Magic Mirror

Nobody's Looking at You BY Janet Malcolm. NEW YORK: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 304 pages. $27.

The cover of Nobody's Looking at You

One afternoon I was in the office of a psychoanalyst I know, scanning the alphabetical shelves for a book by Melanie Klein on envy and gratitude, when I glimpsed old copies of Janet Malcolm’s Psychoanalysis (1981) and In the Freud Archives (1984) and saw a chance to get some perspective. Malcolm is a magazine writer’s writer: No journalist of her stature is so frequently discussed among people I know who write “pieces” while being undiscussed by people I know who don’t. The analyst remembered finding In the Freud Archives especially interesting, but had nothing interesting about it to say, so rather than disappoint he offered some gossip. When, in the 1980s, he underwent analytic training, one of his fellow trainees was a young woman whose stepmother was Janet Malcolm, and who harbored toward Malcolm a violent antipathy. The source of this antipathy, he said, was never clear.

In myth the sources are so deep and wide that this particular source is moot, can have its protections. The figure of the stepmother glows with obviousness, her windows menacingly lit in the woods, her well of poison lambent. In 1910, Freud published a nonconsensual analysis of Leonardo da Vinci’s childhood, and in particular of a brief, startling passage in the artist’s diary about the time a vulture assaulted him in the cradle, a memory/fantasy that is the “key to all his achievements and misfortunes.” Like a Kansas City woman named Donna who one day sees the face of her Lord and Savior in a piece of white toast, the doctor looked at da Vinci’s The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and saw in Mary’s garments the shape of a vulture; in Mary herself the artist’s “young and tender” but sterile stepmother, his father’s wife; and in Anne the artist’s peasant-class “true mother.” (Freud had a mother-replacement of his own, a nursemaid whom he described as “clever,” “ugly,” and “elderly”—she must have been in her forties—as well as seductive, and whom he considered the prime originator of his neurosis.) It matters that the analysis, famously, rests on an error in the German translation, that the vulture was not a vulture but a swallow-tailed kite. It makes the analysis make sense. Anything can be projected upon the stepmother, who has no biography, only motive. Hester, the heartless or misunderstood second wife of Anna’s father in Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark (1934), foists upon our protagonist a new way of living, a new standard that ensures she will fail. “I have my doubts about you,” says the image of Hester, prim, forbidding, in Anna’s mind. “Speak up and I will place you at once.”

Janet Malcolm, 2012.
Janet Malcolm, 2012. Kevin Sturman

Malcolm makes some of us writing today feel like Anna. She enters our canon when we are twenty and have already begun writing, embarrassing ourselves. She is so antiadolescent a writer that it’s impossible to conceive of her being a teenager; in her ostentatious adulthood we feel a rebuke. The only project she has—as far as the public knows—started and not finished is her autobiography, a dubious failure she blames on decades of success: “I see that my journalist’s habits have inhibited my self-love,” she says in the four-paragraph essay wrung from the ordeal and published as a New York Review of Books blog post in 2010. “Not only have I failed to make my young self as interesting as the strangers I have written about, but I have withheld my affection.” Finally, last year in the New Yorker she published “Six Glimpses of the Past,” a breathtaking memoir of her childhood accompanied by photographs of herself at age four. In classic avoidant style, she chose to have it subtitled “On photography and memory.”

