Forty One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, by Janet Malcolm
Reviewed by Molly McCloskey
Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers
A similar sense of things aswirl runs through the longest piece of the collection, A Girl of the Zeitgeist (1986), about the magazine Artforum and its then editor, Ingrid Sischy. One of Malcolm’s strengths is her ability to render thrilling (I mean as compelling as a good thriller) subjects not normally regarded as such – here a bunch of artists, editors and writers talking about themselves and one another. The piece is tightly plotted and steeped in a kind of shivery nuance: at one point Sischy is served grapefruit by an artist “with the sad, ironic air of one doing an avant-garde performance piece that may be beyond the grasp of the audience”.
The third long essay, about Bloomsbury, rests on a series of oppositions: the sisters Vanessa and Virginia; letters versus the biographies written on the backs of them; Quentin Bell and his half-sister Angelica, illegitimate daughter of Vanessa and Duncan Grant. Angelica broke ranks with the Bloomsbury machine in her memoir Deceived With Kindness. Her sin, according to Malcolm, was not in telling her truth but in telling it badly, without the requisite Bloomsburian irony, stoicism, obliqueness. When we read Angelica’s book, Malcolm writes, we withhold our sympathy, “not because her grievance is without merit, but because her language is without force”. Angelica is, in Malcolm’s formulation, “like a stain that won’t come out of a treasured Persian carpet and eventually becomes part of its beauty” – an image so well packaged you could almost fail to note how cruelly diminishing it is.
Malcolm’s work is fiercely intelligent. Her critics have suggested that it lacks sympathy. There is indeed a chill wind blowing through it – a forensic detachment. There is also something beyond that, though, a kind of degendered quality that is oddly disconcerting and difficult to name. She has described it herself in a Paris Review interview, where she says (or writes, having insisted she and Katie Roiphe do the interview by email): “I came to feminism late. Women who came of age at the time that I did developed aggressive ways to attract the notice of the superior males.”
When Roiphe asks her to elaborate, Malcolm writes: “Those of us who wrote, wrote for men and showed off to them. Our writing had a certain note. I’m not sure I can describe it, but I can hear it.”
Roiphe mentions the work of Mary McCarthy and Rebecca West – writing unconstrained by feminine “niceness” (HG Wells said West “wrote like God”) – and asks whether there is something about being a woman writing in a very male field that leads to a kind of “brilliant aggression” on the page. Malcolm replies: “The aggression is coupled with flirtation. That way you get the guys to say you write like God. Maybe we should move on to a new subject.”
Molly McCloskey’s latest book is a memoir, Circles Around the Sun.