- By Janet Malcolm
- Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
- 176 pages, $26
Journalist Janet Malcolm’s new book Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory is a surprise not just because it has appeared two years after her death in 2021 at the age of 86, but because it is an autobiography (sort of)—the autobiography of a writer who abhorred autobiography, who, in fact, didn’t even like the word “autobiography.” She abandoned an earlier effort at the genre in 2010 and published a brief explanation of why: “Memory,” she said, “is not a journalist’s tool. Memory glimmers and hints, but shows nothing sharply or clearly. Memory does not narrate or render character. Memory has no regard for the reader.”
Janet Malcolm was a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of more than a dozen books. She was also a photographer and a collage artist. She has mingled these mediums in her new book Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory, which was published posthumously. Using old family photos as writing prompts, she has mixed reportage and collage. She has pasted together 26 biographical vignettes—mini-essays focused on her family, friends, and the people she grew up with as a Czechoslovakian immigrant in 1940s New York.
Near the opening of writer Janet Malcolm’s posthumously published memoir Still Pictures there is a small photograph of a man, woman, and child leaning out the window of a train. “The man and woman are my parents, at the ages of thirty-nine and twenty-nine, and the child is me, at the age of almost five,” Malcolm writes. “The train was headed for Hamburg, where the ocean liner on which we had passage to America was docked. It was one of the last civilian ships to leave Europe for America before the outbreak of war. 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.” This brutal simile has already become a viral citation.
Writer Janet Malcolm’s new book Still Pictures differs noticeably in feel and tone from Malcolm’s earlier books. It is kinder and gentler. What doesn’t differ is the quality of the writing—its tensile strength, its gracefulness, its precision. One is tempted to quote from this book with annoying frequency. Rather than glide through the pristine paragraphs, you are constantly stopping to share passages with someone whether someone is there to share them with or not.
For example, Malcolm reminiscing about her father’s childhood in Czechoslovakia: “I imagined my father’s life in the village as something out of late Tolstoy: a peasant culture of want, hardness, and discomfort; sledges chased by wolves through the snow, not enough to eat, everything scratchy and uncouth, nothing easy, nothing pretty.”
Or on paying for good seats at the opera: “The inequality of audience experience is intrinsic to the performing arts and unique to them. Literature and painting and sculpture are mediums of equal opportunity. A rich reader’s experience of Anna Karenina is no more intense that a poor one’s. The hedge-fund owner and the secretary see exactly the same Raft of the Medusa. But only the hedge-fund owner gets to see the expression on Azucena’s face when she realizes she has thrown the wrong baby into the fire [Verdi’s Il Trovatore].”
Or on Francophilia: “I don’t know what kind of impervious boor you have to be not to notice that everything in France looks better than things look anywhere else.” It’s true.
The story Janet Malcolm tells in her new book Still Pictures about her earliest memory led me to wonder briefly about my own earliest memory. Malcolm’s was as a 4- or 5 year-old. “I am in the country on a fine day in early summer and there is a village festival. Little girls in white dresses are walking in a procession, strewing white rose petals from small baskets they carry. I want to join the procession but have no basket of petals. A kind aunt comes to my aid. She hastily plucks white petals from a bush in her garden and hands me a basket filled with them. I immediately see that the petals are not rose petals but peony petals. I am unhappy. I feel cheated. I feel that I have not been given the real thing, but something counterfeit.”
My own earliest memory—or the one I have taken to characterizing as my own earliest memory—involves a young literalist’s hypersensitivity to language. It is a long story. This is not the place for it. Suffice it to say that I was 6 and it involved a humiliating encounter with synonyms—“underwear” and “shorts” to be specific.
In her Afterword to Still Pictures, Anne Malcolm, writer Janet Malcolm’s daughter, tells us that her mother wanted to include one more chapter in the book, a chapter on the subject of photography, but she did not have the strength to finish it. (Malcolm died of lung cancer in 2021 at the age of 86.) This explains why there is so little on photography in a book subtitled “On Photography and Memory.” There is, however, much on memory. These two things—memory and photography—are formally linked in the book (each chapter starts with a small black and white image) and essentially linked in the general scheme of things. Both are records of time. Both can be and are manipulated. Arguments as to which is the most truthful tend to favor the photograph, but, of course, that could easily change with the escape of a uniquely menacing algorithm from some Silicon Valley wet market.