Facts of the life are in keeping with a reluctance to share. Malcolm’s parents are Jewish and Czech—she is born Jana Wienerova, the first of two girls—and in July 1939 have the means to flee Nazism, leaving in Prague a large apartment with separate bedrooms and taking on Manhattan’s Upper East Side an apartment without. Her American name is an omen: Janet Winn. Her mother, Hanna, is a lawyer. Her father, Joseph, is a psychiatrist who dotes on his eldest and knows she will write great books. (Among the correspondence stored in the family’s archive at the Center for Jewish History is a return letter from father to daughters, who are away on spring vacation and who are nine years old and eleven, respectively: “Marie, even though your poem had a few rhythmic flaws, it was still very good. Janet’s letter was excellent, in regards to both form and contents.”) At the University of Michigan, she studies English and writes for the campus newspaper, The Michigan Daily, going sometimes by Janet and sometimes by the shorter, chicer Jan, as well as for the school’s “official humor magazine,” The Gargoyle. She marries The Gargoyle’s former editor-in-chief, Donald Malcolm, and takes his old job, naturally doing it better: The Daily reports in April 1955 that an issue of The Gargoyle, edited by Jan Winn-Malcolm and renamed “Nouveau Riche” to parody the New Yorker, is the finest ever. After she graduates, she freelances—mostly for the New Republic, where it helps that Mr. Malcolm is a staff critic and also that she reverts, byline-wise, to being Miss Winn. Her last report under this byline is on a televised battle of wits among Dorothy Parker, Norman Mailer, and Truman Capote, decisively won by the latter. Per Michelle Dean’s Sharp, Mailer replies, in a letter to the editor, saying: “The Lady Winn’s account was marvelously well-written and suffered only from the trifling flaw that most of the words she put in my mouth were never said by me.” Mailer’s letter is the kind Malcolm would call an aria, sounding the themes of her professional future. She will embody the Bakhtinism of the listener becoming the speaker and enemize men who, when all is said and done, are shocked by what she writes to a degree that suggests they thought she was a typist.

The Malcolms move to New York. He goes to write for William Shawn at the New Yorker. She gives birth to their daughter, and stays home not writing (or not publishing) until in 1966 Shawn asks her to write a Christmastime piece about children’s books and prints nearly 10,000 words under her married name. Janet Malcolm becomes a columnist of interiors, then of photography. Donald dies. She marries her editor, the distinguished, older, also just-widowed Gardner Botsford. When Malcolm decides to write a great long reported piece, she gets the subject—a new, radical style of family therapy—from her father (“[I] stumbled on [it]” is how she puts it in a 2004 interview with The Believer) and takes her time, there being no such indignities as deadlines or word counts for the best writers at Shawn’s New Yorker, before filing it to her husband. Who here, today, can relate to this? It’s hard to imagine a career in which self-love might be less requisite, or more redundant. (Notable, not unrelated, is that the magazine’s staffers could, in those days, expense three-quarters of the cost of psychoanalysis. “Everyone was in [analysis]—every messenger boy! But everybody has problems,” Malcolm said in a 2013 interview with The Telegraph. “So I thought it would be helpful to talk about these problems, and I stayed because it was so cheap.”)

A twisted episode in the golden-age annals of the New Yorker appears in Botsford’s memoir A Life of Privilege, Mostly (2003) and marks the most page space given to Malcolm, presumably by her own, subtle design. Botsford, amid a protracted drama of succession, hears from Peter Fleischmann, his half brother and the New Yorker’s publisher, that “Shawn thinks that the real villain in the story is your wife—that Janet is ambitious for you to become editor, and ambitious for herself to succeed you when you retire.” When Botsford brings this notion home, his wife is angry, shocked: “[Janet] was a writer, she said, and she wouldn’t dream of changing roles; the whole thing was not only preposterous but offensive.” Later the rumor is traced to the desk of Lillian Ross—an originator of New Journalism at the magazine but also Shawn’s mistress and so perhaps not one to talk—who is said to have said, “There must have been a change in [Botsford’s] life. And there has been: a new wife. She’s responsible for it all.”

Like Snow White’s stepmother, Malcolm seems to possess a magic mirror that cannot tell a lie. Wisely, she doesn’t use it to look at herself. But then, as the laws of physics dictate, when you can see someone’s face in a mirror they can also see yours, and Malcolm has been accused of projection as often as she has been praised for superlative clarity. Her columns on photographers like Arbus and Avedon, collected in her first book, Diana & Nikon (1980), are instructive in terms of her method. A credo, perhaps: “If ‘the camera can’t lie,’ neither is it inclined to tell the truth, since it can reflect only the usually ambiguous, and sometimes outright deceitful, surface of reality.” Malcolm poses a subject before the mirror so that while he looks at her, and vice versa, she also sees what’s behind him, the parts of himself he can’t see and would conceal if he could; occasionally, when the subject shifts in his seat, we glimpse her small, dim figure at work, the lens of her camera hiding half her face.

