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'Still Pictures' offers one more glimpse of writer Janet Malcolm

Still Pictures, by Janet Malcolm
FSG

New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm, who died in 2021 at age 87, was a journalist who interrogated her own methods and motives as assiduously as she questioned her subjects. She continued this practice right through her last book.

Still Pictures, her posthumously published quasi-memoir, is a series of recollections triggered by old snapshots. Among the issues Malcolm explores are the vagaries of memory and the challenges of writing about oneself impartially.

During the course of her career, Malcolm's focus turned from photography to psychoanalysis, journalism, and biography. After Jeffrey Masson, the subject of her 1984 book, The Freud Archives, sued her for libel in a case that dragged on for 10 years, she became interested in the law, and especially in the relationship between journalists and their subjects.

Malcolm is perhaps best known for this acerbic declaration: "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."

Malcolm was also distrustful of biography, and even more wary of autobiography. The inherent conflict between journalistic objectivity and narcissism gave her pause. In a 2010 essay about autobiography for The New York Review of Books, she wrote of memory's "autism" and "its passion for the tedious." She concluded: "Memory is not a journalist's tool. Memory glimmers and hints, but shows nothing sharply or clearly." Essentially, she said, "If an autobiography is to be even minimally readable," the memoirist must step in and do what a journalist mustn't: Invent.

There is nothing tedious about Still Pictures, Malcolm's elegant workaround to the beefs with autobiography. By revisiting old photographs of people and events that shaped her life, she comes at memoir indirectly, through others' stories.

Often, Malcolm's recall is hazy; details and facts elude her. Frustratingly, the people who might bring clarity (including her parents) are long gone. Boxes of letters and cast-off snapshots labeled "Old Not Good Photos" come in handy, yet even with their aid, she hits roadblocks. Malcolm comments memorably: "The past is a country that issues no visas. We can only enter it illegally."

Born in Prague in 1934, Jana Wienerovna emigrated from Czechoslovakia to New York City with her younger sister and their parents, a psychiatrist and a lawyer, in 1939. Her family, she writes with typical sting, was "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."

By poring through old snapshots — many of fellow homesick Czech refugees and émigrés who became part of her parents' circle — Malcolm constructs a picture of the family's early years in America. What also emerges is an oblique view of the transformation of Jana Wienerovna into the Americanized, no-longer-Jewish Jan Winn and, finally, Janet Malcolm.

Still Pictures proceeds more or less chronologically, beginning with some scene-setting in the Old Country, including a black-and-white photo of the family leaving Prague on a train in July 1939. They were headed for Hamburg and one of the last civilian ocean liners to leave Europe before the war, a passage they had bought with bribes that cleaned out their funds.

There are portraits of her father, a brilliant diagnostician and "the gentlest of men." More challenging for her to write about is her warm and exuberant but increasingly temperamental, depressed, and needy mother — and her regrets and shame at having been so cold and withholding with her. In trying to understand what they went through, she compares her parents' relatively rich cultural life in Prague with their stolidly middle class existence in New York.

There are sketches of refugees, widows, and Auschwitz survivors that recall Johanna Kaplan's portraits of tattooed camp survivors lining Broadway's benches in Loss of Memory is Only Temporary. One family friend was in permanent mourning for her husband, two children and their spouses, and a grandson murdered at Auschwitz. "She never smiled. She was gentle and kindly and indifferent. I cannot say any more," Malcolm writes movingly.

Along the way, Malcolm, who was quick as a child to label people uninteresting, explores the fact that interesting things can happen to even dull people.

Later, she touches on the libel trial that deeply affected her and her writing, and on her "messy" extramarital affair and eventual second marriage with her New Yorker editor, Gardner Botsford. Her description of their illicit lunchtime trysts in a midtown Manhattan apartment uncannily recalls Harold Pinter's Betrayal. But she stops short of explaining why she bought fancy Italian plates to furnish their lovenest. "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," she writes.

The book's chapters are brief, a form well-suited to someone terminally ill and all too aware of time running out. (In fact, Malcolm was unable to complete a planned final chapter.) She writes, "We are each of us an endangered species. When we die, our species disappears with us. Nobody like us will ever exist again."

Fortunately, she left us with this evocative and distinctive final book — an unusually succinct and thought-provoking personal memoir that manages to capture so much of what made Janet Malcolm so unfailingly interesting.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin
Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.