Text Publishing, $29.99 pb, 170 pp
Janet Malcolm knew the difference between the remembered thing and the thing itself. Her writing life and 1984 masterpiece, In the Freud Archives, explored that crevice, asking: is what really matters how we experience life, not life itself?
This makes the photograph a curious thing: its captured details seem to prove memory. An immaculately groomed, smiling mother cradles her wriggling, blurry one-year-old, her gaze still with love. This photograph of Malcolm and her mother, which opens a chapter in Still Pictures, shows that her mother had an ‘exuberance and vivacity and warmth’. But it disguises the thing which undercut their lives. ‘Her mind was elsewhere. This is what I can’t get hold of.’
Concealment functioned as a survival strategy within this otherwise ‘happy’ family, Malcolm explains. She was five when they migrated to New York from Czechoslovakia in 1939, but only after the war was she told that she was Jewish.
Still Pictures is the last of thirteen books Malcolm wrote before her death in 2021 at the age of eighty-six. Twenty-six pieces – each stimulated by a photograph – follow her friend Ian Frazier’s Introduction, written in shock ten weeks after Malcolm’s death: ‘my sense of carrying on an interrupted conversation … remains so strong’. An Afterword from the author’s daughter Anne Malcolm sits in place of a final chapter, its wisdom and steady pace so like her mother’s, indeed like Malcolm’s own mother’s, it is clear that Malcolm’s death was no annulment of life, on or off the page.