Janet Malcolm, expression in art, and Shakespeare
Lightning Reviews, February 2023
1. Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory, by Janet Malcolm.
When I was studying for my PhD at NYU, Thomas Nagel, who was on the faculty, sought people to read to a friend of his. The friend suffered from macular degeneration. It would be the New York Times, the New Yorker, that sort of thing. The name Nagel gave rang no bells; while all of us, students and Nagel alike, had our physical form in Manhattan1, Nagel’s intellectual life circulated through a higher plane. Gardner Botsford was an editor at the New Yorker, and I don’t remember being nervous walking into his grand Gramercy Park apartment, but I do remember the embarrassment and humiliation that followed. Reader, I was not then the snobbish and learnèd sophisticate whose erudition you pay so dearly to sample. I would open the New Yorker, and Gardner would ask if there were anything by ----- or -----, names that were favorites or friends of his, names that meant nothing to me. I would stumble over words in French or German, and Gardner would correct me. But the worst moment came when an essay I was reading identified something, metaphorically, with the Line of Maginot. Gardner interrupted and asked if I knew what that was. I admitted I had no idea. He explained it to me, and I was exposed as a fraud. Gardner’s wife was sometimes there, and she and I sometimes exchanged a few words, but I don’t think we ever had a conversation. I was told her name but it also meant nothing to me. She was Janet Malcolm. I fell in love with her writing too late, after Gardner found someone whose neurons could fire at something closer to his historico-cultural frequency.
Still Pictures is the last book Malcolm wrote while alive and the first she’s published since she died. I learned from it that Gardner Botsford fought at Normandy on D-Day, and helped liberate a concentration camp. For him the Line of Maginot, a series of fortifications built by the French after World War I against a future German attack that, when it came, captured Paris in days, was not just a metaphor.
But I did not buy this book to read about Janet Malcolm’s husband. Malcolm, at one point, tells a story about a troublemaking friend of hers. Concluding the story, she writes that