Janet Malcolm’s Profiles, Politics, and Literary Criticism

Book review: Nobody’s Looking at You, by Janet Malcolm (Amazon / Book Depository)

Janet Malcolm has an ability I so admire, to observe people and situations deeply and distill what she sees so meaningfully, shaping her storytelling. It’s one thing to look, and another to really see; and she’s remarkably perceptive. It’s kind of a marvel to watch her work.

Nobody’s Looking at You collects essays previously published in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. It’s divided into three sections which have some loosely discernible themes: the first is more profile-based, the second political, and the third is literary and book reviews, but with exceptions.

The profile-centric pieces are stellar: compelling even if you’re unfamiliar with their subject and always revealing, sometimes surprisingly so. One profiles Yuja Wang, the young piano prodigy who plays Mozart, Rachmaninoff, and Tchaikovsky at Carnegie Hall and with prestigious orchestras around the world while wearing tiny, skintight or barely there dresses and four-inch heels. Malcolm has an adorable friendship with Wang – interesting considering her philosophical ruminations about the journalist-subject relationship she’s written about often in the past.

Wang seems the most open and least worried about her portrayal, unlike Rachel Maddow, who despite discussing deeply personal topics like her depression, demurs on showing too much of her work process; or Eileen Fisher, anxious to control image and brand, and exercising damage control with a bevy of company handlers at interviews.

I prefer the less guarded approach and response, rare as it is nowadays. While getting to know Wang, Malcolm writes about how significant Wang’s apparel choices are in channeling music and making its impact felt. It was a lovely piece.

Fisher is a different type, whose aesthetic in women’s clothing runs a tight range of black and grey, with designs that drape the body and say something vastly different about the wearer than Wang’s do. The book’s title comes from this piece, recalling Fisher’s Catholic upbringing – a quote from her mother. It felt such a fitting, tongue-in-cheek title for the collection, as Malcolm has to be one of the most perceptive observers I’ve read.

An insightful and multi-faceted piece about the Argosy bookstore in Manhattan, and the three sisters who inherited and run it, sees Malcolm sitting in on a day in the shop and observing its transactions, troubles, and successes or personal quibbles, while musing about the role of bookstores:

Bookshops have an almost universal appeal. What constitutes this appeal is hard to pin down. When you enter an art gallery or an antique shop, you see what you hope will surprise and delight you, but a bookstore does not show what it is selling. The books are like closed clamshells. It is from the collective impression, from the sight of many books wedged together on many shelves, that the mysterious good feeling comes.

In a surprisingly entertaining and insightful piece about Supreme Court Justice nomination hearings in the Senate (pre-Kavanaugh), she writes, following acrimonious exchanges over Samuel Alito, “Jeff Sessions, who had been one of the quieter presences in both the Roberts and the Alito hearings, now came to demonic life.”

He does have that creepy doll-like quality, doesn’t he?

My favorite piece is “Special Needs,” about former Alaska governor and onetime vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Palin cashed in after the 2008 election with a number of projects, including Sarah Palin’s Alaska, a nine-part reality docuseries about her family’s Alaskan life, which Malcolm breaks down and places in context brilliantly so no one else has to watch it.

It’s so smartly funny, I’m only sorry I didn’t read it earlier. I confess to being drawn to anything poking fun at Palin, even though she’s low-hanging fruit. But Malcolm makes light in a way that’s still so cultured and sensible that it’s delightful, and not as mean-spirited as most easy-to-make jokes about Palin and her clan are.

New York, of course, is code for all the things that Palin-style populism is against. I don’t have to tell my fellow Commies what these things are.

I wish Malcolm would write an entire collection critiquing reality TV, imagine the possibilities: “Something always seems a little off in reality television. You don’t believe that what you are seeing happened in the way it is shown to have happened, any more than you think that the man in the Magritte was born with an apple attached to his face.”

The only piece I’d previously read is “Socks,” which appeared in the New York Review of Books in 2016 and is very worth reading, especially if you’re interested in translated works and what responsibility translators have, and Russian translations in particular. It examines the controversial work of husband and wife Russian to English literary translation team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, who’ve been prolifically translating Russian texts that are subsequently gaining wide readership.

The problem, as Malcolm vividly illustrates in comparing P&V passages to classic translations by Constance Garnett, is that theirs read flat and uninspired, or unnatural. There’s also a question of what to bring to a translation from the original, especially considering “Russianisms” or period-specific usage. It’s fascinating, and a topic that my own position varies on, even working a lot in translation myself. And it’s disappointing, as P&V have done the translations of several of Svetlana Alexievich‘s books, including the upcoming Last Witnessesand it gives me pause reading their translations now.

To [Slavic scholar] Morson “these are Potemkin translations—apparently definitive but actually flat and fake on closer inspection.” Morson fears that “if students and more-general readers choose P&V … [they] are likely to presume that whatever made so many regard Russian literature with awe has gone stale with time or is lost to them.

I love Malcolm’s clever writing and her analytical methods so much that I wish every essay was a standout for me, but I did end up skimming a few, mainly in the third part. The book reviews didn’t always grab me and it was hard to engage with the deep analysis when I was unfamiliar with the text or its background. Those interested in literary criticism and the specific texts she breaks down, including a biography of Ted Hughes, should be pleased. 3.5/5

Nobody’s Looking at You: Essays
by Janet Malcolm
published February 19, 2019 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Amazon / Book Depository

11 thoughts on “Janet Malcolm’s Profiles, Politics, and Literary Criticism

Add yours

  1. Excellent review! I’m not too familiar with Malcolm’s work, but I’ll try to check this out for the well written profiles sometime. I often find that, when it comes to essay collections by professional writers, few of the book reviews grab me; when I read Zadie Smith’s Feel Free last year, I skimmed several, but loved the rest of the collection. When you’re not already interested in the topic/book/author, it’s hard to feel engaged.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I had the same experience as you with Zadie Smith’s book. It surprised me a bit because I read so many book reviews on blogs for books I’m not always interested in reading, but in these collections I haven’t liked reading them and end up skimming. Maybe because they’re so analytical, near academic. But the profiles and political pieces were pretty great!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve read a couple of the Pevear translations – Doctor Zhivago and I think the other one may have been an Alexievich, though I’d have to check – and although I found they sometimes get a bit bogged down in being too literal, mostly they read very well, and in the case of Zhivago, often poetically. They were also punctilious about foot-noting “Russianisms” they left in. So don’t be completely put off – as always, it’s really a matter of subjective taste.


    1. The question raised isn’t so much whether Russianisms should be footnoted/explained but whether they should be used at all instead of finding an equivalent or way of incorporating it more smoothly in the target language, and what it means overall for what the book or story is conveying. I’ve found their translations a bit clunky but wasn’t bothered more than usual reading something in translation, but seeing the examples in comparison highlights some issues. The author/translator in the other book I linked is very critical of their methodology, which Malcolm covers a bit too, and others criticize their accuracy (including that apparently Pevear’s knowledge of Russian isn’t very good. This is another good piece on some of the issues – http://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/the-pevearsion-of-russian-literature)

      It’s too bad there aren’t alternative translations of Alexievich’s as I’d love to see comparisons there, but I realized I’ve only read their version of The Master and Margarita and I really want to read someone else’s now!

      Liked by 1 person

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