Janet Malcolm made me clean my room. It was her description of Trevor Thomas’s home that got me, in her book The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Thomas lived in the flat below Plath’s and, in a 1986 interview in the Independent, he accused Plath’s ex-husband of partying with bongo drums on the night of her funeral. Thomas was in his early eighties when Malcolm visited him. ‘I was not prepared for what I saw,’ she writes of Thomas’s flat.
Along the walls and on the floor on every surface hundreds, perhaps thousands, of objects were piled … over everything was a film of dust … one could see into a dark bedroom with an unmade bed, on which rumpled bedding and vague piles of clothes lay … the kitchen—the most disturbing room of all … where all the functions of the room had been cancelled out.
It was this passage that propelled me, with not a small degree of violence, from the horizontal position on my bed.
What was it that had me picking up jeans and T-shirts, collecting dust off my desk in great sweeping motions, dragging bobby pins, apple stickers and paperclips on the way? There were questions that ran not through my mind but through that small pocket of space between my lungs, that place where exists a certain kernel of vitality, prone to lighting up like a show ground one moment, sinking heavy as a stone the next.
The public image of Janet Malcolm throughout her career has been a mercurial one, shifty as a green snake in reflector eyewear, a picture less like a mirage than a cracked mirror. Read any serious attempt at a biographical snapshot about ‘the most dangerous interviewer in journalism’ and meet the following woman: she is ‘always thrilling and dangerous’, with the ‘tone of the novelist and the energy of an old-fashioned gumshoe’. She is a writer who is ‘not one for canned vegetables and is always after the real thing’ and who ‘occupies the strange glittering territory between controversy and the establishment’. Malcolm’s work can be seen ‘as a series of case studies in defeated amour-propre’; it is ‘for grown-ups but has always met great resistance’, and for her ‘frontal attack on our defences … she is not easily forgiven’. As an interviewee Janet Malcolm is notoriously evasive, intelligent and measured. Katie Roiphe’s 2011 interview with her is an excruciating read, with Malcolm expertly dodging questions, quoting herself and instructing the diligent Roiphe on the best approach for her article.
Malcolm was born in Prague in 1934, and at five years old she migrated to
America, where she began her writing career for the school paper, the Michigan Daily. Her work debuted in the New Yorker and her first husband, with whom she had a daughter, died in 1975. Malcolm later married her editor at the New Yorker, Gardner Botsford, and in 1984 she was the defendant in a libel trial brought by one of her subjects, Jeffrey Masson, who sued her for fabricating damaging quotes. Malcolm is an academic, a biographer, a critic and an essayist. She describes herself as impatient and is afraid to be boring. She drinks tea, not coffee.
But these facts tell us very little, as Malcolm’s most famous of subjects, Russian playwright and short-story writer Anton Chekhov, would agree. In her book Reading Chekhov Malcolm quotes Chekhov’s response to a journalist’s request for his biography. ‘Write what you want,’ he answered. ‘If there are no facts, substitute something lyrical’.
It is Malcolm’s work on the moral problem of journalism for which she is best known, and her work on the question of truth for which she is most feared. Malcolm asks: Can we ever see things as they really are? To what extent can we report on our own lives and on the lives of others? And if we are in this business of telling stories, what are we telling, to whom and why?
In Malcolm’s controversial book The Journalist and the Murderer, Jeffrey MacDonald, a convicted murderer, sues his biographer, journalist Joe McGinniss, for defamation. The book is infamous for its provocative, broad brushstroke of a first sentence: ‘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.’
The Journalist and the Murderer is many things. At its most basic it is a killer meditation on the ethics of journalism, where the journalist-subject relationship is sliced, diced, hung, quartered, chopped, boiled, chewed up, spat out and finally slid under the microscope. But it’s also a tale of a love affair gone wrong. MacDonald—desperate to appeal against his guilt through biography—is the jilted lover and McGinniss, in writing the biography Fatal Vision, commits the ultimate betrayal.
McGinniss had earlier achieved literary success with his 1969 work The Selling of the President 1968 but when he met MacDonald and agreed to tell his story,
he was still a relatively obscure author. McGinniss proceeded to develop a close friendship with the accused murderer: the pair shared housing, drank together, exercised together and exchanged regular and intimate correspondence.
‘Dear Jeff’, writes McGinniss, ‘Every morning for a week now I’ve been waking up wondering where you are.’ And this: ‘God damn it Jeff one of the worst things about all this is how suddenly and totally all of your friends—self included—have been deprived of the pleasure of your company.’ It is not hard to see then how the revelation in his book that McGinniss always felt, and became more certain as their relationship developed, that MacDonald was guilty, came as a shock to MacDonald. He just didn’t see it coming.
By examining this relationship Malcolm poses the question: How do we cope when our expectations of a trusted one are dashed? And in answering, Malcolm continues the work she began in her first book, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, in which she investigates how we form relationships, how we behave when we are in them, and what happens as a consequence of our attachments. What is so interesting about The Journalist and the Murderer is Malcolm’s capacity to blur the lines between these two players, between villain and hero, lover and beloved, murderer and journalist. We are never really sure whose side Malcolm is on, or whose we should take, only that a betrayal has taken place the likes of which can never be resolved.