In her new book Still Pictures, a collage of vignettes and mini-essays, the writer Janet Malcolm offers us as truthful a picture as she feels she can—given the nature of the material, her inherent biases, and her natural reticence. Autobiography tells a story—it accepts the Brechtian axiom that the first purpose of the form is to entertain. It is one of the many things that bothers Malcolm about the genre. She approaches it here in her own way. She tells us what she tells us of her own story in the stories of others—of parents, aunts, uncles, teachers, girlfriends, and assorted members of the Czech diaspora. She peers out from the periphery of these stories as often as from the center of them.
What is remembered is one thing—the reliability of that memory is another entirely. Writer Janet Malcolm insists that, quirks aside, a collage of dissonant scraps will be more truthfully telling than any sort of coherent narrative. If the reader is interested in credibility, he or she will embrace one approach; if they are interested in a story, they will embrace another. Collagists are veracious witnesses; autobiographers are the nattering nabobs of narcissism.
Janet Malcolm is a master of the quick character sketch. That mastery is on full display in her new book Still Pictures, a collage of vignettes and mini-essays published posthumously. There is her Uncle Paul, for example: “I remember the deliberation with which he chewed his food, the assurance and self-confidence the working of his jaws seemed to express. And something else: at one of the meals there was a small bowl on the table, and I saw my uncle take a spoon and help himself to its entire contents. All of it!” And her hapless teacher, Slecna Vankova: “an obese woman with short, straight hair and coarse, swarthy skin who always seemed to be sweating. She wore long dark-red print dresses, all of which appeared to be the same dress, and heavy black shoes.”
Janet Malcolm is a writer’s writer. She was revered for her wit, her chutzpah, and her eye for the deadly detail. You may love her, but you would never have wanted to have her in your home for fear of what she might find to focus on—what hypocrisies and infelicities she might detect. As I look up from my keyboard I cannot help but wonder what she would have made of the African sculpture that sits on the northeast corner of my desk. It is an abstract bust of shifting planes—the sort of thing appropriated by a handful of Cubists on their way to fame and fortune. I can imagine Malcolm treating it with disdain. What I see as a harmless appreciation of an exotic aesthetic, she might see as a thirty-pound piece of Imperialist gimcrackery, a curio carved by a desperate native laboring in some tchotchke sweatshop.
“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,” Janet Malcolm famously wrote in The Journalist and the Murderer, one of her most celebrated books. The same thing could be said about most autobiographers. In her new book Still Pictures she has kept the indefensibleness to a minimum. She has granted both herself and her family special privileges—privileges she has not granted to the subjects of her journalistic efforts. She is candid only up to a point.
Janet Malcolm’s new book Still Pictures is as slim and immaculate as its author. This most careful of writers dodges the megalomaniacal mélange of misremembrance, outright lies, and special pleading that is autobiography with an inventive use of form—a collage of photography and biography.
Janet Malcolm’s new book Still Pictures circles and occasionally collides with one of the central issues of Malcolm’s oeuvre: Privacy. I am happy to have her invade the privacy of writer Joe McGinnis (The Journalist and the Murderer) and psychiatrist Jeffrey Masson (In The Freud Archive), and I am happy to have her protect her own here. There are those who will miss the more combative Malcolm and those who will welcome the attendant compensations—namely, the chance to meet the writer on a slightly more personal level. I don’t think the tradeoff was quite equitable, but given the writer’s health and the direness of her diagnosis, it was perfectly understandable. The idea that in the end Malcolm might become some sort of bathetic blabbermouth is absurd.
As easy as Janet Malcolm found it to write about others, she found it hard to write about herself. There is something worth respecting in this when so many writers these days seem incapable of writing about anything other than themselves.
The writer Janet Malcolm teases us with an attenuated story of an adulterous affair. She opens a chapter titled “The Apartment” with a Proustian recollection of Italian china—a table-setting for lunches in a shabby love nest. “What did it mean to me? Why did it come to mind after so many years? 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.”
“My father was not concerned with his image,” the journalist Janet Malcolm wrote in her book Still Pictures. “[H]e would probably not object to the recitation of my wounded-child’s grievances. But I do not wish to make it. He was a wonderful father. … We are each of us an endangered species. When we die, our species disappears with us. Nobody like us will ever exist again.”
It is a perfect eulogy—a line that may not launch a thousand ships, but will likely end a hundred book reviews.