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Posts Tagged ‘Janet Malcolm’

Staff Picks: Local News, Livid Librarians, Loving It All

July 31, 2015 | by


A still from James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket

When Ingrid Sischy died last week, most obituaries remembered her primarily as the editor of Interview, which she was, for eighteen years. But I’ve always thought of her as an ex-editor of Artforum, which she ran for most of the eighties. That decade saw a profound change in what was considered art, how it would be exhibited, and how it would be discussed in, among other places, the most important art magazine of the day—and Sischy, the first woman editor of Artforum, was the right man for the job. I’m grateful to our publisher, Susannah Hunnewell, for sending me Janet Malcolm’s magnificent “A Girl of the Zeitgeist,” a two-part article on Sischy and Artforum and the art world that appeared in The New Yorker in 1986. In the process of profiling Sischy, Malcolm provides generous sketches of the magazine’s earlier years as well as the concerns of Sischy’s day, including the “trial” of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc and the “Primitivism” show at MoMA. Sischy’s fair-mindedness and originality as an art editor come to the fore, but so does the silliness of art-world kerfuffles and the startling differences between generations and modes of thought. Malcolm, for instance, reproduces a very pissy response by the critic Barbara Rose in which she decries Sischy’s Artforum as a “media magazine” and pits her cohorts, who were “all very impressed by Wittgenstein and by Anglo-American philosophy,” against Sontagian cultural permissiveness, in which “you could just love everything that was going on, you could be positive and optimistic and just love it all.” —Nicole Rudick

k10442One of the many perceptive essays in The Meaning of the Library (it doesn’t beg to be taken to the beach, I know) is Laura Marcus’s “The Library in Film: Order and Mystery,” which finds compelling motifs in movie scenes set in libraries. On film, it seems, our libraries are presented with curious regularity as mazes (Hitchcock’s Blackmail), haunted repositories of secrets (Ghostbusters, James Bridges’s The Paper Chase), dusty Egyptological tombs (Alain Resnais’s Toute la mémoire du monde), or utopias of knowledge (Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire). “It is striking,” Marcus writes, “how so many films have taken up these questions of order and of mystery or confusion, as well as ideas of haunting in relationship to the book and the library.” She finds intriguing outliers, too, such as 1932’s Forbidden, in which Barbara Stanwyck’s bitter small-town librarian, having endured insults from local children, says, “I wish I owned this library … I’d get an axe and smash it to a million pieces, then I’d set fire to the whole town and play a ukulele while it burned.” —Dan Piepenbring
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The Last Word

July 16, 2015 | by

The conundrum of writing about the dead.


Photo: Jennifer Boyer

Recently, I stood in the woods near Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland—the same woods where Jews waited to enter the gas chambers. It was a picnic-worthy spring day. Sunlight filtered through the pine trees. Unable to imagine the horror that had happened there, my thoughts turned instead to a picture I had seen the day before. It was captioned “Sniatyn—tormenting Jews before their execution,” and it shows five naked Jews—four men and a boy—and a handful of Nazis in uniform and civilian clothing holding sticks, apparently gathering before the execution. One of the Jewish men stands looking at the ground with his hands folded in front of him, the Jewish boy is still wearing his hat.

Whenever I see this photograph, I always have the same thought: After all that they have suffered, why should they also suffer the indignity of our gaze? I would not want to be seen in this moment of humiliation. This thought is immediately replaced by another: they are not suffering our gaze. They are dead, they are not suffering anything. And I am looking at them precisely because they were humiliated—without this humiliation, they would have slipped from seen to unseen, as almost all the dead do. They have been chosen for contemporary viewing because this moment tells a larger story that eclipses any squeamishness we have about displaying them in such a scene of degradation. Read More »

Still Flaming After All These Years, and Other News

June 12, 2015 | by


Frederic Lord Leighton, Flaming June, 1830–1896.