Elizabeth Hardwick wrote, of reading magazines happily, that “an author’s unexpected marriage to his subject is in many ways the essence of each new plot.” Malcolm’s 1986 New Yorker profile of Ingrid Sischy is an event for which all the guests dress to outshine the young bride, who, seeming camera-shy, nonetheless comes out looking the best. “I had formed the idea of writing about [Sischy] after seeing Artforum change . . . into a magazine of such wild and assertive contemporaneity that one could only imagine its editor to be some sort of strikingly modern type, some astonishing new female sensibility,” Malcolm seems to confess near the end. “And into my house had walked a pleasant, intelligent, unassuming, responsible, ethical young woman who had not a trace of the theatrical qualities I had confidently expected, and from whom . . . I had evidently turned away in disappointment.” A flash in the mirror darkens the whole of the scene. Is Malcolm, having shown in detail how little she thinks of the “strikingly modern,” to say nothing of the “new” and “female,” and having provided no evidence that she ever thought more, admitting to a prior scheme to write a takedown of an editor half her age, at a magazine with a circulation lower than her word count?

That Sischy turns out to be her type perhaps explains Malcolm’s compensatory peroration, in which she quotes G. K. Chesterton on the unsung importance of white vis-à-vis colored chalk and concludes:

Since Chesterton wrote these bubbly words, the world has seen two world wars and a holocaust, and God seems to have switched to gray as the color of virtue—or decency, as we are now content to call it. The heroes and heroines of our time are the quiet, serious, obsessively hardworking people whose cumbersome abstentions from wrongdoing and sober avoidances of personal display have a seemliness that is like the wearing of drab colors to a funeral.

I remember reading this profile for the first time, knowing nothing about the art world or the people in it, and opening a new browser tab to search for images not of Ingrid Sischy, but of Malcolm. What else could I do? What could be more provocative than a speech about how heroes don’t look like narcissists that begs the question of whether the speaker herself is a narcissist? Soon after Malcolm’s article was published, the novelist Gary Indiana, then an art critic for the Village Voice, read the same lines and right away picked up the phone to find out what Malcolm was like. “Regular. Gray. Not very special,” said a Russian-born artist mentioned in the profile, who, having been falsely accused of plagiarizing a personal anecdote from a Chekhov story, sought revenge. “I was surprised to meet someone from this big intellectual magazine, having such a gray personality.”

Indiana devoted back-to-back columns to a riposte, taking (what I thought was) Malcolm’s credo and making it her problem: “Is it possible,” he asked, “that one of the New Yorker’s star reporters is so transfixed by surface impressions that she consistently mistakes them for reality?” Renata Adler, in a 2013 interview for the website Bookslut, took a different angle on the issue of representation. “An almost uncanny thing that happens to me in a piece by Janet Malcolm is that it is so fair, and so true, that I have the freedom to believe something else,” Adler said. “And that’s happened with at least three pieces of Janet’s. Where I thought, ‘This is just absolutely brilliant. And somehow, on the basis of what you’ve written here, here’s what I think really happened.’ I don’t know of any writer for whom that is true, except for Janet.” Which is to say, she’s the fairest of them all.

There are no photographs online of a young Janet Malcolm, or even a Janet Malcolm my age. There simply is no such person as a young Janet Malcolm. The opening passage of Two Lives (2007), her book about the marriage of Gertrude and Alice, is like a blurry group pic in which the Lady Winn disappears: She remember getting the Alice B. Toklas Cook Book as a gift from “a fellow member of a group of pretentious young persons I ran around with, who had nothing but amused contempt for middlebrow American culture, and whose revolt against the conformity of the time,” she recalls, “largely took the form of . . . writing mannered letters to each other modeled on the mannered letters of certain famous literary homosexuals, not then known as such.” Alice’s collection of fun, chic recipes is among the best-selling cookbooks in American history, but numbers don’t dampen the impression retained by Malcolm of a cult object that “fit right in with our program of callow preciousness; we loved its waspishly magisterial tone, its hauteur and malice.” A little weird, the implication (unintended, perhaps unfair to see in a book about lesbians) that Malcolm’s adult repudiation of pretense and fuss followed the discovery that some of her icons were gay. It’s a matter of taste, and taste is a fine substitute for morality. “I am always touched by simple, nicely prepared food,” she writes in Reading Chekhov (2001). “Conversely, I feel the malice and aggression in pretentious, carelessly prepared hotel food; and even the elegant, rigorously prepared dishes served in good restaurants often produce in me a sense of the egotism of their makers: they are doing it for art’s sake, not for mine.”

