Recently the editor of Bookforum magazine traveled three hours to interview Janet Malcolm at her summer home in Massachusetts. Shortly into their conversation, she broke off one of her tortured, stuttering answers to paraphrase the dancer Isadora Duncan: "If I could describe it, I wouldn't have to dance it."
Malcolm asked why he didn't forgo the Herculean struggle to extract articulate answers from her, and review her new book, Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, instead. He closed his notebook, they had lunch, and he returned to New York to write a review.
Malcolm recounts this anecdote midway through our conversation in her capacious, parkside Manhattan apartment, as a cautionary tale against expecting too much from her.
Celebrated for her long, ferociously opinionated New Yorker profiles, she is understandably wary of the interview process. In The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), Malcolm described the inevitable betrayal involved in the journalist-subject encounter; the subject will regress like a patient in psychoanalysis, childishly trusting his or her questioner, only to discover that the journalist is not a compassionate listener but a professional with his or her own agenda and story to construct. Thus, according to the book's oft-quoted opening: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible."
Malcolm, 73, is a small, fragile-looking woman, whose solicitous manner betrays nothing of her work's caustic, judgmental tone. She is precise and discreet, in person and print. You can imagine her as an inconspicuous observer, fading into the background while her unsuspecting interview subjects, mistaking timorousness for sympathy, fill the silence and fall into her trap. The key to being a shrewd interviewer, Malcolm says, is "to keep your mouth shut."
But reticence, I comment, isn't much help interviewing her. "The people I interview welcome the chance of self-expression, whereas I don't have anything to sell except my book."
Her subjects generally regret being so voluble - most famously Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, the iconoclastic psychoanalyst who was anointed, then fired as, director of the sacred Freud archives. When Masson saw himself portrayed as a brash narcissist in the brace of New Yorker articles which became In The Freud Archives (1984), he sued for libel. Masson alleged that Malcolm fabricated quotations in which he reportedly described himself as "an intellectual gigolo" who has bedded over 1,000 women and planned to turn Freud's house into a place of "sex, women and fun."
The decade-long, $10 million lawsuit came to a close when the court finally ruled in Malcolm's favour, but not before Malcolm was ridiculed by colleagues for her claims that journalists should compress, rearrange and smooth over quotations to remain faithful to the meaning, rather than the actuality, of speech. Malcolm now insists that I set aside my voice-recorder and take written notes instead, chafing at "overly literal" journalists who have quoted her "tape-recordese."
"People talk in ungrammatical, unwriterly ways," she says. "I don't do good soundbites. I'm not fast on my feet. I think of myself as more of a maker than a thinker."
When Malcolm started occasionally giving interviews several years ago, she was struck by the power of the question: "People feel that they must answer them. Then I realized I can just say, 'I can't.'" She regrets not having spoken to the press during the Masson affair, admitting "you can't blame people for not understanding something when they've only heard one side."
The prestige of The New Yorker contributed to her naivety. "It was like an ivory tower," she says. "We assumed that everybody would know that what we did was ethical and correct."
Malcolm came to controversy late, having begun her career with The New Yorker in 1965 writing a column about home furnishings and design. "The task of describing things in detail - there were no illustrations - and of going to shops and trying not to be seen while taking notes, turned out to be great preparation for journalistic work."
She made her first foray into extended reportage in the late Seventies, after quitting smoking and finding herself unable to write: "Writing was so entwined with smoking for me, so I decided to do a piece that required reporting, to wean myself from that smoking-writing association."
After completing several years of psychoanalysis, she began reading Freud and speaking with other analysts, to understand what had taken place. One of the analysts, Aaron Green, was particularly garrulous and became the centerpin of Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession (1981). Although Malcolm pointedly satirized the dogmatism of New York's psychoanalytic establishment, the book became assigned reading in many training seminars.
"They thought it was a very clear exposition of psychoanalytic theory, which is a measure of how murky their books must be if they have to take a popular text," she says.
MALCOLM'S FATHER was a Czech psychiatrist, who fled Prague with his family in 1939. So in Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, Malcolm is understandably exercised by the question of how the charismatic modernist writer Gertrude Stein won enough friends for the Jewish lesbian mÃ©nage to survive in Nazi-occupied France. In her 1945 memoir of wartime life, Wars I Have Seen, the reactionary Stein neglects to mention her or Alice Toklas's Jewishness.
