Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory, by Janet Malcolm, Granta, 155 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1783788361
Born Jana Wienerova in Prague in 1934, the elder of two girls, Janet Malcolm was just five when her family escaped from Nazism in July 1939. They had the additional good fortune to find sanctuary in the United States. As she wrote herself, her family were ‘among the small number of Jews who escaped the fate of the rest by sheer dumb luck’. (Between 1933 and 1941, 110,00 Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied territory received permission to enter the United States; thousands more did not.) The Wiener family were the lucky ones in having the wherewithal to secure passage abroad, and the visas and the cash that were vital for escape. There were stories of bribing officials, buying a racehorse for a Nazi SS high-up for instance; so it was not entirely ‘sheer dumb luck’.
Her father, Josef/Joseph, was a psychiatrist and neurologist. When they settled in the Yorkville district, he worked with mostly working class Czechs and Czech refugees who had washed up there. The young Jana/Janet could observe those who made it through the assimilation process to the golden promise of American success ‑ and more tellingly, she could study those who did not. She presents little thumbnail portraits of the émigré experience, which in spite of their brevity convey a lot. She describes the Czech community with her trademark scalpel precision, their apartments, their embarrassment, the abject wearing of the cloak of failure, the sadness of those who had lost most family members. Clever, waspish Janet took it all in, and she and her sister laughed at the unfortunates. Told stories about them. Of one couple, friends of her parents, she wrote: ‘They were modest, kind, good people who brought out an obnoxiousness in my sister and me for which I would blush today if I were a better person. But a child’s cruelty is never completely outgrown …’ As throughout Still Pictures, this kaleidoscopic book, she does not try to shield us from her own unappealing traits, just as through over forty years of journalism and prizewinning non-fiction, she found, with accuracy of a heat-seeking missile, the fault lines of human frailty.
Her father was convinced from early on that she would write books and encouraged young Jana-turned-Janet (a chirpy Enid Blyton name if ever there was one) with gifts of classic literature, David Copperfield for her tenth birthday and Turgenev for her twelfth. He was correct in his prediction, though perhaps he would have been surprised by the sheer range of the Malcolm oeuvre: investigative pieces such as Iphigenia in Forest Hills, about a murder within the Bukharan Jewish community in Queens; deconstructed literary biography and observed literary sleuth-obsessives in Two Lives (about Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas and their wartime experience) and The Silent Woman (biographers of Sylvia Plath.) She also of course made a high-profile foray into the fractious world of Freudian analysts with the book In the Freud Archives. The aftermath was a ten-year legal wrangle with its subject, Jeffrey Masson, Masson claiming Malcolm had skewed his words, resulting in defamation. Malcolm specialised in elegant but deadly nothing-is-quite-what-it-seems prose revelations, whether exposing a hidden vanity in clothes or décor, or putting on show the egos of academics squabbling over a reputation. In addition there were hundreds of pieces for The New Yorker, where she was a staff writer for almost sixty years. Often placed alongside Joan Didion in the pantheon of cool lady scribes, she is the kind of writer that shy young literary types, often women, once came to in their youth, never managing in later life to quite shake off their acolyte adoration. It is not clear how much traction her ironic deadpan patrician tone and eclectic choices of subject would have now with anyone under forty.
While Still Pictures is categorised as a slim memoir, with some evidently feeling cheated by its lack of juicy gobbets of revelation, Malcolm long ago spelt out her difficulties with autobiography. ‘I see that my journalist’s habits have inhibited my self-love,’ she wrote as far back as 2010. ‘Not only have I failed to make my young self as interesting as the strangers I have written about, but I have withheld my affection.’ But, as her friend Ian Frazier, in his heartfelt introduction, states: ‘She didn’t describe the pieces in this collection as memoirs or autobiographical sketches; I recall her referring to them only by topic.’ (She refers fleetingly to ‘a memoir of childhood’.) Yet beneath the surface of the banal titles, ‘School Days’, ‘Mother’, ‘More on Mother’, ‘Fred and Ella Traub’, most prefaced with an accompanying symbolic photo, lurk little timebombs of frankness. It is like a cabinet of curiosities where, on closer inspection, odd quirky treasures can be found. Malcolm refers a number of times to the Dadaist absurdity of Czech humour, chiefly in relation to her father: this is certainly a worthwhile aspect to be considered when approaching each photograph-inspired extended observation.