Simple, direct, true—straight in every sense is her ideal literature, obscuring little and letting the reader feel knowing. Malcolm’s 1996 eulogy in the New Yorker for Joseph Mitchell uses a passage from Huckleberry Finn to elucidate the “true, as opposed to sham, aesthetic experience” of his prose. “After reading a few of Joe’s easy and comfortable sentences (about matters of life and death),” Malcolm says, “one would blush for the flaccidity and pretentiousness of one’s own effort; Joe’s work forced one to take more risks and put on fewer airs.” One risk taken by Mitchell was the exercise of a benevolent fabulism, a habit of sketching composite characters and transcribing things that may or may not have been said but always sounded spoken. In 2015, Malcolm wrote for the New York Review of Books a longer, hagiographical essay on Mitchell’s work, which now constitutes the moral center of her latest collection, Nobody’s Looking at You. Few writers of nonfiction, she says, have invented so much, but: “This is not because we are more virtuous than Mitchell. It is because we are less gifted than Mitchell.” Mitchell got away with “inventing” because his stories were about the real lives of down-at-the-heel, downtown people who, whether or not they existed on paper before he opened his notepad, rarely seemed like the types to complain and in any case weren’t given cause. The Scottish writer and translator Alistair Reid almost got away with it a generation later for similar reasons. Malcolm, the most perfectionistic of all the New Yorker writers after Mitchell, crafts, by contrast, narratives in which the protagonists have egos, fraught careers, and if necessary the means to sue, making it risky indeed when the story is not one in which a self-regarding person wants to live.

Malcolm’s penetrative study of male jealousy, In the Freud Archives, appeared as a two-parter in the New Yorker in December of 1983 and as a book the following spring. Three weeks later, l’affaire Reid broke on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Reid, interviewed about his process, was open about what the article called “fabrications,” while Shawn was quoted as saying that the New Yorker was “the most accurate publication not only in this country, but in the entire world.” Shawn seemed to be asking for it. He told the New York Times, as the Reid scandal snowballed, that in a New Yorker story “anything that purports to be a fact . . . is a fact.” He told the Washington Post that “in all our years, all our countless profiles, nobody has ever accused us of misquotation,” before stooping to insult the author of the original Journal article, Joanne Lipman. “This was a very subtle matter,” he said of Reid’s fabulism, “and this young woman who did the piece is not a subtle writer.” An expensive notion, subtlety. Shawn was known to spend hours on a single line in a “fact piece,” as reported features at the magazine were called, ensuring that the writer, without feeling pressured, said precisely what she meant to say—usually less, in more words. Writers generally cannot devote the same amount of time to making their subjects feel comfortable with how they are quoted. Writers at the New Yorker, however, may have received from their superlative and generous editor a faith in the supremacy of their intent, a feeling that they knew what a subject meant to say, and also how to say it, better than the subject himself did. In November 1984, the main subject of In the Freud Archives, the apostate and ex-archivist Jeffrey Masson, filed suit against Malcolm, the New Yorker, and the book’s publisher, Knopf, on the grounds that some of the most embarrassing and professionally damaging words put in his mouth had never been uttered by him.