  • Everyone holds up Anna Karenina as a milestone for realism—“We are not to take Anna Karénine as a work of art; we are to take it as a piece of life,” Matthew Arnold wrote—but Janet Malcolm raises an eyebrow at all that. “The book’s ‘astonishing immediacy’ is nothing if not an object of the exaggeration, distortion, and dissimulation through which each scene is rendered … If the dream is father to imaginative literature, Tolstoy may be the novelist who most closely hews to its deep structures.”
  • Now at the Frick Collection: Frederic Leighton’s Flaming June, an iconic Victorian painting whose subject’s well-developed right thigh set the world on fire. “The beautiful woman asleep in some archaic past was a recurrent motif in Victorian art … The figure of the languid woman is more than just an object of erotic desire. She’s the opposite of the rationalist, ever-striving, murderously competitive spirit—once conventionally thought of as distinctively masculine. She embodies a yearning to relax, to retire from the fray and take pleasure in just being alive.”
  • Jenny Diski is dying of lung cancer, and facing the illness the only way she knows how: in prose. “A marvel of steady and dispassionate self-revelation, Diski’s cancer essays are bracingly devoid of sententiousness, sentimentality or any kind of spiritual urge or twitch … they also testify to an inner life of undiminished hyperactivity.”
  • Nesh, gloaming, cochineal, swamm, clart: writers pick their favorite words. “The chosen words are mostly regional, often monosyllabic, and frequently richly onomatopoeic: the natural poetry of the heterogeneous English-speaking tongue.”
  • In which Orson Welles dabbles in pornography: in a pro-bono gig for the picture 3 A. M., the filmmaker “wound up editing a hard-core lesbian shower scene that he couldn’t resist cutting in Wellesian fashion with low camera angles and other trademark flair.”

Staff Picks: H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, Apocalyptic Dry-humping

April 3, 2015 | by


A still from Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y.

The hysteria and mystery surrounding the Germanwings crash have led me back to Johan Grimonprez’s Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, a 1997 film collage that traces the history of plane hijackings—and, just as important, the media fixation on those hijackings. When Tom McCarthy presented Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y at Film Society of Lincoln Center last month, he praised its presentation of “media as a crypt from which history is leaking out” and “terrorism as a theological condition.” The film’s macabre footage captivates, in no small part because of Grimonprez’s shrewd, ironical editing. In one sequence, a grinning boy just rescued from a hijacked plane tells reporters, “I had a good time, I guess”; in another, a girl, still violently crying, is hustled off a recuperated aircraft only to be led into the klieg lights of a press junket. As McCarthy pointed out, the project hasn’t aged well—it came before 9/11, after all, and its focus on television can feel quaint in the age of the smartphone—but as a meditation on the codependency of media and terrorism, it remains invaluable. Sprinkled throughout the film are spoken excerpts from DeLillo’s Mao II, which feel, whenever they’re incanted, truer than ever: “In societies reduced to blur and glut, terror is the only meaningful act.” —Dan Piepenbring

Someone who has “a lasting liking for the cryptic and the ambiguous and the incantatory and the disconnected and the extravagant and the oracular and the apocalyptic” might turn out to be pedantic and self-absorbed, but chances are, they’re the sort of person you want to know deeply but are never able to. The person in question here is Joseph Mitchell, the rather enigmatic subject of a new biography that is itself the subject of a review by Janet Malcolm in the latest New York Review of Books. (See also our series “Big, Bent Ears,” which takes Mitchell as a subject.) Malcolm is an obvious choice for the assignment, but that doesn’t detract from how fun it is to read her on Mitchell. “Where the hell is this going?” she asks about a rambling conversation between Mitchell and one of his subjects. “As in all of Mitchell’s pieces everything is always going somewhere, though not necessarily so you’d notice.” Malcolm is admiring of Mitchell’s work, reverential even, but astute. When Thomas Kunkel, Mitchell’s biographer, discovers that his subject invented portions of his nonfiction stories and makes excuses for these fabrications, Malcolm puts him in his place: “Few of us have gone as far as Mitchell in bending actuality to our artistic will. This is not because we are more virtuous than Mitchell. It is because we are less gifted than Mitchell.” —Nicole Rudick
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Coming Soon: More Vengeful Deities, and Other News

November 13, 2014 | by


The wrath of God.