By looking at Psychoanalysis we are able to understand a little better what took place between McGinniss and MacDonald and retrace some of the themes that have driven Malcolm since the beginning of her career. This book, written through the lens of Freudian theory, is a rumination on the relationship between a psychoanalyst and his patient. The psychoanalyst, to whom Malcolm gives the pseudonym Aaron Green, talks about his experience as an analyst dealing with the transference of his patients. Broadly speaking, as Malcolm presents it, similar threads run through the therapeutic relationship and through the journalist-subject one. By way of explanation, Green tells her that Freud put it best when he described how people are constructed in such
a way that when one person exhibits a strong emotional, instinctual attitude towards another, there is a natural tendency to comply with it, to adopt a complementary attitude. ‘Love breeds love,’ says Green. ‘And similarly, hatred, belligerence, spite, jealousy, rivalry—when they arise in analysis—arouse the complementary hostile feelings.’
Although in Psychoanalysis Malcolm creates a certain deliberate distance between herself and the reader (we never know what she makes of Green’s often arrogant and short-sighted commentary), it is possible to take some confident steps towards understanding what it is that happens between people in an intimate space of togetherness. Take the McGinniss-MacDonald case. No, we can’t ever know exactly what went on between these men because we were not there. And even if we were there—even if we were either McGinniss or MacDonald—could we then know for sure who was right and who was wrong? Who was villain and who was victim? But this state of not knowing is where truth-seeking begins.
In Malcolm’s work we get a double whammy: a good story, always, and a method. She investigates scenarios but looks past the sheer biographical detail to get at what really counts. In The Journalist and the Murderer, when Malcolm compares the journalist-subject relationship to the therapist-client relationship and the lawyer-client relationship, she provides us not with a linear narrative of problem and solution but a circulatory system, a method with which to analyse what happens between two people as being a consequence of the nature of that relationship and the actions and behaviour of the people in it.
For Malcolm, the space between the visible, the necessary, the obvious, the real, is the critical space. The nature of her work (her choice of subjects ranges from lesbian Jews in the Holocaust to the rights of convicted murderers to the paradoxes of the law) shows us that she is committed to working in mixed-up, messed-up territory, to try to find meaning in contexts that very often fall in the too-hard basket for other journalists, writers, and for the wider society.
Diana and Nikon is another of Malcolm’s books concerned with illuminating the unmentionable, the unseeable. In this book Malcolm is interested in the capacity of photography to illuminate not only the subject but also the relationship between the artist and the subject. Malcolm looks at photographers whose work is about peeling back the layers and getting at the truth, and artists who want to show things as they really are or show things we are not in the habit of seeing.’
Of Robert Frank, the ‘Mallet of New Photography’, Malcolm says she admires him because he showed America ‘at its most depressing and pathetic’ by ‘permitting the camera [to do] what no art photographer had ever hitherto let it get away with’, and further that ‘he grasped that the camera is equipped as no other medium is to show us things in their worst possible aspect’. Similarly, in discussing the work of Diane Arbus, who celebrates her own relationship with the marginal through photography, Malcolm points to a photograph titled Seated Man in a Bra and Stockings as lucidly laying out the story of Arbus’s encounter with the forbidden and as evidence of Arbus’s artistic triumph through her travels into unchartered territory. In Diana and Nikon Malcolm reveals her interest in looking into those rarely seen spaces, in focusing on artists whose work is based on their courage and an authentic urge to grapple with the unseeable, to illuminate moments of ‘existential rapture in which the phenomenon of human happiness seems proved’.
Photography, says Malcolm, is not just a product that shows something, but a method through which we—as viewers and makers of the art—might learn to see. That this compilation of essays was written between 1975 and 1997 suggests that this relationship between things, in this case between art and the makers of art, as well as the idea of dealing, in a sense, with the dead, has propelled Malcolm’s work throughout her career.
Truth and art, as well as the tension between players, is the impetus for Malcolm’s most breathtaking and illuminating work, The Silent Woman. In this book Malcolm embarks on a process of literary detection in which she raises pertinent questions to do with seeking, finding and representing truth. In creating a book about Plath’s life and death, in trying to solve the mystery of why the weight of public opinion has fallen so squarely on Plath’s side and against Ted Hughes, and in bringing to bear her scepticism on the claims of biography to present the truth about a life, and a death, Janet Malcolm created what James Wood calls ‘one of the of the deepest, loveliest, and most problematic things’ she has ever written.
