An unbearable rightness of seeing

THE PURLOINED CLINIC: Selected Writings by Janet Malcolm, Papermac pounds 12
Click to follow
The pieces collected here were almost all published in the 1980s in the New Yorker or the New York Review of Books. They include three essays taking issue with various trends in psychoanalysis, a handful of book reviews, and three long "reports" - the first on the world of family therapy, the second on the New York art scene of the 1980s, the last "a semi-autobiographical" account of a trip to post-Communist Prague.

Published 40 years ago, there would be nothing very surprising about Malcolm's outlook and interests. But today these writings seem unfashionably austere and highbrow. Malcolm has remained completely untouched by everyone else's interest in pop-culture, and by the increasing speed, shortened attention-span and shrinking memory of the modern world. Her mental landscape is dominated by Proust and Henry James, 19th-century Russian novelists, Freud, literary and artistic Modernism in all its forms, and Vaclav Havel. (Malcolm's Jewish family escaped from Czechoslovakia just before the Nazi invasion, and a special place in her pantheon is reserved for Havel, possibly "the first nonauthoritarian world leader in history".) Think of Camille Paglia - frivolous, sensationalist, populist - and then think of her opposite and you have Janet Malcolm. This is not to say that Malcolm is an ivory- tower academic; her work takes her into the real world and she cares passionately about what is going on. But she sees no point in pretending that life, art or psycho-analysis is easy or fun. She is forever calling us to grow up.

Because Malcolm is so serious, thorough and scrupulous, she can be devastatingly good when sitting as judge on a quarrel, as she did in The Freud Archives where she examined Jeffrey Masson's accusations against Freud and his literary executors, or in The Silent Woman, her investigation of the life and death of Sylvia Plath. You trust Malcolm and never suspect her, as you do others, of prurience.

At times these qualities serve her well here too. The longest piece in the collection, "A Girl of the Zeitgeist", (a New Yorker report that took over a year to write) is an example. Ostensibly a profile of Ingrid Sischy, a radical young editor of Art Forum (in the Eighties America's leading journal of avant-garde art), it becomes an extended tour of New York's art scene. Malcolm's unmannered, matter-of-fact, coolly impersonal style is ideally suited to its subject; the world she describes, the world of Basquiat, Schnabel, Keith Haring, is so outlandish, it does not need any authorial gloss. We get a snapshot which exactly captures the heady mixture of talent, commitment, charlatanism and ambition that is contemporary art.

The book reviews reprinted here are intelligent, learned and quietly authoritative - if they say that Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being is better than his The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, then it almost certainly is. But often Malcolm's restraint and subtlety make for rather lifeless reviews, even allowing for the fact that American reviewers are better mannered and politer than we are. There is something not only inevitable but rather pedestrian in Malcolm's rebuttal of Thomas Wolfe's populist attack on modern architecture in From Bauhaus to Our House. The same is true of her long report from Prague written at the time of Havel's inauguration: big themes do appear in the narrative - she meets dissidents and writes on Havel's life and work - but for the most part Malcolm devotes herself to a sensitive but (to me) rather flat and structureless account of ordinary meetings with ordinary Czechs.

An essay on psychoanalysis from 1983 makes a distinction between the role of the artist and the role of the analyst: while the former works to give life a coherence it lacks in reality, the job of the analyst, Malcolm argues, is to remind people prone to telling themselves stories, how messy reality really is: to permit the analysand "to see that his life is at once more disorderly and risky and interesting and free than he had dared to imagine". I take it that this is also, as Malcolm sees it, the job of the critic - or the job of the species of critic she wants to be. Like the analysts she defends here, she is a formal, austere presence, entirely committed to the truth, however complicated, structureless or flat that may be. I can see how in their seriousness, restraint and artlessness her writings are admirable. But that does not always make them much fun to read.