About the Book by Janet Malcolm Titled “Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory”

From a New York Times review by Charles Finch of the book by Janet Malcolm titled “Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory”:

The field is all but clear now, and it seems safe to say that the two most important long-form journalists this country produced in the second half of the last century were Joan Didion and Janet Malcolm. Their differences are more evident than their similarities: the cold Los Angeles burn of Didion’s work, the measured New York ambiguity of Malcolm’s. Still, perhaps it’s no accident that both were white women, marginalized by definition, yet not so strictly that it prevented either from slipping into the mainstream as witness, as recorder. Both were born in 1934, and both died in 2021. A world goes with them.

These are the kind of truth claims that Malcolm spent a career questioning, of course. A writer for The New Yorker since 1963 — one of that magazine’s great reciprocal relationships, the reporter and the institution enriching each other — she specialized in subjects, including art, psychoanalysis and crime, that admitted of no easy truths, not even in the presence of facts.

That makes the dilemma of her superb final book, “Still Pictures,” obvious. How could a writer so famously, effectively skeptical of subjective stories write an autobiography? Malcolm solves the problem with characteristic elegance: Nearly every short chapter of “Still Pictures” is headed by a grainy black-and-white photograph, whose calls to memory she heeds, repels and bargains with in turn by subtle turn. Her comfort with incompleteness becomes a virtue — indeed, by its end the most surprising thing about the book, which is just 155 pages including introduction (by her friend the writer Ian Frazier) and afterword (by her daughter, Anne Malcolm), is how whole it feels.

A photograph early in “Still Pictures” shows a couple with a child leaning out from a train window. “The man and woman are my parents,” Malcolm writes. “The train was headed for Hamburg, where the ocean liner on which we had passage for America was docked. It was one of the last civilian ships to leave Europe for America before the outbreak of war. We were 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.”

This early emigration placed Malcolm in a strange situation. She was happy as a child; most of this memoir consists of appreciative and often very dryly funny memories of her devoted, literate family, as well as of the larger Czech community in Yorkville, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. While her writing in these passages remains restrained, as it always was, they bear an unwonted intensity of feeling, seemingly held just barely at bay. “He loved opera, birds, mushrooms, wildflowers, poetry, baseball,” she writes of her father, a balding physician pictured with a quiet smile. “I am flooded with things I want to say about him.”

In the midst of this affectionate and relatively normal upbringing, though, was the terrible, leaden, ambient fact of the Holocaust, especially alive to her because of her Czech and Jewish identities. Perhaps this doubleness accounts for her cerebral, probing style, an Americanized iteration of the great laconic Eastern European chroniclers, Chekhov, Shalamov, Szabo. An example of one of her dozens of swift profiles in this book is worth quoting in full:

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 had survived. After the war she came to New York — I don’t know how or why — and lived on the West Side with a relative. My mother was deeply attached to her and would see her often; I met her a few times. She never smiled. She was gentle and kindly and indifferent. I cannot say any more.
This sense of the ultimate inviolability of others’ inner lives, the decisive humility in that last simple sentence — these were the traits that would come to exemplify the author’s work, from “The Journalist and the Murderer,” with its infamous opening lines, to “Forty-One False Starts,” the finest of her collections. (Every reader seems to have a different favorite among her books; my own is “Iphigenia in Forest Hills.”)

The cause of Malcolm’s death was lung cancer, and while she never mentions this, “Still Pictures” has the clarity and brevity of a book by a writer who knows that time is short, and that there’s much to say, much to convey, which will otherwise be lost forever. The mere preservation of the distant photos of long-forgotten Czech immigrants is clearly of vital importance to her. “The past is a country that issues no visas,” she writes early on, but as the enigmatic pictures inspire more and more of Malcolm’s reflections, they seem to contest that claim, leaving us balanced in the familiar pivot between loss and memory.

It unavoidably calls to mind the enduring power of another émigré, the novelist W.G. Sebald, who made similar use of photographs. Malcolm is very much an American writer — one of those artists who seem not just from but of New York, her prose echoing with the sounds of Bill Evans and J.D. Salinger, to my ear — but like Sebald, and so many other immigrants’ children, she carried with her the sorrowful echoes of another continent. A lot gets lost in that transition, Malcolm argues in this final, splendid, most personal work of her long career. A lot — but not everything.

Charles Finch is a novelist and literary critic. His most recent book is “What Just Happened: Notes on a Long Year,” a chronicle of 2020.

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