Janet Malcolm hits her marks with polite precision

January 03, 1993|By Zofia Smardz


Janet Malcolm.


382 pages. $23.

Most readers may recognize Janet Malcolm as the author of "The Journalist and the Murderer," her controversial denunciation journalistic hypocrisy built around "Fatal Vision," the Joe McGinniss book about convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald. Long before that work elevated her momentarily to the status of literary celebrity, however, Ms. Malcolm was known and admired among the cognoscenti for the elegant, erudite and provocative essays and criticism she has turned out over the years for the New Yorker and other choice publications.

A decade's worth of these writings are now collected in "The Purloined Clinic." Reading them is a must and a pleasure for those who value a writer of intelligence, grace and clarity, with the daring to write about people and ideas with equal measures of bold originality and quiet reflection.

Throughout her career, Ms. Malcolm has specialized in writing about psychoanalysis, that alternately mythologized and maligned science, which she manages in these essays to defend without defensiveness and to challenge without destructiveness. It is her exceptional expository gift that one may know very little about the field and yet find oneself wandering in fascination through her ruminations on "Dora," one of Freud's earliest case histories, and its implications for later practitioners of psychoanalysis; or her discussion of latter-day efforts to "refurbish" this inexact science; or her review of a book about the controversial and difficult French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.

Ms. Malcolm's fondness for the psychotherapeutic field is evident in the amount she writes about it, and in the way she relates it unexpectedly to other areas of science, art and life. She sees reflections of the analyst-patient relationship in that of the critic to his subject, and finds a subtle auto-analysis in autobiographical work which she reviews.

Yet she has reservations regarding psychotherapy's ultimate and complete efficacy. Her long essay, "The One-Way Mirror," a mostly laudatory appraisal of psychiatrist Salvador Minuchin and the growth of family therapy, ends on a deliberately ambiguous note, delicately questioning whether a family declared to have been "cured" is really so much improved after all.

The erudition that shines through her pieces on psychoanalysis is equally evident in Ms. Malcolm's writings on art and literature.

In a gentle but skillful assault, she dismantles a Tom Wolfe polemic against modern architecture and reasserts the Bauhaus group's right to claims of greatness. She candidly exposes the avant-garde art world, with all its faults as well as its glories, in her profile of art magazine editor Ingrid Sischy. And she offers delightful strolls through the worlds of Victorian and Bloomsbury letters in a couple of learned and enlightening book reviews.

Of her longer pieces, "The Window Washer," a rambling profile of post-velvet revolution Czechoslovakia, is most engaging, perhaps because it takes the author to the city where she was born and lived as a very young child, before her Jewish family fled the Nazis. Back in Prague, she finds that "the Czech part of my identity, which had always lain below the surface of my 'real life' as an American child and American adult . . . now appeared to me with moving vividness." For once, more than usual, she allows the personal to play a role in the story she has to tell. But it is a very small role; unlike so many contemporary journalists, who thrust themselves into the story, Ms. Malcolm is careful to retain a certain polite detachment.

Polite, in fact, may best describe her style as a writer and critic. Though full of strong opinion, there is nothing the least polemical in her work, and the reader is always invited to disagree, just as Ms. Malcolm occasionally disagrees with her subjects.

In the title essay, she offers the view that the best criticism is "an exercise in excess and provocation," a rule she does not quite keep herself. For while her work is undeniably provocative, it is provocation of a most refined and understated sort, the kind where you don't realize what's hit you until you've turned the page.

Ms. Smardz is a writer living in Washington.

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