Much has been made in reviews of Still Pictures of Malcolm’s suspicion of the autobiographical impulse, both in terms of its narcissism and the genre’s reliance on airing family dirty linen. Yet Malcolm, even before this memoir, had dropped personal clues in odd places, like breadcrumbs leading to her own gingerbread house ‑ on the effects of being an outsider child, for instance, in a review of a forgotten popular novel called A Girl of the Limberlost, the heroine’s lowly status eventually transformed into a fable of American success, rags to riches. Malcolm locates us in the time she read the book at a summer camp run by ‘an elderly Congregationalist and his wife’. The camp was ‘past its prime’ but Malcolm, who professes so frequently in Still Pictures to have no memories, conjures up vividly not only the drab aesthetics of camp life but also the real feeling of being entranced and lost in reading. But what she seems to identify with in the heroine Elnora Comstock is her outsider status. ‘ … Elnora Comstock’s arrival at a small-town high school dressed in rough farm clothes, in mortifying contrast to the “bevy of daintily clad, sweet-smelling things that might have been birds, or flowers, or possibly gaily dressed, happy young girls” ‑ came back to me with the force of a seminal memory.’
As for Joseph Conrad, English was not Malcolm’s first language. This difficulty in communicating was her version of ‘rough farm clothes’. She was a tongue-tied child during her first years in kindergarten and no allowance was made for the fact that she was a refugee escaping persecution who had scarcely a word of the language of her host country. In this recollection she recognises the wound but makes light of it. The family’s departure from their homeland is represented by a Hollywood-style photograph of her mother, father and herself leaning out the window of the departing train, bidding farewell to the anonymous photographer on the platform (Malcolm speculated that the photographer may have had an affair with her mother; he didn’t). Self-pity is an emotion she has no truck with. Then there is the question of Jewishness – the key reason for the forced migration. Her parents keep this central fact from the sisters – until they come home from school one day bandying about an antisemitic slur – was it directed at them or did they innocently join in the hateful chorus? That is not clear. But only then do the parents reveal to the girls the fact that they are Jewish. ‘Many years later I came to acknowledge and treasure my Jewishness. But during childhood and adolescence I hated and resented and hid it.’ Some complexities may have lingered. As the reviewer Kathryn Hughes noted in relation to Malcolm’s Two Lives :Gertrude and Alice, on the wartime experiences of Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas, a central problematic involved Jewishness and evasion. Yet Malcolm made no mention whatsoever of her own European Jewish heritage or her family’s flight from Nazism – a key aspect of what she was exploring in Two Lives. A doyenne of clarity and a demon for snuffling out inconsistencies, like a hound after buried truffles, in this case she left her own out of the picture. Malcolm tries to figure out why Toklas and Stein, lesbians and Jewish, survived in Vichy France, ending up with a thoroughly nasty protector – royalist and Vichy stalwart Bernard Fay. In the very instance where her own experience might have illuminated some of Stein’s puzzling denialist behaviour, she mimics her subjects by remaining silent on her heritage.
Malcolm’s interests in biography and psychoanalysis are at heart examinations of the slippery distortions of narrative, or how not to tell a story truthfully or accurately. Her passion for precision, encapsulated in a well-turned phrase that devastatingly reveals a character flaw, was not deployed in relation to her own personal history, tied into the larger history of European Jewry in the twentieth century. Yet as Still Lives shows, from early on she was not duped by the saccharine platitudes of the American Dream, even as she herself would become a success story. Her at times cold portrait of her mother and their relationship is one of the most quietly devastating in the book. Her fascination with psychoanalysis may stem not just from her father’s profession as neurologist but from a family secret she smuggles into her story almost seamlessly, just at the end of a short section on her grandmother.
Malcolm hated the speculative or gauche extrapolation. In an excoriating review of an unauthorised biography of Ted Hughes, she wrote: ‘[Jonathan] Bate’s malice is the glue that holds his incoherent book together …’ Even though she had an almost puritan aversion to sloppiness or inaccuracy she found herself, in the 1980s, in court, by inference accused of ‘having deliberately misstated facts’ from her interviews with Jeffrey Masson, the charismatic figure appointed to be guardian of the Freud archives. In her short account in Still Lives of the trials – spanning ten years, with the original and an appeal – she paints herself as prissy, insensitive, privileged New Yorker type, only saved from a disastrous verdict by a modest life coach, Sam Chwat, whose ‘gentle correction of my self-presentation at trial from unprepossessing sullenness to appealing persuasiveness took me to unexpected places of self-knowledge and knowledge of life’.
