The range is impressive, if slightly humourless and bewildering, like flicking through an entire New Yorker without the light relief of the cartoons, the casuals, or Anthony Lane... Malcolm, now in her mid-eighties, may be destined to be remembered only for the opening line to The Journalist and the Murderer — ‘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’ — but there’s absolutely nothing indefensible about what she’s done. On the contrary, there’s everything to admire. Fearless, curious, endlessly entertaining: would that we were all so stupid and full of ourselves.
Malcolm is the undisputed queen of description... Two excellent pieces on Anna Karenina remind us what a deeply intelligent literary critic Malcolm is. In the first, she contests “standard readings of the novel” that “attribute Anna’s descent into madness to the loss of her son and her ostracism by society.” The second, meanwhile, deals with the fraught issue of translating the Russian writer into English... Reading Malcolm on Bate’s book — in which, she writes, “specimens of tastelessness lodged [ . . . ] like the threepenny coins in a Christmas pudding” — in The New York Review of Books when it was published in 2016 made sense. Re-reading the piece here though, it feels flimsy, compared to the heft of The Silent Woman, and Bate — along with some of the other subjects here — unworthy of Malcolm’s attention. In fact, the more I read, the more something felt off. Malcolm herself — her fame and her critical prowess — increasingly became the elephant in the room. Especially since the one recent New Yorker piece I wish had been included was “Six Glimpses of the Past: On Photography and Memory” in which Malcolm takes herself as subject — ingeniously so — for the first time. Malcolm’s still one of the smartest critics writing today, but one leaves this book feeling that her best pieces sadly didn’t make the cut.