Shawn was asking for it, and now Malcolm was at the center of it, perhaps inevitably. When a Ninth Circuit judge ruled to dismiss the charges against Knopf, he reasoned that the “magazine’s sterling reputation for accuracy and the existence of its fabled fact-checking department” meant the publishing house wasn’t liable. A secondary meaning of “fabled” was inferred by the press, busy with schadenfreude: A New York Times writer suggested that the New Yorker, contrary to said reputation, was “lightly checked and gently edited.” A checker at the magazine anonymously told Newsweek that lightly was “not, totally not, true” but that gently had caused “a snicker” around the office, adding, “of course, Gardner let Janet do anything she wanted.” Botsford did, according to his testimony, overrule the legal department in letting Malcolm use quotes she sometimes did not have on tape (she could not remember when, but her tape recorder had at some point broken) but on scraps of paper (one of her notebooks had at another point been lost). Questioned about her attribution to Masson of the phrase “Prague spring,” which he swore he had never used in his life, she said: “According to these notes, he did. . . . And I believe these notes.” Jurors could not believe the nerve of this woman and found her guilty of malice, a term of art referring not to the “ill will” she denied bearing toward Masson but to the knowledge of falsity, meaning, in essence, that she knew her notes did not reflect truth or even reality. But they could not agree on the amount of the damages, so a retrial was called. Charges against the New Yorker were dismissed. Malcolm stood alone at the second trial, and this time she looked at the jury, smiled at the photographers, and spoke more easily. Her defense lawyer was Gary Bostwick, whom she hired after interviewing him for The Journalist and The Murderer (1990), about the successful libel suit brought by Jeffrey MacDonald against Joe McGinniss, in which she famously did not mention that she herself was being similarly sued. (If you are wondering whether he represented the journalist or the murderer, you don’t know Malcolm.) Juries loved Bostwick, as she had written in the book. Jurors didn’t dislike Malcolm so much the second time, and found her innocent, which is to say, perhaps, innocent of provoking ill will in them.

The trial’s end marked a line through the middle of Malcolm’s oeuvre. Her first three book-length works of reportage (Psychoanalysis, In the Freud Archives, The Journalist and the Murderer) are about men, male subjects, professionalism, daddy issues, hubris. The work that followed tends to be about—or inspired by—female subjects who make mistakes and are misunderstood. She enters into The Silent Woman (1994) by investigating the outrage over a Sylvia Plath biography by an old, once-enviable classmate of hers, Anne Stevenson, who was seen to collude with Ted Hughes and his vicious sister Olwyn. She returns a letter from a criminal defense lawyer who has done too much for a con man and has been condemned by her peers, and provides the defense the lawyer cannot herself make in what may be her favorite of her books, and is certainly the least-read, The Crime of Sheila McGough (1999). Finally, to produce her last long work of reportage, Iphigenia in Forest Hills (2011), she goes to the courtroom and acts more like a witness, finding a kindred spirit in the “thin” and “gray” but “regal” Bukharan-Jewish defendant, a mother and doctor accused of killing her estranged husband to get her child back, another woman disliked for not trying to be liked. Identification never really swells into a politics in Malcolm’s work. She remains a committed individualist, often defending a single woman against the concept of women.

In 1997, during the Title IX wars, two books by women about sex and rape on campuses met with Malcolm’s approval in twin reviews. Both are collected here for the first time, presumably due to a dearth of other, newer material and/or the freshened relevance of the subject matter. Each of the women authors is something of a victim in Malcolm’s view, but it’s not what you think—unless you’ve read enough Malcolm, in which case it’s exactly what you think. Reviewing The First Stone (1995) in the New Yorker, she defends Helen Garner’s stated aim to write a “quiet, thoughtful account” of a sensational case, a desire thwarted by the (actual) victims (as in, the young female students who are the complainants) and by her own antiauthorial/antiauthoritarian whims. In the New York Review of Books, she takes up with special alacrity the weirder case of Jane Gallop, a professor whose book title, Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment, says it all while admitting to nothing.

What might surprise is how enthusiastically she responds to Gallop’s sexual bravura. “This is hardly a work of confessional autobiography; in its taut stylization it more resembles a work of pornography (though the content is PG-rated),” she writes of Gallop’s account of pursuing sexual relationships with students in her graduate classes. “Gallop . . . reveals nothing about herself that doesn’t serve her polemic. . . . We are sometimes astonished by her, and we sometimes find her absurd, but she never makes us cringe, because she never invades her own privacy.” I don’t know about this. Gallop recalls kissing one of her students at a bar surrounded by others, their faces expressing what she terms “awe,” and though this memory, ringing false, sounds like the kind of adolescent fantasy that Malcolm could so easily destroy (I thought nobody was looking at you?), she enjoys it with one reservation: Freudian that Gallop is, the professor should have recognized the student’s power to “get [her] in trouble” as the “sirocco of the Oedipal universe” rather than as a function of changing times.

