Books

Janet Malcolm
Nobody’s Looking at You

Janet Malcolm is the most celebrated essayist in America since Susan Sontag, and if something makes you say essayist – despite the books demolishing covens of psychoanalysts, or the monographs on everyone from Chekhov through Gertrude Stein to Ted Hughes – rather than nonfiction writer, it’s partly because it’s the curl of the sentence, the curve of the never quite trustworthy smile that makes you think she is a stylist above everything else.

Malcolm is a killer of a writer: strong people will say they would die rather than cook for her, no one who reads her fails to feel a chill in the heart of their being at the thought of what it would be like to be described by her. She combines something like the observational powers of Helen Garner with the refusal to be impressed of Lynn Barber.

Garner is the subject of one of Malcolm’s stories reprinted in this miscellaneous collection. She says that in The First Stone she is an “unreliable narrator” (which is true) and that her lack of balance “is closing ranks with the abuser” (which it is not). She also ends by saying that The First Stone “no more needs defending than our dreams do, with which there is no arguing, and which are always true”.

This connects fascinatingly with another essay about Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina – one of the finest things written about that great novel – where Malcolm argues that its supreme realism as a “piece of life”, as Matthew Arnold called it, depends not on a lack of artfulness but on an absolute intimacy with and ability to
re-create the world of dreaming. The way she generalises this deserves the rarest of all accolades, that of wisdom:

Tolstoy was obviously well acquainted with the guard who stops us at the border of sleep and awakening and confiscates the brilliant, dangerous spoils of our nighttime creations. The capacity to re-create these fictions in the unprotected light of day may be what we mean by literary genius.

On the other hand, re-reading her attack on the Pevear/Volokhonsky translations – with which I’ve always agreed: she says they’re tone-deaf – made her seem just a bit of a spoilsport because, truly, Tolstoy is great in any translation.

The opening essay of this collection, about Eileen Fisher, who creates understated clothes in grey or black or white for the woman who wants to be plain and elegant, has the absolute formal tension of great thriller writing. The title of the volume comes from what Fisher’s Catholic mother says to her; the very selective palette reflects long-ago school uniforms, the loose, hippie, airhead philosophy of management seems to spring from a horror of authoritarianism and a simultaneous desire for control.

There’s a wonderful story that provides the cover pic of the Chinese-born Canada-raised pianist Yuja Wang, who plays Beethoven or Mozart like a goddess. But Malcolm’s gleaming apprehension of this great pianist, which is erotic in the Barthesian sense, is the complement to her ecstasy at the piano-playing and is continuous with her sense of what a knockout of an individual Yuja is.

“‘Twenty-Eight-Year-Old Wunderkind’,” Yuja says to Malcolm, while lolling on the sofa in her tight black leather trousers. “Isn’t that an oxymoron?” She reads Virginia Woolf and Kant, but adds, “I’m always reading something trashy, too.” And then the pianist who says “Mozart is like a party animal” declares that his music is also “noble, tragic, like a great Greek play. The human emotion is there but with a lot of godliness in it.”

Malcolm notices the way people think and talk the way Garner notices a senior counsel whistling “Good Old Collingwood Forever”. And thank God for both of them, because the world has to be apprehended in order to be imagined.

And it’s exhilarating to have the great Malcolm in fan mode, wild about her classical music, or quizzically fascinated by the three sisters in their 70s who have held on to a great Manhattan bookstore.

There are less highly charged pieces here: one is about Rachel Maddow, the liberal TV monologist who, as Malcolm gently unearths, comes from a family of Catholic Reagan Democrats, is gay and suffers from depression but doesn’t want to take too much for it. Maddow says powerfully of Donald Trump, “The thing he hurts is the presidency and by extension the standing of the United States of America.” What oft was thought…

But you could read Janet Malcolm all day. She makes the art of the highbrow hack sound like the clarion call and mighty song of the angels.

She has a devastating attack on the academic Jonathan Bate’s book about Ted Hughes, the man Malcolm wrote about so brilliantly and sneakily. It touches something fierce and plangent and fine in Malcolm herself.

That it was Bate of all people who was chosen to write Hughes’s biography only heightens our sense of Hughes’s preternatural unluckiness … He emerges from his letters as a man blessed with a brilliant mind and a warm and open nature, who seemed to take a deeper interest in other people’s wishes and feelings than the rest of us are able to do and who never said anything trite or obvious or pious or self-serving. Of course this is Hughes’s epistolary persona … The question of what he was ‘really’ like remains unanswered, as it should. If anything is our business, it is our pathetic native self … Surely Hughes’s family, if not his shade, deserve better than Bate’s squalid findings about Hughes’s sex life and priggish theories about his psychology.

Amen to that. And how blessed is the culture that can produce from the mouth of a slightly mousy, toweringly bright woman of letters such a magnificat to the nobility of the artist and the mystery of a human being.

Peter Craven

Text, 304pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 2, 2019 as "Janet Malcolm, Nobody’s Looking at You". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Peter Craven