Posts Tagged ‘Janet Malcolm’
“Mirek rewrote history just like the Communist Party, like all political parties, like all peoples, like mankind. They shout that they want to shape a better future, but it’s not true. The future is only an indifferent void no one cares about, but the past is filled with life, and its countenance is irritating, repellent, wounding, to the point that we want to destroy or repaint it. We want to be masters of the future only for the power to change the past.” The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
As if taking a cue from one of his characters a dark secret from the past threatens to crash on the opening chapter of Milan Kundera’s life. In October 2008, the Czech weekly Respekt published a story that claimed Kundera informed on one of his countrymen in 1950, leading to the man’s imprisonment for 14 years in a hard labour camp.
The basis of the assertion was an old police report that fell into the hands of Adam Hradilek, a historian researching the bleak days of Czechoslovakia’s Communist past. The police document reopened the story of Miroslav Dvoracek and that of his childhood friend Iva Militka. The report also brought the past of arguably the most brilliant literary surgeon of communism in Eastern Europe to the forefront. It is a widely reported and misreported story in which the jury is still out on the truth and doubt remains the only certainty.
The 1950 Police Report
The police report dated March 14, 1950 says: “Today at around 1600 hours a student, Milan Kundera, born 1.4.1929 in Brno, resident at the student hall of residence on George VI Avenue in Prague VII, presented himself at this department and reported that a student, Iva Militka, resident at that residence, had told a student by the name of Dlask, also of that residence, that she had met a certain acquaintance of hers, Miroslav Dvoracek, at Klarov in Prague the same day. The said Dvoracek apparently left one case in her care, saying he would come to fetch it in the afternoon… Dvoracek had apparently deserted from military service and since the spring of the previous year had possibly been in Germany, where he had gone illegally.”
The most important thing is the veracity of the police report and from what has come out the document is being considered as genuine (though there is speculation on whether its contents are genuine). Jerome Depuis of the French magazine L’Express travelled to Prague and cited the historian Rudolf Vedova from the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (USTR), the same institute Hradilek works for: “We had the document analysed by the Czech Secret Forces archive. The paper, the names listed, the identity and the signature of the officer were all examined—and the document was found to be authentic.”
Around the same time Jiri Grusa, a Czech poet and in 2008 the president of the international writers association PEN, told a German radio station that he went to Prague to see the police document for himself. Grusa said that he now has no doubts that “the document is real. There’s no denying it. Only it is not Milan Kundera’s document, it is no denunciation, it’s a police annunciation. And if Kundera says, I didn’t do it, then I have to believe him.”
In 1948 a putsch in Czechoslovakia led to a communist takeover. This resulted in the armed forces being purged and veteran airmen who had flown with the RAF in the war (about 40 per cent of Czech Air Force) were demoted, kicked out or sent to labour camps due to their exposure to the West. Even students were not spared. Two boyhood friends, Miroslav Dvoracek and Miroslav Juppa, who had attended the same school in a small town in Eastern Bohemia were included on a list of expulsions in a memorandum from January 1949. When they were ordered a month later to join an infantry unit, Dvoracek and Juppa, aided by Juppa’s girlfriend Iva Militka and her relatives fled to West Germany.
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It has taken me a few days—as I have been wandering in the national capital in search of a new house; a task that was to be achieved towards the end of last year but has dragged on to the new one—to pick a subject for the first piece of the year. In this transition phase I discovered a beautiful article ‘Justice to J.D. Salinger’ by Janet Malcolm and then a great one on her. That set the twin search processes in motion that I completed today.
Janet Malcolm is the author of The Journalist and the Murderer, a 1990 book that first appeared as a two-part article in the New Yorker in 1989. As I started following the links—whenever I got respite from the tedious house hunt—betrayal and justice were the two themes that resonated clearly and loudly in my ears. “Freud said nothing is coincidence.”
The Journalist and the Murderer opens with this stunning line: “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. Like the credulous widow who wakes up to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of non-fiction writing learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and ‘the public’s right to know’; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.”
In a February 2000 piece for Salon Craig Seligman did justice to Janet Malcolm just as Janet later did to Salinger in her 2001 essay. Craig was aware of the background as he had worked as a fact checker in the New Yorker under William Shawn, a decade before his Salon piece and had even checked some of the facts for Malcolm’s photography pieces. In his article on Janet Malcolm—and the conflicts she got embroiled in—Craig lays bare a stunning story of the inherent contradictions of narrative as Janet sees it and dissects the work of a virtuoso stylist in Malcolm with a refined and amazing style of his own. Craig has not pulled punches while writing about Malcolm but he has given, for lack of a better metaphor, ‘the devil his due’. He shows with precision and clarity that The Journalist and the Murderer is not an attack or a question mark on the ethics of journalists—Malcolm’s point is ‘the canker that lies at the heart of the rose; the ethical paradox at the core of all journalism.’ Which is, as he proves effectively, the case with Malcolm’s writing about biography, psychoanalysis, and judiciary.
Malcolm was born in pre-World War II Prague and moved with her family to New York in 1939, when she was 5 years old; just in time when anti-Semitism was rising in Europe. Janet’s father, not surprisingly, was a psychiatrist. She is an author of eight books and has been a contributor to The New Yorker since 1963.
“The public pillorying of Janet Malcolm is one of the scandals of American letters. The world of journalism teems with hacks who will go to their graves never having written one sparkling or honest or incisive sentence; why is it Malcolm, a virtuoso stylist and a subtle, exciting thinker, who drives critics into a rage? What journalist of her caliber is as widely disliked or as often accused of bad faith? And why did so few of her colleagues stand up for her during the circus of a libel trial that scarred her career? In the animus toward her there is something almost personal.
Yet I can’t deny that she brings some of it on herself, with the harshness—the mellifluous harshness—of her work. Malcolm is hard on her subjects. As she sees it, being hard on them is her job; ‘putting a person’s feelings above a text’s necessities’ is, in her arid and damning formulation, a ‘journalistic solecism’. Like Sylvia Plath, whose not-niceness she has laid open with surgical skill, she discovered her vocation in not-niceness. Dryden famously noted the ‘vast difference betwixt the slovenly butchering of a man, and the fineness of a stroke that separates the head from the body, and leaves it standing in its place.’ Malcolm’s blade gleams with a razor edge. Her critics tend to go after her with broken bottles,” wrote Craig.
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