Malcolm invokes the concept of transference once, and then only in a parenthetical, ignoring its rules: “A good teacher is someone who can somehow transform this discouraging gathering of babblers”—she is referring to students—“into an inspiriting community of minds working together. That an erotic current (a transference, to use the psychoanalytic term) is the fulcrum of this transformation is unquestionable.” As a college student, Malcolm had no female professors and did not know of any female professors. This makes it easier, I suppose, for her to characterize Gallop, a woman she has never seen teach, as “a good teacher who is also a dedicated bad girl.” As for the charges brought by Gallop’s former students, “her book has not convinced me that the unpleasantness she has been subjected to has put her teaching at risk. The book itself is a testament to the prod that unpleasantness can provide to a restless spirit.”

Unpleasantness! A toxic distillation of the whole proceeding. A word that suggests the most oppressive thing is repression. But it is this word and not malice, actually, which I associate with Malcolm. Or second-most, after pleasure. Her overidentification with bad men like Jeffrey MacDonald and Ted Hughes and bad girls like Gallop is a little unfeminist but not amoral; rather teleological, a way of dramatizing the stakes, the struggle to be good. Malcolm writes, in a 1990 afterword to The Journalist and The Murderer, that among “pleasurable reading experiences there may be none greater than that afforded by a legal document written on one’s behalf.” In The Silent Woman, she decides that “the pleasure of hearing ill of the dead . . . pales before the pleasure of hearing ill of the living.” Malcolm is not the nicest writer, but she is far from the least nice: I think every other writer I have cited here, with the exception of Hardwick, is prima facie meaner. Readers thrill or recoil not at what she says, but at the certain feeling that she could say much worse. Restraint is her drama. Perversity is her mood.

Beauty and justice have in common a symmetry which the perverse among us seek to upset. Malcolm’s most beautiful writing is about childhood, as when, in “Six Glimpses of the Past,” she remembers the pain of being given peonies and not perfect roses to carry in a procession of little girls at a village festival: “The idea of absolute aesthetic value is a debatable one, of course. I have inclined toward it, but sometimes I turn from it.” As she aged into physical invisibility and personal fame, she began photographing the leaves of the burdock, inspired by Avedon’s humanizing, disappointing portraits of famous people. Avedon “radically extended photography’s capacity for cruelty,” she wrote in an introduction to her book of these photographs, Burdock (2008), as if explaining her own tired reputation for being cruel. “As Avedon sought out faces on which life had left its mark, so I prefer older, flawed leaves to young, unblemished specimens—leaves to which something has happened.” What she sneakily admires in people may be precisely what they themselves ignore or disparage, so that her idea of a compliment—an appraisal, praise buried inside—can read as harsh, even rebarbative. I am sometimes tempted to feel insulted by the upper-class, individualistic asperity of some of her judgments, but instead I think to myself, she doesn’t mean it.

“I really don’t know whether the people who don’t like my writing don’t like it because of their perception of me as a tough, not-nice woman,” said Malcolm in her interview with The Believer, conducted over email and thus marked by interesting revisions. “It seems kind of ridiculous—I think of myself as a completely ordinary harmless person—but what people think of your writing persona is out of your hands.” Where “people” are members of the press, it’s not hard to figure out. Malcolm, while producing almost exclusively works of observation (ostensibly) about others’ lives, has compared biographers to professional burglars and reporters to confidence men, the chorus of a Greek tragedy, beggars seeking alms, and strangers with knives. Interviewed about her own work, she falls back on yet another metaphor: “The invented I of journalism” is “a construct” and “a creation,” she told The Guardian in 2011. “Somewhere I wrote, ‘the distinction between the I of the writing and the I of your life is like Superman and Clark Kent.’”