"I don't think I've ever been moved by anything Stein wrote," says Malcolm, "but an exception is the last part of Wars I Have Seen where she writes about how the war is coming to an end, and the resistance [fighters] are coming out of hiding - where she's finally gotten it, where she finally understands how bad the Germans are, and she keeps using the phrase honneur aux maquis." Malcolm's previous book, Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey, was a fusion of criticism, biography and travelogue, in which Malcolm deprecates her mission as "the absurdist farce of a literary pilgrim who leaves the magical pages of a work of genius and travels to an 'original scene' that can only fall short of expectations."
As with The Silent Woman (1994), her study of Sylvia Plath's afterlife as the subject of biography, Reading Chekhov was less a work of literary biography than a deconstruction of it, examining the half-truths and omissions involved in stitching together the story of a life. Malcolm loved Chekhov's short stories, always crying in the same places when she reread them. But she did not feel that way about Stein, whose unintelligible, avant-garde prose has meant that her works have never attained a wide readership.
"'I felt funny' - Stein often used that phrase - about writing about a writer whose work I didn't enjoy," says Malcolm. "But I came to respect her achievement, mainly the originality and freshness of her language. Somewhat one felt chastened by it, because it makes what we say seem so banal."
Malcolm shows me her mutilated copy of Stein's 925-page The Making of Americans, which she cut up into six pieces to read on the subway and make the prospect of finishing it less daunting.
Malcolm first read Stein in 1954, when her then Ã la mode books were being passed around the affected student literati at the University of Michigan. She identifies her younger self with the biographer Elizabeth Sprigge, who cast herself as the coquettish heroine of her 1955 study of Stein: "She thought that everything she did was interesting," says Malcolm. "She had a very arch and feminine way of being, which evoked the cringe-making person I was."
Malcolm's skeptical, self-scrutinizing voice pervades her books, but she says that her 'I' is a narrative construction and not an autobiographical 'I' like Sprigge's: "It is an idealized version of myself, somebody who's more clever and certain and fluent, whereas in actual life the 'I' sitting with you has doubts and uncertainty."
The themes of Two Lives are vintage Malcolm - the instability of knowledge, the partiality of biography, and the agendas that underlie interpretation. Just as Malcolm believes that real people must be fictionalized to insert them into non-fiction narratives, so too, as is often the case with novelists, do similar characters recur in her books. The sour Toklas, who devoted her final two decades to preserving Stein's posthumous legacy, compulsively writing letters and cagily deflecting the prying questions of biographers, seems a variation on Olwyn Hughes, Ted's sister and executor of the Plath estate, who looms large in The Silent Woman.
Equally uncanny is Leon Katz, the larger-than-life, maverick Stein scholar, who has outraged other Stein academics by sitting for decades on an unpublished interview with Toklas that may - or may not - unlock the secrets of The Making of Americans. Katz recalls Jeffrey Masson, the charming, unconventional scholar who became the nemesis of Freudian analysts by arguing that the master's theories were based on his willful distortion of evidence. "Oh, that's interesting; it's as if writers have a kind of traveling cast," remarks Malcolm, but she will hardly be prompted.
When Katz is scheduled to meet Malcolm for an interview, he deliberately arrives at the Los Angeles airport a day early, and then - presumably fearing that Malcolm would appropriate his coveted story - declines to rearrange the interview. But Malcolm's inability to meet Katz doesn't perturb her; the veneer of a complete story isn't her aim. "One of the things I've learned in doing this work is that you follow life as it occurs," she says. "I don't want to manipulate actuality; I want to record it." Katz thereby becomes yet another Malcolm trope; like the absent Ted Hughes in The Silent Woman, a figure who doesn't appear, rendering the work provocatively partial.
In The Journalist and The Murderer Malcolm writes that "the characters of nonfiction, no less than those of fiction, derive from the writer's most idiosyncratic desires and deepest anxieties."
When asked how Malcolm's Stein reflects her psyche, she dismisses her aphorism as "a bit of rhetoric that's overblown."
Pressed about whether she feels any affinity with Stein as a writer, she seems shocked at the question: "Absolutely none at all." Indeed, Malcolm's scrupulously controlled, pellucid, cool style is the antithesis of Stein's often unreadable, hot-headed, unedited prose, which Malcolm at one point describes as "a kind of nervous breakdown."
But the modernist master anticipated Malcolm's postmodern genius for exposing the limits of narrative. Malcolm describes Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas as an "anti-biography," in which Stein critiques the biographical enterprise through using Toklas's voice to write about herself in mock-aggrandizing terms. Of Stein's "anti-novel" The Making of Americans, Malcolm writes that: "Stein keeps returning to the project it appears she has abandoned - that of writing fiction - and then berates herself for doing it badly." Shortly after denying any affiliation with Stein, Malcolm comments: "My skepticism of biography continues even though I keep doing it."