I last heard from Janet Malcolm on Sunday 29 March, 2020. She forwarded an email from her sister, Marie Winn. ‘I was immensely cheered by this. Take a look. xxxJanet’, she wrote. The attachment was a music video by Volker Pannes titled Bird Song Opera, the ‘Papageno, Papagena’ duet from The Magic Flute set to numerous birds singing, nodding and dancing; an exquisite and humorous harmony of human and animal world. It appealed to Janet, of course. She knew, more than most writers, that what we write is of our time, a chorus in harmony with culture. Maybe exiled writers understand that better than natives, even one as assimilated as Janet Malcolm.
She was a small child when she arrived in America, unlikely to have survived the Holocaust in her native Prague. You could see that European pre-war world more in her collages than in her writing, contemplative and measured, perfectly balanced. She took me to see a show of them years ago, at the Lori Bookstein gallery downtown, now closed.
The first time I met her I was late. We had agreed to have lunch near her apartment, downtown, and I was stuck in traffic coming from the Upper East Side. I was mortified; she was brisk. I was hungry, she ate almost nothing, a few mouthfuls of finely diced chicken salad. She only warmed up later, as we walked out and she invited me to come up to her flat. We were looking at the cover for her next book; she had some thoughts, she said (a completely different design, in fact).
Her flat was peaceful. Outside the front door was a small bookcase packed with paperbacks, so that the public hall had become part of her space. Inside was a languid cat, maybe two cats, in fact. I seem to remember one white, one tabby, stretching on book cases and tables; a faint hum of traffic from the street below. The interior reflected Janet’s own spare simplicity; I towered over her, interested in and intimidated by this perfect order, inside and out. Her mind was forensic and incisive, revealing the folly of the world, investigating culture with an almost medical neutrality (her father was a doctor). She took her subjects apart like mechanical toys, and put them back together again in a different shape.
When I first opened Marta Werner’s Emily Dickinson’s Open Folios I felt a shiver of interest and desire such as one feels in an expensive shop at the sight of an object of particular beauty and rarity. I was drawn to the book’s right-hand pages on which typewritten words appeared – words that were wild and strange, and typing that evoked the world of the early-twentieth-century avant-garde. These were Marta Werner’s transcriptions of scraps of handwritten prose by Emily Dickinson, discovered after her death. The scraps themselves were reproduced in facsimile opposite the typed transcripts.
Janet Malcolm, Granta 2013
Malcolm writes to Marta Werner to try and buy a copy of the volume, and soon the two are exchanging poignant emails on art and beauty, life and death. Werner generously gives Malcolm her own last remaining copy of the book of Dickinson fragments she had painstakingly typed out using her father’s collection of typewriters. Here is Malcolm, revealing to Werner, after a ten-day correspondence of many emails, what she intends to do to this copy of the book:
Many things in your letter – especially the mention of decontextualization – tell me that the time has come to tell you of the special reason why I wanted a copy of your book – namely, to cut some pages out of it and put them into collages. When I saw the book at Sharon Cameron’s house, this desire formed itself in my mind – I began to ‘see’ the collages. It was the typewritten transcriptions rather than the handwritten originals that stirred my imagination. The series I want to make will also use images and charts from astronomical texts. Before starting the ‘cutting’ and ‘scissoring’ (the words leaped out of your text) of your precious only copy, I want to have your permission to do so. I will completely understand if you would prefer I not do so, and will continue my search for another copy.
‘Oh, but of course – cut away!’ Werner responds. ‘I can think of no better fate for the pages of this last copy than to become collages in your hands.’
I am so happy that my project has your blessing, and will start work on it today. I will let you know which fragments I ‘appropriate’ as it’s called. The book is in my studio and I am about to go out and buy fresh glue. With many, many thanks again, Janet
We published the series of collages in 2013, with excerpts from the correspondence.
Janet told me the story of being sued for libel by Jeffrey Masson after she wrote about him In the Freud Archives, and her regrets about her decision not to defend herself in public. She described her relief – the near miracle – of finding her notebooks containing Masson’s disputed quotes stuffed into a bookcase in the country. She swore an oath that they were genuine, and I have no doubt that they were, but the case, which lasted nearly a decade, hung over her.
When my father died in 2019, she wrote to me.
I was saddened to read of your father’s death and send my deepest sympathy. I know what a momentous event the loss of a parent is.
Now we have lost her. I look for her old emails, but my system has only downloaded some of my archived emails, not others. Janet was a contributing editor to Granta, and always responded to emails, usually with steady, short messages:
Dear Sigrid, Yes, sense of doom. And you wrote your forceful introduction before the Paris bombings. All my best, Janet
And I hope we will meet again before too long. Warmly, Janet
That kind of thing. I was introducing a new contributing editor a few days ago, and, unusually, got no response from her. I had it in mind to write to ask how she was, but I didn’t.
Janet Malcolm, 1934–2021