In Malcolm’s latest essays, she emerges unexpectedly as someone to call (in the millennial idiom, facetious but sweet) “Mom.” More tender, her observations a little off. Learning to use email: “Some of us do find the time in the day to write a carefully worded, exclamation-point-free email when the occasion demands,” but mostly it is “a medium of bad writing” that, by the way, she believes young people use inter alia to propose marriage. Going alone to Carnegie Hall, where the twenty-nine-year-old concert pianist Yuja Wang performs in dresses she describes— not in a judgmental tone, but a fretting one— as “short,” “short and tight,” or “very short.” Watching Maddow: “The Rachel Maddow Show is a piece of sleight of hand presented as a cable news show. It is TV entertainment at its finest.” Believing Maddow, unfortunately: “[She] permits liberals to enjoy themselves during what may be the most thoroughly unenjoyable time of their political lives.” Wearing Eileen Fisher: “I joined a growing cadre of women who … form a kind of cult of the interestingly plain.” It was Fisher’s mother who used to say that “nobody’s looking at you,” a reproach that doubles as assurance for the insecure, or, for readers of Malcolm, a reminder that being invisible is a superpower.

She has often seemed to downplay her powers, referring to herself, in that 2010 essay against autobiography, as a “kind of amanuensis: [people] have dictated their stories to me and I have retold them.” She must know there is glory in the retelling. Malcolm at heart, more than a reporter, is a translator—obsessed with sussing out the difference between literal and intended. A 2016 essay on translations of Anna Karenina is the greatest source of pleasure in this collection, being both a typically gloves-off examination of an ill-fated subject—the husband-and-wife team responsible for making a number of Russian masterpieces too easy to read—and a playful denuding of the point. Constance Garnett, the translator of whom Malcolm most approves, “did make mistakes, but correctable ones. . . . As for the charge that Garnett writes in an outdated language . . . we find the same sprinkling of outdated words and phrases in novels of Trollope and Dickens and George Eliot. Should they, too, be rewritten for modern sensibilities? (Would u really want that?)”

This must be among the funniest parentheticals of the millennium, the essence of apt inappropriateness (“Mom!”). Laughing, I almost forgot that “rewritten” is inaccurate but telling and that her dismissal of “modern sensibilities” is so pervasive as to be stifling in her work. Yet at the same time I agreed instinctively with her rankings of the various translations, even though the only version of Anna Karenina I had read, by Rosemary Edmonds, wasn’t included. It was because of the pleasure I felt that I perused the others and found a new ending.

Near the end of Tolstoy’s novel, Natalia, the middle sister, and her husband, Arseny Lvov, are talking with his brother-in-law, Levin, about their children. Levin praises the children for their “education of character” as well as for their cleverness. Lvov is modest, Natalia unmoved. “Arseny goes to extremes, I always say,” she replies. “If you look for perfection, you will never be satisfied. And it’s true . . . that when we were brought up there was one extreme—we were kept in the basement, while our parents lived in the best rooms; now it’s just the other way—the parents are in the wash house, while the children are in the best rooms. Parents now are not expected to live at all, but to exist altogether for their children.”

Garnett alone, among the five or six translators whose versions I consulted, puts two unnecessary but meaningful adjectives in the passage that follows: “true” and “straight.” Both brighten considerably our brief vision of the settled, remote Natalia and her husband, as does the adverb “serenely” where elsewhere “calmly” or “quietly” is used, the word “beautiful” where elsewhere it is “handsome.” The scene is made more like a picture, more characteristic and yet—contra what we know about character, from novelists and from Malcolm—more perfect.

“Well, what if they like it better?” Lvov said, with his beautiful smile, touching her hand. “Anyone who didn’t know you would think you were a stepmother, not a true mother.” “No, extremes are not good in anything,” Natalia said serenely, putting his paper-knife straight in its proper place on the table.

Sarah Nicole Prickett is a writer living in California.

A shorter version of this essay, which appears in Bookforum’s summer print issue, mistakenly identifies the date of Janet Malcolm’s first marriage. She married Donald Malcolm in 1954.