The journalist and the provocateur

Janet Malcolm talks about her new book on Chekhov, the perils of offending journalists and the long shadow of her libel lawsuit.

Published November 28, 2001 6:10PM (EST)

Janet Malcolm has reason to be gun-shy. A brilliant essayist whose best work has parsed the unstated contradictions inherent in psychoanalysis, journalism and the law, Malcolm endured a decade-long libel lawsuit (1984 to 1994) by psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson, who accused her of fabricating quotes in her 1983 book about him, "In the Freud Archives" (A judge dismissed the suit, but Masson appealed and the case eventually went to a jury, which found for Malcolm.).

During the years of the lawsuit and even afterward, Malcolm was routinely represented by the press as an example of bad, unethical journalism. Masson's accusations had found a receptive audience among some of Malcolm's fellow journalists, perhaps because of her propensity for bluntly stating awkward truths that others prefer to leave unsaid and perhaps even unacknowledged. Pondering her own profession, for example, she famously began "The Journalist and the Murderer" (1990): "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. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse."

Happily for her, Malcolm's new book, "Reading Chekhov," is unlikely to offend anyone. Part biography, part literary criticism, it is a typical Malcolm work in its hybrid, montagelike nature. And yet it is a departure, too: Its subject is dead, for one thing, and the book does not, like most of her work, attempt to weave together a complete narrative, with a beginning, middle and end, out of interviews, research and common sense. Rather, Malcolm says, she simply wanted to understand the power of Chekhov's masterful stories.

Salon visited with Malcolm recently at her Manhattan apartment.

Given what you wrote in "The Journalist and the Murderer" about the journalist-subject relationship -- that it's a power relationship and the power is all in the journalist's hands -- why did you agree to be interviewed?

It's a very good question. At the time [I wrote that book], I did not do any interviews. When the book came out and people wanted to ask me questions, I said, "Well, read the book."

I did. That's why I'm asking.

But time goes on ... And one of the reasons I did not give interviews, of course, was not just the power in this. I'm just not very good at it. I often have no answers to the questions; I think of the answers later.

I also feel I've already said what I want to say in my work. So the questions are asking me to think about things that either I've already thought about and set down there, or if the question is a new question, I can't just answer it right off the bat because the answer won't be interesting.

In Chekhov's "A Dreary Story," the narrator at the end realizes that he lacks a ruling idea from which to make sense of his existence. In your work, on the other hand, it's clear you center around certain problems, or a series of related problems.

Yes, we all do the same things over again, the repetition compulsion. [You don't think you're starting out] with some ruling idea, but as you go along you realize that you keep coming back to the same subject.

What Philip Roth talks about over and over again in his work is how we can't know each other, that we keep getting it wrong: We get it wrong and we get it wrong again, and then we think about it and try again and get it wrong again. And that seems to me what you are trying to get at also: What's true? Is it possible to know what's true? But I'd really like to hear you describe what your work is about.

I'd love to hear you talk about it rather than me. See, you're thinking like a critic. Writers don't always care to write in the kind of consciousness in which criticism is conducted. They would be paralyzed, too aware of what they're doing. I really think it's for the critic to try to figure out what's going on.

That's what's delighted me so much about this [Chekhov] book. I've really enjoyed figuring out what it is that makes his stories what they are. I read them over and over, and each time I read one of his stories -- always, it was a new experience. I would always reach a point where my eyes would start tearing; here it would come again -- extraordinary.

What drew you to Chekhov particularly?

I'd read some Chekhov, the plays and some stories, and then a few years ago Ecco Press started publishing his stories, and I started reading them and falling in love with them.

James Atlas was doing this series called "Penguin Lives," and he called me up and asked if I would do a biography. I didn't think I had any interest in writing a biography, so I said, "I'm sorry," but he asked me to think about it and then he called again, and I thought, all right, I'll do Chekhov.

