' sister, Olwyn, the fierce guardian of Hughes and Plath's literary legacies and the watchdog of Hughes' privacy. She who gives everyone the cold treatment, but especially Jacqueline Rose, and also tries to determine the narrative.

An essay from 2010 is called ‘Thoughts on autobiography from an abandoned autobiography’. It was forsaken because her attempts to present her younger self as interesting are pitiful. “My journalist habits have inhibited my self love," she writes.

Escape from Prague

By switching mediums and harnessing her love of “horsing around," she sidesteps these dangers in Still Pictures, a collection of autobiographical sketches about Malcolm's youth and origins, with seemingly disposable photographs as starting points (like “flickering dreams as we awaken").

As a photographer and collage artist with a flair for coherence of word and image, stasis and movement, she starts out with a photograph of a little girl in a polka-dot swimsuit next to an Ingres portrait of a stately, visibly formidable sixty-year-old. They share a posture.

The little girl is Malcolm when she was still called Jana Wienerová and the photo was taken a few years before she, her younger sister, Marie, and their parents moved to New York from Prague in 1939. (In typically unemotional vein, she notes that they were able to escape by “sheer dumb luck, as a few random insects escape a poison spray".)

Malcolm's features are clearly recognisable, yet she writes:

I don’t think of the child as me. No feeling of identification stirs as I look at her round face and thin arms and her incongruously assertive pose.

Michael Cap insightfully notes that Malcolm's most distinctive material is about “the fight between members of a tightly linked group for control of the narrative that binds them, a fight between people who have come to know each other too well". An example is the highly entertaining In the Freud Archives (published as a book in 1984) about litigious parvenu Jeffrey Masson (with whom Malcolm was embroiled in a lawsuit for a decade, about which she also writes in Still Pictures) who enraged Freud's followers by rejecting the psychoanalyst's theory of seduction. Also telling is Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (2007), about the relationship between Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas.

What does Malcolm make of the family saga in Still Pictures, material that clearly lends itself to this approach? Malcolm's childhood was happy in a middle-class, middle-of-the-road American way. To the overquoted Anna Karenina saying that all happy families are the same, she adds epigrammatically, “… in the illusion of superiority their children touchingly harbour” and later, with some self-reproach, “… in the pain their members helplessly inflict upon one another, as if under orders from a perverse higher authority”.


The Winns, as they were then called, spoke Czech only at home in order to assimilate, and the children attend a Lutheran Sunday school. They were informed of their Jewish origins only when a child proudly repeated an anti-Semitic statement at home. In fact, their assimilation was so successful that photos of them were distributed “thrillingly, behind enemy lines" as part of a propaganda campaign to show American tolerance for refugees.

The photo Malcolm chooses for this book is an “exciting Arbus-like picture" of her and her “grotesque" meek teacher, known only as Miss (Slečna). The young self as hard-nosed know-it-all doesn't evade Malcolm's gaze: “We were too young to be kind in return to someone so weak and (clinching our hard-heartedness) so unattractive."

Malcolm struggles to write about her mother, Hannah, whose charm restrains her daughter. As for Malcolm's father, Joseph (later Joseph A), she refuses to use her usual narrative strategy of lending vitality to his biography with a storyline of conflict, blame, resentment and self-justification: “‘Who asked you to tarnish my image with your little hurts?’ the dead person might reasonably ask.” She suffices with collage-like “lovely, plotless memories” and a pinch of regret: “He liked to pick and identify certain small, frail, white wildflowers that it never occurred to me to notice, and that he never forced on my attention.”

A more unsettling cloud descends when she notices that he, a psychiatrist, applied shock therapy in his office in their apartment and that Hannah was his assistant, as was customary at the time.

In the few pieces about her adult life, Malcolm alternates directness and reticence, a technique she often uses in her work. In “The Apartment", she introduces a narrative with a photo (broad smiles) of her and Garner Botsford, her editor at The New Yorker and later her husband. She writes about plates with green floral designs that go against her modernist aesthetic. She acquired these plates for the apartment where they had their affair: “The-turgid-American-cheating-on-your-spouse-and-feeling-awful-about-it kind of thing." Furthermore, she openly recounts an erotic experience of Botsford, or “G", with a Parisian, far removed from puritanical America.

But what about the green plates? What do they signify to her and why does she think about them?

I know the answer, but — like a balky child — I find myself reluctant to give it. I would rather flunk a writing test than expose the pathetic secrets of my heart. The prerogative of cowardly withholding is precious to the most apparently self-revealing of writers. I apologetically exercise it here.

We will never know the answer.

♦ VWB ♦

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