Review: Janet Malcolm’s quasi-memoir on pictures and memory | Book Reviews

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Review: Janet Malcolm’s quasi-memoir on pictures and memory | Book Reviews

STILL PICTURES: On photography and memory. By Janet Malcolm. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 176 pages. $26.

When Janet Malcolm died 18 months ago at 86, her New York colleague Ian Frazier wrote a eulogy for the magazine, noting that the famous and feared journalist had worked on a series of essays based on old family photographs. “When the pieces come out as a book, we will look at them and look at them again and never find out how such miracles were accomplished.” That moment arrived, and Frazier was right. They are quite wonderful and reveal fascinating and perplexing glimpses into an extraordinary life.

Malcolm, who was born in Prague in 1934 and fled to the US with her parents and sister to escape the Nazis, was best known for her book-length essays on journalism (“The Journalist and the Murderer”); psychoanalysis (“In the Freud Archive”); and the law (“Iphigenia in Forest Hills”).

But she began her decades-long career at The New Yorker writing about interior decorating, design and photography. She was also a photographer and published a study of the burdock plant that attempted to depict the leaves “as clearly and as brutally as Richard Avedon photographed individual people,” Frazier writes in his introduction to the new book.

Of course, Malcolm doesn’t take the family photos in “Stills” at face value, just as she never took the supposed objectivity of reporters for granted. “The reporting eye—and I—is never far from her mind,” writes her daughter, Anne, in an afterword. Both are “transformative” acts. “Even as she tells us a story, she reminds us of her own presence, as the lens through which that naively imagined `actuality’ is filtered.”

One snap shows her, not even 5, with her parents looking out the window of a train leaving Prague for Hamburg, Germany, at the start of their trip to New York. Another depicts her and a teacher at a Czech-language school in the Manhattan neighborhood of Yorkville, where her cosmopolitan parents eventually settled among a large working-class Czech population. Another catches her beloved father with a straw basket near a woodland.

Each image sparks “plotless memories,” Malcolm writes, and she refuses to provide them with one. That’s because “memoirs with a plot”—that is, those about conflict, resentment, blame, and self-justification—”commit the original sin of autobiography.” And she won’t go there.

As a result, some of the sketches feel frustratingly inconclusive. Nevertheless, by simply attempting to accurately describe the photographs and capture the complicated cloud of feelings they evoke, Malcolm presents a vivid portrait of Malcolm, almost despite herself.

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