Janet Malcolm, a Withering Critic, in a Nostalgic Key | Modern Society of USA

Janet Malcolm, a Withering Critic, in a Nostalgic Key

Janet Malcolm, a Withering Critic, in a Nostalgic Key

She is drawn to decency, cleanliness, sanity, simplicity — these words recur in her work like talismans, when she writes about Edith Wharton or the biographer Quentin Bell. Goodness, but of a narrow kind, matters intensely to her. Malcolm is impatient with weakness and a lack of self-control — with people who “leak.” The goodness that attracts her is born of strength, reserve and resources. It is tangled up with tastefulness, too. The critic Gary Indiana wrote that her reporting is “studded with such novelistic details, which twinkle class assurance from reporter to reader: never mind what X thinks, he or she lives alone in an apartment so messy you and I would never dream of living there.”

The new book follows two more cohesive collections, “The Purloined Clinic” (1992) and “Forty-One False Starts” (2013). Malcolm writes here about the fashion designer Eileen Fisher, the concert pianist Yuja Wang, Tolstoy in translation, a favorite bookstore. What unites these pieces is a mood — heavy, autumnal, nostalgic.

There is a note of valediction. “Godspeed, wonderful bookshop, on your journey into the uncertain future,” Malcolm writes to Argosy, a family-owned holdout in gentrified Manhattan. She writes a eulogy for her friend Joseph Mitchell, the matchless chronicler of New York, and memorializes a long-running radio program she loved in her youth. Several pieces are bouquets to the artists she loves. Memoir has always bored Malcolm, but around the edges of these pieces a furtive autobiography takes shape — we see glimpses of her childhood; the world of her parents, Czech refugees; and how their tastes shaped her own.

Janet MalcolmCreditNina Subin

There is stirring, beautifully structured writing here, particularly in the title essay, a profile of Fisher, which combines many of the writer’s signal interests — our unconscious aggression and the way we methodically and unknowingly recreate the world of our childhood in our adult lives.

Several pieces, however, particularly the short reviews, make for intimate but curiously unsatisfying reading. Revering Malcolm, as I do, I was at first confused. What has gone wrong? Even if her subjects bore you, she is never dull. As she wrote of Irving Penn, his portraits are Penns before they are photographs of his subjects. We read a piece by Malcolm for Malcolm — for the complicity she creates with the reader, the novelistic eye for gestures, the density of detail.

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