Writer and journalist Janet Malcolm passed away in New York City on June 16, aged 86. Born under the name of Jana Wienerova, on July 8, 1934, in Prague, she was, since the 1960s, one of the pillars of the prestigious magazine The New Yorker and the demanding author of several investigative books. Described by her colleagues as fiercely intelligent, tirelessly analytical, of immense rigor, she was inhabited by the scruple of “To question any act of final judgment”, said the current editor of the New Yorker, David Remnick, on the news of his death.
Daughter of a psychiatrist, she emigrated, in 1939, at the age of 5, to the United States with her family, who fled the Nazi persecutions against the Jews. She completed her studies at the University of Michigan then, after obtaining her diploma, moved to Washington with her first husband, who died in 1975. He served as a literary critic at the New Yorker. She herself began to collaborate there in the early 1960s.
She first published articles on children’s literature, shopping and design. Then turned to photographic criticism to launch, from 1978, in long formats. She then takes as a model her colleague Joseph Mitchell, who is included as one of the protagonists of her own New York chronicles. This will be one of Malcolm’s antiphons: one cannot fade from the landscape, omit to inform readers of the modalities of enunciation and of the more or less distant place occupied by the reporter, at the risk of dishonesty. Especially since, according to her, the author’s “I” is a creation as distinct from the “I” of everyday life as Superman is from Clark Kent.
“A story of rare vivacity”
The question of journalistic fallibility runs through Forty-one false starts, which examines the various ways of approaching and describing a model, each limiting the others. “To write about the painter David Salle is to be forced into a sort of parody of his melancholy art of fragments, quotes, absences – an art that refuses to be one thing or to find one thing more interesting, beautiful or meaningful than another », Janet Malcolm concludes at the end of this long-term portrait-collage (nearly 13,000 words).
This 40-page report was published in 1994, the year a court ruled in favor of Janet Malcolm after a decade of proceedings following the lawsuit brought by psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson. The latter sued her for defamation, claiming that she had falsified some of his remarks in Storm at the Freud Archives (PUF, 1986).
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