Actually I think I'd already tried to do a little writing about these stories, which are so mysteriously wonderful.

How did the book end up at Random House?

There was a problem about publishing it at the time the contract said it would be published, so I withdrew the book. It's hard for me to get to work on one thing when there's another thing still unpublished.

But another good thing about the change was it permitted me to write more. At Random House I was permitted and encouraged to write more. I feel the book is more complete now than it would have been.

You've spent a lot of time thinking and writing about biographies. In this book, you wrote, "Chekhov's privacy is safe from the biographer's attempts upon it -- as, indeed, are all privacies, even those of the most apparently open and even exhibitionistic natures. The letters and journals we leave behind and the impressions we have made on our contemporaries are the mere husk of the kernel of our essential life. When we die, the kernel is buried with us. This is the horror and pity of death and the reason for the inescapable triviality of biography." So it's almost like you started out feeling that you cannot write an accurate biography, that it's not a possibility.

Well, if you notice I haven't written a biography really, though there's some biographical stuff in there, even while I was kind of interrogating the whole question of biography -- that's a sort of theme of mine.

Right. And yet you did attempt something like a biography anyway.

I know. That's an inconsistency. But I was conscious of never going beyond what's factual, never trying to imagine what he thought. I don't think I did; I hope I didn't -- you know, that kind of reading of the mind. I tried to stay as factual as possible.

In researching this book, you spent several weeks in Russia. But the very first scene of your book -- sitting with your guide in Yalta where Anna and Gurov sat in "The Lady With the Dog" -- reads like kind of a farce, as if you're sitting there not really expecting any insights and nothing is happening, and yet you're pretending to be thrilled. And it sounded to me, reading what you wrote, that you didn't go there expecting any revelations to occur, so I wondered why you went.

You mean you feel I kind of tipped my own hand?

It seemed to me that you were setting out to do this with a sense of irony about it.

I guess that's true, because the great experience is the reading of the story, so what could be there in that same place? And why would you get from that place what Chekhov got from it?

And yet somehow I felt that I needed to go to Russia. I felt a very strong pull to go there, even though I've been skeptical of going to the places where something was written and having an experience that is equivalent. I think people who think that way may be having a self-fulfilling prophecy. But anyway, I went, reluctantly. I don't like traveling very much. And then when I lost my suitcase, everything was awful.

But that was a great moment. You wrote: "When my suitcase was taken something else had been restored to me -- feeling itself ... Travel ... is a low-key emotional experience, a pallid affair in comparison to ordinary life." And that realization gave you insight into "The Lady With the Dog," in which Anna, vacationing in Yalta, finds it "so dull here!"

Also it was journalistically so fortunate. I mean, this is why one does it -- because things happen and then you can write about them.

You often comment about people in your work that they "don't add up." You said in "The Journalist and the Murderer" about Joe McGinniss, "Like McGinniss' MacDonald, my McGinniss doesn't quite add up." You also said in "The Silent Woman," that Anne Stephenson's portrait of Sylvia Plath did not add up, and you said in your essay "The Trial of Alyosha" [in the collection "The Purloined Clinic"], "the Russian novelists knew in the most uncanny way how complicated we all are, how we don't add up." Can you talk about that?

One of the answers to that is in Chekhov, in that same story, "The Lady With the Dog" -- the passage about private life, you know? That we just don't make ourselves available:

[He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth -- such, for instance, as his work in the bank, his discussions at the club, his "lower race," his presence with his wife at anniversary festivities -- all that was open. And he judged of others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night.]

That's the problem of biographers, is to get to the self.

The more I think about the problem of biography, the more I think you just have to be roughly right. I mean, there's kind of an agreement that one subject is more gentle and recessive and reticent, while another is aggressive and exhibitionistic. But what I am going through, inside myself, for instance, you'd never know.

Do we ourselves add up?

No, of course we don't.

Given that, it's an impossible task to portray anybody.

But I think people have an atmosphere, and you will write about me in some way that will say something about my atmosphere.

