Attacks From Within: On Janet Malcolm
Does Malcolm indulge Margaret Salinger less than Angelica Garnett because she loves J.D. Salinger even more than she does Bloomsbury? One cannot say. Malcolm has a singular talent for nondisclosure, as evidenced by the last essay in this collection, “Thoughts on Autobiography From an Abandoned Autobiography,” an anticlimactic, self-defeating page that discloses absolutely nothing about Malcolm. The impression is of a woman whose basic conflict—the fight against her own snobbery—subsumes many smaller, more quotidian agons. She has been a wife, a daughter and mother to a daughter, but she prefers men. She is an introvert; she finds art invigorating, people exhausting. She is drawn to Jews, but rarely to observant or even robustly Jewish Jews: her work is almost comically peopled with half-Jews, ex-Jews, crypto-Jews, conflicted Jews, self-loathing Jews, the Jewishly curious, and that category of Jews unlike anyone else Jewish or otherwise, psychoanalysts. From this collection alone: David Salle, Leonard Woolf, J.D. Salinger, Diane Arbus, Ingrid Sischy, Allen Shawn and William Shawn. Elsewhere in her work: Gertrude Stein, Jeffrey Masson, Daniel Kumermann, Sigmund Freud—the list could go on.
My favorite paragraph in this entire collection comes from Malcolm’s review of a memoir by the composer Allen Shawn, the son of Malcolm’s late New Yorker editor, William Shawn:
The Shawns needed to deny harsh realities and paper over unpleasant ones. It was evidently not pleasant to be Jewish. “Being Jewish was also a matter for some distant uneasiness, at least enough for it to be fun for my brother to begin a dining table discussion, ‘Well, we Jews …’” (The mischievous brother is Wallace Shawn, the playwright and actor, who is five years older than Allen and was a kindly, protective presence throughout his childhood.) On the matter of the family’s Jew-phobia, Allen Shawn cannot resist a dig at his father: “When a minister friend of my brother’s visited the house and said a prayer at Thanksgiving dinner, he was deeply moved, but it is hard to picture him being as moved if the friend had been a rabbi.”
What’s appealing about the passage is the easy rapport between Malcolm and her subjects. Allen seems to love Wallace, and Malcolm seems to love Allen, and all of them are having a little fun—compassionate fun—at the expense of the self-loathing Jew, Allen’s dad. The passage feels profoundly decent, and I think decency is something that Malcolm, like all of us who aren’t good enough people, is always questing after. She spends so much of her time around people who are cruel, self-important and buffoonish—traits that unite the subjects of her books (with their murderers, vain academics and lawyers) and her subjects from the art world—that decency always arrives like spring break, desperately needed and just in time.
To understand Malcolm, it is worth considering that the only piece from The Purloined Clinic collected again in Forty-One False Starts, “A Girl of the Zeitgeist,” amounts to a treatise on decency. In her sprawling 1986 portrait of Artforum magazine and its young editor, Ingrid Sischy, Malcolm cinches the bag at the end with a peroration on Sischy’s fundamental character. After quoting G.K. Chesterton on the subject of “virtue,” which he compares to shining white chalk, Malcolm writes: “Since Chesterton wrote those buoyant words, the world has seen two world wars and a holocaust, and God seems to have switched to gray as the color of virtue—or decency, as we are now content to call it. The heroes and heroines of our time are the quiet, serious, obsessively hardworking people”—she means people like Sischy—“whose cumbersome abstentions from wrongdoing and sober avoidances of personal display have a seemliness that is like the wearing of drab colors to a funeral.”
Of course, earlier in the essay, Malcolm elaborates on that “seemliness” with her own display of extraordinary unseemliness, calling Sischy “a kind of reverse Jewish princess: she goes through life gratefully accepting the pleasures and amenities that come her way, and if they are not the particular pleasures and amenities she ordered—well, so much the better.” It’s really ugly that such a sentence could have come from Malcolm’s pen; that it could have made it past all the editors at The New Yorker, in the year 1986; and that Malcolm apparently did not have to worry about her standing, either in the real New York or in the New York of her mind, filled with readers and colleagues whose opinions she must value. But it makes me want to read more, not less, of her criticism, because it’s in these pieces about art and artists that she reveals her prejudices and betrays what she’s thinking. She wants decency; she cannot attain it. She loves the people; she loathes them. Writing about art, she can be quite artless. It’s hard to look away.
Miriam Markowiz reviewed Janet Malcolm’s Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial in the June 6, 2011, issue.