Janet Malcolm’s painfully private final guide, ‘Still Pictures’

On the Shelf

‘Still Pictures: On Pictures and Reminiscence’

By Janet Malcolm
FSG: 176 pages, $26

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After Janet Malcolm died in June 2021, the announcement that she nonetheless had a guide within the works was one thing of a balm — or an train in magical considering. She has a brand new guide popping out, so she will be able to’t be useless. “Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory” will likely be launched by FSG on Jan. 10.

The journalist and essayist of surgical precision received her begin as a images critic for the New Yorker. Her first guide of essays, “Diana & Nikon” — additionally about images — was printed in 1980. “Still Pictures” is a group of vignettes constructed round household photographs. Essentially the most hanging of those is an image of Malcolm and her dad and mom on a practice leaving Prague in 1939, on their solution to America, fleeing the Holocaust. “We were among the small number of Jews who escaped the fate of the rest by sheer dumb luck,” Malcolm writes, “as a few random insects escape a poison spray.”

Malcolm is a literary monolith, a extra stony, icy Joan Didion. Each died, almost the identical age, in 2021. Each turned, in later writings, to extra private losses and regrets — and but how completely different the outcomes. Didion plunged into the ache as deeply as she might, Malcolm solely as deeply as she dared.

After my evaluation copy of “Still Pictures” arrived in my mailbox, I jumped proper in and began gulping it down. However immediately, I couldn’t proceed. I went to my bookshelves and located myself flattening Malcolm’s different books. “The Journalist and the Murderer,” “In the Freud Archives,” “Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice” and the primary Malcolm guide I encountered, “The Silent Woman,” on Sylvia Plath. I reread all of them, back-to-back, over the course of two weeks. Her portraits of persons are chillingly good.

Right here she is in “The Journalist and the Murderer,” watching Jeffrey MacDonald, the person convicted of murdering his two daughters and pregnant spouse, eat in a jail cafeteria: “He handled the doughnuts — breaking off pieces and unaccountably keeping the powdered sugar under control — with the delicate dexterity of a veterinarian fixing a broken wing.” The easy passage contributes extra to the reader’s understanding of who MacDonald is than all 976 pages of “Fatal Vision,” the guide over which the convict sued writer Joe McGinniss.

Whereas I relished the Malcolm of books previous, “Still Pictures” languished on my nightstand, with Malcolm’s face gazing at me from behind a digital camera, in judgment. As I used to be altering the sheets in my bed room, it hit me. If I completed it, Malcolm would actually be useless. There could be no extra books.

(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

“Still Pictures” is deeply private, and Malcolm shouldn’t be afraid to say that this type of writing doesn’t come naturally to her. “I’m not sure that I am ready to write about my mother yet,” she writes in a chunk about her mom. Studying about her dad and mom is not any simpler than writing about them. “I have been reading — not happily — letters that my mother wrote to me in the nineteen-fifties.” The guide begins along with her household, strikes on to different Czech acquaintances and Malcolm’s faculty days and ends relatively abruptly with a mirrored image on her late husband, Gardner Botsford.

Essentially the most affecting of those items cowl the expertise of different Czech refugees making new lives in New York. “Malva always wore black, and it was not necessary to ask her why. She was in mourning for her husband, her two children, their spouses, and her granddaughter, who had been murdered at Auschwitz. … She never smiled. She was kindly and indifferent. I cannot say any more.”

Malcolm was affected by lung most cancers when she wrote this guide. Within the introduction, her good friend and New Yorker colleague Ian Frazier writes, “she endured horrible physical pain. If I could’ve taken the pain for two or three hours a day to give her a break, I would have.” A way of paralyzing agony runs by means of every bit — if not bodily then cerebral. “I would rather flunk a writing test than expose the pathetic secrets of my heart,” Malcolm writes. “The prerogative of cowardly withholding is precious to the most apparently self-revealing of writers. I apologetically exercise it here.”

One vignette, “On Being Sick,” provides us hope that we’d encounter Malcolm’s expertise with most cancers, or with dying. As a substitute it’s a piece on being in poor health as a toddler, and the wealthy meals her mom would cook dinner for her and her sister.

The afterword of this guide is written by Malcolm’s daughter, Anne. “The book in your hands was supposed to have one last chapter, which my mother’s final illness did not allow her to write.” However plainly Malcolm was fated to withhold her closing conclusions irrespective of the timing. In a fraction of an autobiography that was deserted, she wrote, “I cannot write about myself as I wrote about the people I have written about as a journalist. … They have dictated their stories to me and I have retold them. They have posed for me and I have drawn their portraits. No one is dictating to me now.”

The failures of this guide are what give it its weight. “Memory does not narrate or render character,” she writes. “Memory has no regard for the reader.” It’s sadly and in the end true. Readers on the lookout for the reducing and flinty Malcolm of earlier books won’t discover her right here. There’s something else, extra refined however maybe extra essential, about our lack of ability to seize our personal “still pictures” of our lives, even with the chronicling instruments of images or writing. They cling to us in a approach that makes them inconceivable to render precisely.

In “Daddy,” which seems at the start of the guide, Malcolm makes an attempt a portrait of her beloved father. “He left more traces of his existence than most people do, because he was always writing things down, on little cards, on onionskin paper (his poems), in diaries, even on the walls of the cabin on a lake where he and my mother spent weekends and summer holidays.”

This portrait is barely six pages lengthy. However Malcolm’s phrases can nonetheless lower like a knife. “He was a wonderful father. I know he dearly loved my sister and me. But he loved his own life more and seemed to have hated leaving it more than most men and women do. … I am flooded with things I want to say about him.”

Malcolm was one in all our best writers, which makes the lesson of “Still Pictures” solely the extra poignant. Her closing quantity proves that even the best chroniclers can nonetheless be leveled by their very own lives, and that the recollections that make us human are the foggiest and most ephemeral. This reader is flooded with the will to have seen Malcolm handle it. That’s life. However what a loss!

Ferri is the proprietor of Womb Home Books and the writer, most not too long ago, of “Silent Cities San Francisco.”