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What Memory Stirred Up Has Settled: The Writing of Janet Malcolm

A new collection of previously uncompiled essays finds a writer poised at the threshold of art and literature

Janet Malcom, Nobody's Looking at You, 2019. Courtesy: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Nearly always, and so delicately, Janet Malcolm writes with a carefully-framed detachment, setting herself ever-so-slightly apart from the people and things – and it is nearly always other people, other things – that have formed her subjects over the past fifty years. Her work wears the clothes of journalism, most often appearing in The New Yorker, before re-presenting itself, following a miraculous transformation, in book form. It must be hard to master this duality, as Malcolm does. Her long-form reporting, in particular – peerlessly in The Journalist and the Murderer (1990) and The Silent Woman (1993) – pushes simultaneously at the limits of journalism and non-fiction, folding in a meta-commentary on both genres all the while.

Nobody’s Looking at You (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019), Malcolm’s latest collection of shorter pieces, is a sequel of sorts to Forty-One False Starts (2013). But more so than in that volume, which brought together essays on art, writing and photography, there is a palpable tension as to whether Malcolm can perform the alchemy of making a ragbag of articles feel like something larger than an eclectic, intriguing miscellany. Forty-One False Starts was a wonderful title for a series of individual pieces that didn’t merit book-length treatment. Nobody’s Looking at You is similarly double-edged as a label, pointing to a number of salient themes that tie the whole book together: self-effacement, invisibility, exhibitionism and integrity.

It is also the title of the opening piece: a profile of the fashion designer Eileen Fisher, whose garments, Malcolm tells us, with a supernatural dryness, she herself wears: ‘I joined a growing cadre of women who regularly shop at Eileen Fisher and form a kind of cult of the interestingly plain’. (Cadre: such spot-on timbre.) ‘I’m just an ordinary person’, Fisher tells Malcolm, who says to Fisher that she has ‘a very modest way of talking about yourself’. Fisher replies: ‘I grew up Catholic […] You know, the “nobody’s looking at you” thing […] That’s what my mother said all the time’. Neither Fisher nor Malcolm expand on it (‘That’s part of Catholicism?’ Malcolm asks), but the phrase resounds.

Yuja Wang. Photograph: Norbert Kniat

The motif is picked up, inverted in a way, in the subsequent, sharply juxtaposed piece: a profile of the pianist Yuja Wang, whose clothes, when she performs at recitals – ‘extremely short and tight dresses […] or clinging backless gowns that give an impression of near-nakedness (accompanied in all cases by four-inch-high stiletto heels)’ – force Malcolm to muse on the relation between Wang’s virtuosic musical artistry at the piano and her visual presence. ‘Never has the relationship between what we see at a concert and what we hear come under such perplexing scrutiny.’

Many other pieces tease out the idea of performance, with Malcolm especially drawn to those whose artistry or expertise may not be conventionally recognised as ‘art’. Alongside Fisher and Wang, the first and strongest part of the book gathers together profiles of a family who run the antiquarian Argosy Book Store in Manhattan; George Jellinek, the presenter of the radio programme, The Vocal Scene (1969–2004); and the TV host Rachel Maddow. Malcolm’s grasp slightly slips in the second part, with shorter pieces on televised Supreme Court confirmation hearings, email and the docuseries Sarah Palin’s Alaska; while the final part deals with writing: Tolstoy, Constance Garnett’s translation from the Russian, the New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, Helen Garner, Quentin Bell and Jonathan Bate’s biography of Ted Hughes, among others.

Janet Malcom. Photograph: Nina Subin

What are we more interested in: these subjects or Janet Malcolm? Malcolm herself wields the ‘I’ very obliquely, giving little away as she weaves in and out of the volume. She expertly performs a persona of her own, always at the ready when her subjects’ mask slips. She is highly aware of – and self-consciously self-deprecating about – how her own artistry is poised, slightly longingly, at the threshold of art and literature. She smuggles the poetry into her sleek, always functionally smooth-running prose: ‘the young with their oppressive burden of futurity’; ‘the dust of rivalrous feeling that memory had stirred up settled’; ‘the treacherous shoals of advanced old age’.

There are moments when Malcolm’s dedication to her own style seems at odds with the constraints of journalism. But nearly everything is here for good reason, with the best pieces reading like short stories. One of the seemingly workaday, perfunctory profiles, ‘The Emigre’ (2004), on Jellinek, astonishingly salvages itself in its final paragraphs. Jellinek, who died in 2010, tells Malcolm he is taking his radio programme off the air. ‘But you will be flooded with requests to continue the broadcasts’, Malcolm says. Jellinek disagrees. ‘I have not done anything that passes the test of immortality […] I’ve done a number of clever programs’. The Hungarian, who has stirred up Malcolm’s memories of her Czech heritage, ushers her courteously out of the studio. ‘For the first time, I noticed that he walked with a slight sway – so slight as to be almost invisible – but one that subtly evoked the stylized movements of the czardas.’ It’s a rare glimpse of emotion, elegy, frailty and slanted self-reflection that trembles with the weight that it carries.   

Janet Malcolm’s Nobody’s Looking at You: Essays is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Jerome Boyd-Maunsell is a writer and critic based in London.

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