What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Janet Malcolm's Perplexing Pomegranates

Henri Matisse, Still Life with Pomegranates (1947)
Nature seldom appears in Janet Malcolm’s writings. Hers is a mental world of transcripts, journals, courtrooms, literature, art, and psychoanalysis. There are exceptions to her denatured outlook. One is her love of burdocks, at least as photographic subjects (see “Burdocks,” The New York Review of Books, August 14, 2008). Another is her apparent fondness for pomegranates. I say “apparent” because the evidence is skimpy. I’ve found four references. The earliest is in her great The Silent Woman (1994):

What Hughes is protesting is being treated as if he were dead. The issue between the Hugheses and the public hostile to them is whether or not the Hugheses are dead. They have compromised their claim to being alive by their financial gains from the dead poet’s literary remains. They have eaten the pomegranate seeds that tie them to the underworld.

In Malcolm’s Iphigenia in Forest Hills (2011), she quotes from a letter adduced at Borukhova’s sentencing hearing:

I can say that with 100 percent confidence. I remember coming into his office a few days after Michelle was living with him. I remember everything perfectly. Michelle was playing a game with his secretary. Daniel was taking a break. He was sitting in the other room eating a pomegranate. He told me “when I see Michelle playing at school I think back to how much time passed that I wasn’t with her and cry.”

Malcolm comments,

Of course he was eating a pomegranate. Characters in Russian literature are always eating (or offering) fruit at significant moments. (Gurov in The Lady and the Lapdog eats a slice of watermelon after he and Anna have slept together for the first time; Oblonsky in Anna Karenina is bringing Dolly a large pear when she confronts him with his infidelity.) It is in the blood of Russian storytelling to take note of the fruit. The image of Daniel’s pomegranate briefly flickered in the minds of the people sitting in the Queens courtroom and disappeared until, many months later, it leaped out of the trial transcript that one of the spectators was reading.

In Malcolm’s “The Master Writer of the City” (The New York Review of Books, April 23, 2015), a review of Thomas Kunkel’s Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker, she quotes the following passage from Mitchell’s “Joe Gould’s Secret”:

Like the Baptist preachers the young reporter had listened to and struggled to understand in his childhood, the old man sees meaning behind meanings, or thinks he does, and tries his best to tell what things “stand for.” “Pomegranates are about the size and shape of large oranges or small grapefruits, only their skins are red,” he says…. “They’re filled…with juice as red as blood. When they get ripe, they’re so swollen with those juicy red seeds that they gap open and some of the seeds spill out. And now I’ll tell you what pomegranates stand for. They stand for the resurrection…. All seeds stand for resurrection and all eggs stand for resurrection. The Easter egg stands for resurrection. So do the eggs in the English sparrow’s nest up under the eaves in the “L” station. So does the egg you have for breakfast. So does the caviar the rich people eat. So does shad roe.

And In her Paris Review interview, Malcolm, asked to describe her living room, replies,

My living room has an oak-wood floor, Persian carpets, floor-to-ceiling bookcases, a large ficus and large ferns, a fireplace with a group of photographs and drawings over it, a glass-top coffee table with a bowl of dried pomegranates on it, and sofas and chairs covered in off-white linen. [The Paris Review, Spring 2011]

What to make of these “pomegranate” passages? It’s significant that the pomegranates in the bowl on her coffee table are dried. They’re there to be seen, not eaten. They mean something to her apart from their deliciousness. Malcolm is an analyst, not a sensualist. Perhaps she likes pomegranates for their mythological implications (“They have eaten the pomegranate seeds that tie them to the underworld”). Perhaps they represent Russian literature (“It is in the blood of Russian storytelling to take note of the fruit”). Perhaps they remind her of Joseph Mitchell. Perhaps they “stand for” (to use Mitchell’s words) some sort of personal resurrection. Perhaps their meaning is a combination of all the above, or maybe its something else entirely. There’s a subtle pomegranate pattern running through Malcolm’s work (and life); it’s not there by accident. It’s a conscious aspect of her extraordinary art.

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