Helen Garner on Janet Malcolm: ‘Her writing turns us into better readers’

Whether in her deft reports and profiles for the New Yorker or her studies of Sylvia Plath and psychoanalysis, Malcolm wrote with breathtaking eloquence and insight

I can’t remember which of Janet Malcolm’s books I read first. She seems to have been making things blossom in my head since the day I started thinking purposefully about anything.

She was the author of 12 books, including The Journalist and the Murderer, a dissection of the ethics of her own industry that famously opened with a hair-raising fanfare: Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible”; In the Freud Archives, a study of the egos jostling to redefine Sigmund Freud’s legacy that saw Malcolm sued for libel by one of her interviewees (she eventually won the decade-long legal fight); and Forty-One False Starts, her collection of pieces about artists and writers from Vanessa Bell to JD Salinger written chiefly for the New Yorker, her journalistic home for six decades.

To open any one of her books at random is to find myself drawn back into that unmistakable sensibility, that unique tissue of mind, and to grasp how deeply I am indebted to her. The inside jacket of Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession is black with my scrawled notes: I see now that this is where I got my first tentative handle on Freud. My white paperback of The Journalist and the Murderer, that audacious and galling challenge to all nonfiction writers, is held together by two thick rubber bands. Its binding splintered years ago but I wouldn’t dream of replacing my copy, because every time I go back to it to strengthen my nerve, I make more tiny notes inside the back cover, or slide between its bulging pages a fresh spray of yellow Post-its. On every page I’ve underlined a sentence, a phrase, a word. It’s a private archive of enlightenment and I treasure it.

In The Silent Woman, her study of Sylvia Plath’s biographers and of the whole enterprise of biography, I saw manifest what I was at the time painfully trying to learn: the fact that beneath the thick layers of a writer’s self-censorship, of her fear of being boring or wrong, lies a whole humming, seething world waiting to be released. I learned from watching Malcolm in full flight that I could go much further than timidly nibbling at the edges of people’s peculiar behaviour. I saw that I could get a grip on it and dare to interpret it, to coax meaning from it. The tools were already in my possession. It dawned on me with a dizzy sense of power that in journalism, as well as in fiction, I could call upon the imagery, the spontaneous associations and the emblematic objects that I had learned to trust when I myself was groaning on the therapist’s couch.

I never met Malcolm, or heard her speak, and now I never will; but I would know her written voice anywhere. It’s a literary voice, composed and dry, articulate and free-striding, drawing on deep learning yet plain in its address, and above all fearless, though she could not possibly have been without fear, since she understands it so well in others.

The whole drive of her work is expressed, I think, in a phrase she uses in an essay: “the rapture of a first-hand encounter with another’s lived experience”. Rapture is not too strong a word for the experience of reading Malcolm. You can feast on her writing. Nothing she does is slick or shallow. Her work is always provocative, intellectually and morally complex, but it never hangs heavy. It is airy, racy, mercilessly cut back, so that it surges along with what one critic has called “breathtaking rhetorical velocity”. It sparkles with deft character sketches. It bounds back and forth between straight-ahead reportage and subtle readings of documents and diaries, photographs and paintings.

Malcolm’s whole way of perceiving the world is deeply dyed by the psychoanalytic view of reality. She never theorises or uses jargon. She simply proceeds on the assumption that (as she puts it in her essay collection The Purloined Clinic) “life is lived on two levels of thought and act: one in our awareness and the other only inferable, from dreams, slips of the tongue, and inexplicable behaviour”. This approach, coupled with her natural flair for metaphor and imagery, allows her almost poetic access to meaning in the way people dress and move, speak or decline to speak – and in her most famously (and legally) disputed concern, the question of trust and betrayal in the relations between writers and the people they choose to write about.

You feel the intense pleasure she gets from looking and thinking. She loves the mystery of writing, of why we do it and what we imagine our prerogatives to be. She keeps coming at things from the most unexpected angles, undercutting the certainty she has just reasoned you into accepting, and dropping you through the floor into a realm of fruitful astonishment, and sometimes laughter.

She skates past the traditional teachings on split infinitives or the undesirability of adjectives: she will plait adjectives and adverbs together in sinewy strands, half a dozen of them, each one working hard. An art magazine, she says, has “an impudent, aggressively unbuttoned, improvised, yet oddly poised air”. Her brisk shorthand often has a sting in its tail: “Wilson, who had an unhappy childhood in a mansion …” “The look of a place inhabited by a man who no longer lives with a woman.”

She relishes the juicy signals of people’s self-presentation. An art critic speaks “with the accent of that non-existent aristocratic European country from which so many bookish New York boys have emigrated”. An old man, once Plath’s peevish downstairs neighbour, “was dressed in a kind of jumpsuit made of black and white seersucker; a bit of turquoise shirt showed at the throat, and a medal hung down his chest. He carried his handsome head proudly, and his rosy lips were set in a pout.” A young pianist about to tackle a monster sonata “looked like a dominatrix, or a lion tamer’s assistant. She had come to tame the beast of a piece, this half-naked woman in sadistic high heels. Take that, and that, Beethoven!”

For Malcolm, life is unruly. She is gripped by artists’ struggles to get command of it, not to be abject before it. She is as much at ease with Anton Chekhov (her favourite), Leo Tolstoy, Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf as she is in the working worlds of painters and photographers, musicians, architects and fashion designers.

As an interviewer Malcolm pulls no punches. She will observe a person and the decor of his apartment, his shoes, his clothes, his way of cooking; she will switch on her reel-to-reel, start him talking, then stand back. Her ear is so finely sensitive to speech, and her nerves to the unspoken, that later, when she sits at her desk, she will recreate her subject’s utterances with a lethal accuracy, unfolding his character and worldview like a fan.

She maintains a perfectly judged distance between her eye and its target. She does not suck up to the people she interviews. She gives her subjects rope. She allows herself to be charmed, at least until the subject reveals vacuity or phoniness, and then she snaps shut in a burst of impatience, and veers away. Although at times she draws back in distaste, or contempt, or even pity, she is not someone who deplores the way of the world or sets out, in her writing, to change it. She merely pays it the respect of her matchless eye. In her work there is a complete absence of hot air. There are no boring bits. Reading her is an austerely enchanting kind of fun. Everything she finds interesting she makes even more interesting by the quality of what she brings to it.

But she will not be read lazily. The packed quality of her work and its bracing sophistication make demands on our attention that we respond to with joy. When she drops into cruising gear she has no equal. She assumes intelligence and expects us to work, to pace along with her. Her writing turns us into better readers. There is no temptation to skim: its texture is too rich, too worldly, too surprising. She is brilliant at revealing things in stages, so we gasp, and gasp, and gasp again. She yokes the familiar to the strange in the way that dreams do – suddenly a wall cracks open and a flood of light pours in, or perhaps a perfectly aimed, needle-like beam.

Her presence in the text is lighter, her touch firmer and more delicate, and her alertness to the psychic tangles of the human more accurately attuned than those of any other nonfiction writer I know. All her life she was perfecting this superb narrating and analytical voice, and I for one, even now she’s gone, will follow it anywhere.

  • This is an adapted extract from Helen Garner’s introduction to Forty-One False Starts, published by Text.

Contributor

Helen Garner

The GuardianTramp

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