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Still Pictures by Janet Malcolm: Making peace with family myths

Memoir of the writer and critic has an addictive episodic narrative

Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory
Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory
Author: Janet Malcolm
ISBN-13: 9781783788361
Publisher: Granta
Guideline Price: £14.99

“I am writing this in a house in the country with its obligatory box of family letters in the attic that go unread year after year,” writes the late Janet Malcolm in this witty memoir of her immigrant youth. Appropriately for the one-time New Yorker magazine photography critic, each chapter in Still Pictures hinges on a photo: of her father, a teacher at the blackboard, a girls’ summer camp. By this she maintains our interest: we read not just anecdotes but analysis. Malcolm recounts ups and downs, digressing on Freud every now and then.

Having left Prague fleeing the Nazis in 1939, this Jewish family (parents and two daughters) ended up in Manhattan, where they rebuilt their middle-class lives. Malcolm’s father was a doctor who encouraged his daughters’ dry humour and brought them up to appreciate art (“My father always gave each of us a book for birthdays and Christmas”). Dunking on her attorney mother, Malcolm writes: “By being charming, you are lowering yourself ... I admire the deadpan young women of today who want nothing from you. I like their toughness and self-containment. Of course, beneath the surface, they are as pathetic as everyone else.” The tone is haughty yet self-deprecating.

An unreconstructed snob in the mould of Elizabeth Hardwick, Malcolm casually drops in things like (of another Czech émigré): “Ella wasn’t rich, but she had lived frugally and there was some two million dollars in the bank at the time of her death.” Although the book’s episodic narrative is addictive – like scrolling a timeline on your phone (another person’s) – eventually it unspools in meandering and repetition, ending with score-settling regarding her libel trial.

“The prerogative of cowardly withholding is precious to the most apparently self-revealing of writers,” Malcolm astutely observes. Sure enough, she doesn’t open up as much as she might have. Nonetheless, Still Pictures reads a bit like a public therapy session: she is getting things off her chest to make peace with her origins. You wonder what her family would have made of it were they alive to see her airing their dirty laundry. In any case, and whether you’re familiar with her work or not, this memoir will make you think about your own family’s internal myths.