The Silent Woman responds to the mythologising of Sylvia Plath’s life since her suicide in 1963 and is also a case study in biography gone wrong. Just as Malcolm investigated ‘what went wrong’ between MacDonald and McGinniss in The Journalist and the Murderer, in The Silent Woman she investigates ‘what went wrong’ between writer Anne Stevenson and Plath’s sister-in-law and literary executor of Plath’s work, Olwyn Hughes, who had commissioned Stevenson to write the biography of Plath, Bitter Fame. When Bitter Fame came out, it enraged the public and all but destroyed Stevenson’s writing career. Malcolm describes how ‘every now and then, a biography comes along that strangely displeases the public … something causes the reader to back away from the writer and refuse to accompany him down the corridor’. Bitter Fame, Malcolm writes, ‘draws a portrait of Plath as a highly self-involved and confused, unstable, driven, perfectionistic, rather humourless young woman, whose suicide remains a mystery, as does the source of her art, and who doesn’t add up’. The public and critics alike didn’t like it. While Malcolm argues the book is one of the most intelligent of all the Plath biographies, she is nevertheless interested in what happened during the writing process of Bitter Fame to produce such an unpopular work.
Malcolm characteristically looks to the subjects—she interviews Olwyn Hughes and Anne Stevenson and a number of other players to figure out ‘what went wrong’ and concludes that Bitter Fame was a book as much about the problems of biographical writing as about Sylvia Plath. According to Stevenson, literary executor Hughes had so meddled in the writing process that the product became a fractured amalgamation of Stevenson’s work and Hughes’ prerogative. Stevenson felt that, metaphorically speaking, Hughes had stood over her as she wrote and ripped the chair from under her, chastising and berating her whenever she put something down that wasn’t to Olwyn Hughes’ liking. The story according to Hughes was that she simply chose the wrong person to write the biography. ‘Let’s face it, Anne was a mistake,’ Olwyn Hughes told Malcolm. ‘She is a good little poet, but she doesn’t have a hungry lively mind. I had to nanny her along. She never quite grasped Sylvia’s nature.’
Plenty of other things also offended Hughes: she felt that the biographer was overbearing, ‘kept one dancing about with her silly little notes’. Hughes maintained that the truth is always in the facts. ‘I wanted the facts to be on the record,’ she says. ‘Biography isn’t a poem, it isn’t a novel, it’s a document.’ So the dilemma between literary executor and biographer came from, among other things, a clash of expectations. Olwyn Hughes subscribes to the theory that biography is an uncreative enterprise, it is a setting down of the truth, a case of getting it right. But Malcolm is also interested in how each woman made sense of the fallout. Where Hughes is scathing of Stevenson and sees her as having been ill-equipped for the job, Stevenson becomes a wounded artist, a victim, and her own words in a letter to Hughes show just how she was reduced to a condition of helpless abjection:
‘A person can take just so much flak, so much of being pushed into the mud, kicked, insulted, threatened, bullied, bulldozed into submission,’ she says and claims that her eyesight, her digestion, and the poems she might have written were all victims of Olwyn’s `relentless persecution’.
Through her encounters with Anne Stevenson and Olwyn Hughes, and her access to correspondence between the two, Malcolm reveals something not dissimilar to what she is getting at in The Journalist and the Murderer: that there is a game going on between these two people, one ‘being played in a room dark and gloomy’ and one frequently characterised by silence. Hughes tells Malcolm of a time she slung accusatory statements at Plath and in response Plath ‘glared accusingly with a half terrified half furious look’ and ‘made no reply but kept up her unnerving stare.’ Olwyn considers it aggressive of the poet to have left at dawn, depriving her sister-in-law of any opportunity to ‘make it up’. Reflecting on this, Malcolm, writes:
Plath, as we know, left at dawn on another day, in 1963. The suicide goes away and the survivors are forever in the wrong. They are like the damned, who can never make amends, who have no prospect of grace. Olwyn’s ‘why doesn’t she say something?’ expresses the anguish of those who have been left without a word in a lake of fire.
Malcolm’s method in presenting such fraught situations is to show that the questions, not the answers, bring us closest to the truth. In The Silent Woman, Malcolm’s investigations and her curiosity so vigorously challenge the claims of biography to present the truth about a life in a way that James Wood, quoted on the back cover of the 1995 edition, describes as ‘so subtle, so patiently analytical, and so true that it is difficult to envisage anyone writing again about Plath and Hughes’.
Janet Malcolm’s writing is always about the truth but hardly ever delivers it. Instead, her work does something that is dangerous indeed: it moves you to action, forces you to take some step towards if not restoring order and finding meaning then at least seeing things as they really are. Whether it’s the journalist-subject relationship, the patient-analyst one, husband-wife, lawyer-client, photographer-subject or writer-poem, Janet Malcolm is a detective, magnifying the unspeakable and unnameable ties that exist between people, an investigator of that space in between, of that gap between buildings where the wind gets stuck and tries to suck you in.
After I had cleaned my room I couldn’t go back to reading The Silent Woman, not straightaway. When I was ready for it, this is what Malcolm had to say:
Later, as I thought about Thomas’s house, it appeared to me as a kind of monstrous allegory of truth. This is the way things are, the place says. This is unmediated actuality, in all its multiplicity, randomness, inconsistency, redundancy, authenticity. Before the magisterial mess of Trevor Thomas’s house, the orderly houses that most of us live in seem meagre and lifeless—as, in the same way, the narratives called biographies pale and shrink in the face of the disorderly actuality that is life.