Janet Malcolm, whose 13th book has just been published two years after her death at the age of 86, wrote on a startling variety of subjects: psychoanalysis and the law, Chekhov and Plath, anything and everything that drew her piercing eye and nuanced, mannerly approach. But what made Malcolm unique was her insistence on reckoning with the dilemmas, artfully sidestepped by most colleagues, inherent in how and when the (honest) nonfiction writer becomes a character in her own work and acknowledges her own agendas—and agency—in the stories she unspools. That obsession is very much a running theme in the new book, Still Pictures.
Malcolm’s most famous sentence is the one that began her 1990 masterpiece, The Journalist and the Murderer: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” Her argument was that reporters are forever persuading their subjects to take an action inimical to their own interests: namely, to talk to the reporter. As a consequence, she found, all subjects of nonfiction writing—from the naive homemaker being interviewed for the first time to the public figure practiced at media manipulation—emerge from the experience embittered by the realization that the writer was never telling the subject’s story but the writer’s own story. All along, the subject was merely an element, an unwitting piece of Play-Doh, to be shaped this way or that to suit the narrative.
To guard against this corrosive deceit, this gross imbalance of power between subject and writer and between writer and audience, Malcolm consistently wrote herself into her nonfiction. She appeared not only as the quasi-psychoanalytical interrogator she was but as a penitent, confiding her inner thoughts on the dynamics between herself and her interviewees, confessing her subjectivity and acknowledging how it might, in real time, be affecting her journalism. She revealed the questions she asked and omitted, the frames she employed and discarded, the conclusions reached and avoided.
Still Pictures is a personal account, but it is not a memoir. Malcolm chronicled her difficulties with that form in a 2010 essay entitled “Thoughts on Autobiography from an Abandoned Autobiography.” She complained there of having had “a feeling of boredom with the project” and said, “My efforts to make what I write interesting seem pitiful….I cannot write about myself as I write about the people I have written about as a journalist.”
Instead, Malcolm sketches her life story through observations on a series of black-and-white photographs (32 in all, counting those on the dust jacket’s front cover and rear flap). One of the first shows five-year-old Janet and her parents peering from the train aboard which they fled their native Prague, and the Holocaust, in July 1939.
“We were among the small number of Jews who escaped the fate of the rest by sheer dumb luck, as a few random insects escape a poison spray,” she writes. “I am struck now by how young my parents were when we emigrated. I always saw their Czech past as a huge rock standing before their American present. I read it as a voluminous text that reduced their life in America to a footnote, though in fact they spent the largest part of their lives in this country.”
One of the last photographs shows the author beaming beside her second husband, Gardner Botsford, her former editor at the New Yorker. The image illustrates a chapter recounting the adulterous origin of their romance: a series of “midday trysts” at a rented midtown apartment, “the turgid American cheating-on-your-spouse-and-feeling-awful-about-it kind of thing.”
Even here, amid such extraordinary self-disclosure, Malcolm, ever the dualist, elects to keep from her readers one small detail, relating to a plate she had purchased for the sinful space, even as she acknowledges, and regrets, her resort to secrecy: “The prerogative of cowardly withholding is precious to the most apparently self-revealing of writers. I apologetically exercise it here.”
So, in true Malcolmian spirit, this would be an opportune time for me to reveal that this review of Still Pictures came about only because I, an avid fan of Malcolm’s work for decades, pitched the editors of COMMENTARY on commissioning me to write it and they liked the idea. Janetian Disclosure would further compel me to confess that I never imagined not liking the book; as Jeb Magruder, the ill-starred young Watergate conspirator, testified a half-century ago, “I do not think there was ever any discussion that there would not be a cover-up.”
Indeed, I read Still Pictures, and composed this review, fully intending to sing the author’s praises, and those of her final work; in this I have not disappointed—not myself, or my editors, or my audience, now clued in to my agenda and agency.
Photo: AP Images
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