  • Everyone’s going nuts for Serial, an impeccably reported (and very self-aware) true-crime podcast spun off from This American Life. But Janet Malcolm was up to something similar many decades ago, wasn’t she?
  • Then again, this should come as no surprise. “Hasn’t it all been done before? Perhaps better than anyone today could ever do it?” Why should any of us bother with the new when so much of the old is out there waiting for us?
  • Actually, why should any of us leave our houses at all? We’re just going to encounter the absurd—a bunch of loony scholars, for instance, tooling around town with a life-size statue of Jane Austen in tow …
  • And even the best literature offers no respite from the absurd and the terrifying. Quite the opposite. “In August a man in the Bronx tied a chain to a pole, wrapped it around his neck, got behind the wheel of his Honda and stepped on the accelerator. The chain severed his head from his body, which crashed through the windscreen and landed on the street when the Honda slammed into a parked car … It put me in mind of a passage early in Donald Antrim’s first novel, Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World.”
  • But it’s all right. As the world grows more confused and tempestuous, we’ll at least find ourselves with more righteous, awesome, angry gods. A new study finds that “belief in moralizing high gods is ‘more prevalent among societies that inhabit poorer environments and are more prone to ecological distress’ … In societies that exist in places with violent monsoon seasons or periods of extreme drought, cooperation is more important than it is in temperate areas … And what better way to promote cooperation and fair play than the idea of an all-seeing god who demands it?”


What We’re Loving: Adventures in Silhouette; Red Sauce, Whiskey, and Snow; the Narcissistic Hypocrisy at the Center of Human Nature

January 3, 2014 | by

Lotte Reiniger Adventures of Prince Achmed

I’m embarrassed to admit that I barely touched a book over the holidays (besides 84, Charing Cross Road, which I’m in the habit of rereading most years around Christmastime), but I did see a spectacular movie whose imagery I can’t get out of my head. In 1923, a talented artist named Lotte Reiniger was approached by a banker looking to make an investment. He suggested that Reiniger parlay her particular skill—cutting delicate silhouette art—into making a feature-length animated film. Three years and over 250,000 hand-cut images later, The Adventures of Prince Achmed premiered in Berlin. The story is a mélange of tales from the Thousand and One Nights, but good luck paying attention to the plot; the visuals are so arresting that they’ll keep you from focusing on more than one character or bit of pattern during any given scene. The original print of Prince Achmed is lost—a casualty of the Battle of Berlin, in 1945—but thanks to a restoration project completed a little over ten years ago, a fully colorized (and scored!) version is available on DVD from Milestone Films. —Clare Fentress

I’m a sucker for culinary memoirs by authors who aren’t primarily considered “food writers”—a genre that includes work by such varied names as A. J. Liebling, Laurie Colwin, and Jim Harrison. (The Pat Conroy Cookbook and The Roald Dahl Cookbook, respectively, also deserve honorable mentions.) Jason Epstein is best known as a publisher and cofounder of The New York Review of Books, but he’s also an accomplished cook and gourmet. Eating, the 2009 collection of Epstein’s food essays, covers family recipes, his days working as a professional cook, and, of course, the memorable meals he has shared with various literary luminaries. Although Eating is by no means gossipy or indiscreet (the only one who comes under the knife is Roy Cohn, with whom Epstein once lunched at 21), it’s filled with terrific vignettes; one could do worse than lunch, on a ship, with Edmund Wilson and Buster Keaton—“lobster over linguine with a bottle of Chablis beneath a perfect sky.” —Sadie O. Stein

Not long ago—but long enough that I’ve forgotten how it happened—I asked you to explain why exactly the rediscovery of Aristotle, from Arabic sources, mattered so much to medieval theologians. You recommended Étienne Gilson’s 1938 classic primer Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages. Over the vacation a copy arrived at my house from a used bookstore, without any note. I’ve read Gilson’s lectures with great pleasure, and a keen sense of intellectual relief, but I can’t think who you are. Who are you? —Lorin Stein Read More »