Gurov was bored listening, he was annoyed by the naïve tone, by this repentance, so unexpected and out of place; had it not been for the tears in her eyes, one might have thought she was joking or playing a role.
—Anton Chekhov, ’The Lady with the Dog’
Abounding through the work of Janet Malcolm are your execrations of, your doubts about, your caveats regarding: the ‘epistemological insecurity’ of autobiography (The Silent Woman); the ‘pretension’ of autobiography (Reading Chekhov); indeed, the ‘koan’ of autobiography (Two Lives). Yet here, in the modish, she is: the autobiographobe autobiographizing.
Like Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Malcolm’s Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory is a memoir which seeks to be classified otherwise, shelved elsewhere, subjected to another kind of reading. But where Barthes issued a smokescreen, exploiting his image as a critic to produce a bogus-yet-believable theory of the photograph as a screen for his mournful homage to his mother, Malcolm offers little more than meagre aperçus on photography and its relation to memory, or memory and its relation to photography—as if her subtitle were merely an afterthought. (‘Most of what happens to us goes unremembered. The events of our lives are like photographic negatives.’) Much like a conventional memoir (or a parody of one) Still Pictures presents a series of mostly unremarkable, sometimes barely legible photos from Malcolm’s family archive, using each as an occasion to reminisce. Or at least to attempt to reminisce. Or at least to pretend to attempt to. (‘There may have been some tragic story here, or there may not. There are not a lot of things I remember about these summers’; ‘Again, I don’t remember much about what we did’; ‘The picture brings back no memory of the excursion’). Her memories are hazy, vague, lost, incidental, incomplete, improbable, inert. ‘Autobiography is a misnamed genre,’ she decides; ‘memory speaks only some of its lines.’
This veiled late-life conversion to the ‘genre’ (as she labels—arguably mislabels—autobiography) is hard to take quite seriously, at face value. Still, Malcolm evidently had other concerns that compelled her to try a self-portrait. Studying a photo of herself at two or three—a little girl, perched on a step, her hands planted, assertively, on her thighs—Malcolm is struck by two things. The first thing is how the posture of the little girl in the photo resembles that of Louis-François Bertin (a cultivated and at times controversial journalist of the Napoleonic era) sitting for his ironical portrait by Ingres; the second thing is her own inability to recognise the little girl in the photo—printed on the first page of the book, next to Bertin’s image—as herself.
Though diagnosing Still Pictures as the performance of a dissociative fugue might be going too far, Malcolm’s repeated and conspicuous displays of psychological resistance should give us pause. ‘As I try to portray her, I come up against what must be a strong resistance to doing so’, Malcolm writes of her mother, tentatively approaching the question of what her mother’s charm served to conceal. ‘Did I become a journalist because of knowing how to imitate my mother?’ In 1963, having graduated from the University of Michigan, where she’d edited The Gargoyle, a humour magazine, Janet Malcolm, the eldest of two daughters of cultivated Czech-speaking Jewish refugees, got a job at The New Yorker—where she remained until her death last year. For the most part she worked in the cultural domain. After publishing two books on the institutions of Freudianism (Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession; In the Freud Archives), she turned her attention to the literary canon, writing perceptively on Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (The Silent Woman) and Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (Two Lives), as well as Anton Chekhov (Reading Chekhov). But Malcolm wasn’t so much a critic as a journalist, an actual journalist—by which I mean, an investigative reporter—who rang people up or met them in person, composed and asked questions, took notes, owned one Dictaphone at least… a journalist who tracked down, then parsed, unseen documents; who corroborated, correlated, deduced, all that jazz; who called people back, or met again in person; who composed further questions and took further notes (acting, she wrote, as ‘a kind of amanuensis’), scrupulously building a story. One senses, however—not just from her dissimulated failure to identify with Bertin’s image, but from the formal experimentation of her 1994 essay ‘Forty-One False Starts’ (comprised of 41 ostensibly failed attempts at beginning a profile of the artist David Salle), from the book of photography she published (Burdock, 2008), and from various exhibitions of collage art (2011-2013)—that Malcolm came to feel increasingly dissatisfied with the label.
That her finest works transcend the literary standards of journalism is not in doubt. Forget the dubious relation to truth established by the ‘composite monologue technique’ she learned at the New Yorker. The choreography of telegraph, retention and release across her narratives; her eye for the banal as much as the absurd, subtextually compelling detail; the stately weight and balance of her sentences; as well as her capacity for cruelty, have led some to imagine Malcolm, albeit at her own implicit invitation, as an artist in the cut of Highsmith, or Chekhov, or James.
Well-appointed sentences excepted, such qualities are thin on the ground in Still Pictures. There isn’t a narrative, there isn’t any suspense, and Malcolm, smirking somewhat piously, knows this. ‘Memories with a plot […] commit the original sin of autobiography,’ she cautions, early doors, ‘which give it its vitality if not its raison d’être. They are the memories of conflict, resentment, blame, self-justification—and it is wrong, unfair, inexcusable to publish them.’
And so—with a sentimentally hard-headed sequence of plotless, apparently disconnected, half-remembered anecdotes about her family (‘I remember the smell of phlox in Aunt Marion’s garden. Years later when I had a garden of my own, I grew phlox for a while, for its evocative smell, but the plant was susceptible to mold and wasn’t pretty; and I phased it out. It was a madeleine that didn’t earn its keep’); family friends (‘They are like minor characters in an early draft of a novel who have not made it into the final version’); and colleagues (‘It took a while to penetrate the disguise of both innate and magazine-induced unpretentiousness’)—Malcolm makes her posthumous departure from the word, gone before anybody puzzled by its brazen incongruity can ask her: What is this book’s raison d’être? To leave a loving tribute to your family? To round out your authorial ‘I’? To enact one last critique of autobiography?
Seldom does Still Pictures raise much of a chuckle. But given her past life at a humour magazine; given her description of a ‘mystifying and vaguely disturbing’ photo of her father in a bathing suit at Chateaubriand’s grave as possessing ‘the air of a Dada performance that didn’t quite come off’; and given, finally, the photographic hoax she confesses in the book’s final chapter (she admits including, and crediting to her husband, an ‘outstandingly terrible’ found photo in a 1980 review of a book on the ‘snapshot aesthetic’), the suspicion that Still Pictures is intended as a joke, a 150-page shaggy-dog story, is hard to shake. The book is more interesting, more pleasurable for it. As for what desires and fears may find disguised expression here, in Malcolm’s last laugh—that wouldn’t take much of a Freudian to decipher. ‘I will take up [my place] in the annals of horsing around’, the memoir, and her work, concludes.