For those who are suspicious of the photo/essay format, it is, it seems to me, in Still Pictures both all of a piece with her previous career as a critic on photography and her own talent in taking esoteric photographs (hundreds of photos of burdock leaves), acknowledging the visual part of her creative talents, which resulted in a number of exhibitions. There is also an opaque quality to the way she matches the photographs with text and uses them as both shield and tease. One has that queasy dread mixed with curiosity that a trick is being played through deceptive simplicity. Some critics have deemed her book ‘slight’, or been perplexed by its apparent lack of revelations. Yet Malcolm includes a cool account of her affair with the man who was to become her second husband, at the time married to his first wife. Their trysts eventually forced the man to rent a separate apartment for their romantic assignments, the passionate urgency behind this move more associated with the office Casanovas of Billy Wilder’s film The Apartment than two sober employees of The New Yorker (the section is also, perhaps mischievously, called ‘The Apartment’), Malcolm uses a banal musing on a particular style of ceramic cup to kick off the reminiscence. But behind it all is the shadow of an invalid husband, who would die in the same year that she married the man from the apartment trysts.
Mischief and horseplay, fooling around, are themes from family life that she returns to, as well as a distinctive sardonic humour that she identifies as Czech. Humour, she maintains, ‘was derived from the Dadaist, absurd playful-dangerous hour of the Czech avant-garde’. Frazier, in his introduction, tells us that she had a particular fascination for making collage bookmarks: these might be fashioned from ‘papers from her father’s psychiatric practice, Chinese Communist propaganda leaflets, Soviet hotel DO NOT DISTURB signs’. Her passion for collage offers clues to the present work too, which in some ways is a literary mystery game where what is left out may be as telling as what is included.
Malcolm refused to make herself likeable – a key component in the American optimism canon. Yet in other ways she became the perfect American WASP intellectual. Her outbursts of tetchiness are as bracing as that first foray into icy seawaters for a winter swim ‑ and can induce an equally swift intake of breath. This is particularly true of the more snarkish observations about her mother. But as with so many polite conventions, Malcolm has no truck with obligatory sentimentality about parents.
She is well aware of the stock-in-trade betrayals that enhance the notoriety of some autobiographies. “‘Who asked you to tarnish my image with your miserable little hurts?’ the dead person might reasonably ask.’ She wrote: ‘Since my father was not concerned with his image, he would probably not object to the recitation of my wounded-child’s grievances. But I do not wish to make it.’ As Michael Greenberg put it in an appreciation: ‘People sometimes mistook Malcolm’s perceptiveness for cruelty. Her reputation for cold dissection (don’t cut tomatoes in front of her, don’t let her into your apartment, etc.), as if she were some kind of avenging angel, was ridiculous. She possessed the ability to see the excruciating difference between who we are and how we believe we are seen.’
Paraphrasing the tenet of counselling, that it is the thing we don’t speak of which is the problem, Malcolm doesn’t speak of so much. Her constant reiteration of what she can’t remember may well become irritating, not just through its repetition but because of what she stubbornly refuses to infer from it: that it may not be just that her memory is wonky but that there are buried truths there she doesn’t wish to excavate.
She was still trying to write even when her last illness inflicted hideous pain. Her daughter alludes to the fact there was supposed to be one final chapter, on ‘taking pictures’, ‘which my mother’s final illness did not allow her to write’. Frazier mentions that she rarely complained of the pain she suffered. I imagine her, prone on a couch or even unable to get out of bed, still trying to work out her argument and elegantly arrange her thoughts to produce that offbeat, unexpected conclusion. Meanwhile, in another room, stands the precious little Biedermeier cabinet, an inheritance and reminder of the ‘old days’, the pre-war existence of her family in another distant world.
Katrina Goldstone is a writer and cultural historian. Her book Irish Writers and the Thirties: Art Exile and War is published by Routledge and is now available in paperback.