Do you think that you and what you write about were affected in some fundamental way by being sued by Jeffrey Masson?

Well, certainly "The Trial of Sheila McGough"; I probably would not have been interested in the law otherwise. That book, certainly, is very much related to my experiences in a lawsuit.

And "The Journalist and the Murderer"? I know you said in an afterword to the book that there wasn't any connection. But that seemed, I don't want to say disingenuous, but the connection I saw was that I imagined you sitting and taking notes and listening to Masson talk, and digging this grave for himself, making a fool of himself. And you were smiling and nodding and writing it all down, while you must have known you were going to basically eviscerate him. And that raised moral issues for you.

There are two things I want to say. One is that when I wrote "The Journalist and the Murderer," I thought my case was over, because the judge had dismissed it. If it hadn't been over I don't think I would have wanted to write that book.

The other point is that the real ideology of "The Journalist and the Murderer" came out of an intervening piece. I didn't write "The Journalist and the Murderer" right after the Masson lawsuit. I wrote a long piece about a woman named Ingrid Sichy ["A Girl of the Zeitgeist," 1986], and I interviewed her for over a year, and during those interviews we did a great deal of talking about this subject. Then I got that letter from McGinniss' lawyer and it kind of dovetailed. But then the book was unpopular. People were angry at the first sentence, at the lead, and then by that time the Masson case was being appealed.

It was a bad confluence.

Yes, a bad confluence. [But the Sichy interviews were] where I became very conscious of it as a subject, rather than, as you were speculating, while I was interviewing Masson. That was not my view of what I was doing when I was interviewing Masson. I personally liked what I wrote. I mean, that's the way he was; I tape-recorded him and wrote about him as he was. And sometimes people don't like themselves the way they are. So it was a surprise to me.

Would you be surprised today?

I think I now more understand that there's a gap between what people would like to have written about themselves and what they project themselves as.

However, when you wrote that first sentence of "The Journalist and the Murderer," you must have known then that you were going to antagonize journalists.

I had no idea.


Absolutely none. I just thought it was a nice piece of rhetoric, and actually my husband, who is my editor, said, "You shouldn't begin this way, you should begin with some piece of history" -- something that was more conventional. And then my daughter read it and said, "Oh, what happened to that sentence? You should put it back." So, probably, if it had been the way my husband said ...

Your life would be very different.

Yes, [that sentence] would have been buried there somewhere, and nobody would have ...

Maybe, but you know, you've done it in other places as well. You said about biographers, for example, "The biographer at work is like a professional burglar breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away. The voyeurism and busybodyism that impel writers and readers of biography alike are obscured by an apparatus of scholarship designed to give the enterprise an appearance of banklike blandness and solidity." So, you know you're being provocative, right? I'm not saying you're being the slightest bit inaccurate, I'm just saying it's probably going to offend some of the people who are going to be reading it.

I think until all this tension began with the Masson case, I was living in this kind of nice, protected environment, at the New Yorker. I knew the readers were somewhere out there, but I felt very private and I wrote for the people I knew. But after all this stuff I became more conscious of writing in a larger community, and it's not as pleasant to write in that kind of subconsciousness than it had been.

But you didn't tone it down?

I guess not.

What are you working on now?

I'm working on art, actually. I'm making collages. I'm going to be in a group show in January at the Lori Bookstein gallery, and I'm thrilled about it.

Is this your first show?

My first show, yes. There are 16 of my collages there. I've been working on them for the last few years.

Do you see any relationship between your collages and your writing?

I think so. I like to think about my work as kind of collagelike. A friend who's a critic [Lee Seigel] is going to write the catalog for the show, and he says he thinks there's a connection, so I'll be interested to read what he writes.

By Nan Goldberg

Nan Goldberg's fiction, book reviews, and author profiles regularly appear in the New York Post, the Newark Star-Ledger and other newspapers and magazines.

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