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
It has been 50 or so years since journalism began to wriggle free of its constraints to become a far more interesting form, one that continues to redefine and interrogate its boundaries. Among those who have raised the bar considerably in the genre is Janet Malcolm.
Malcolm was born in Prague in 1935 and came with her family to the US as a child. She began writing for the New Yorker in the 1960s, in what was then the “girls’ ghetto” of interior design and shopping. In the late 1970s, by which time she had married her second husband, the New Yorker editor Gardner Botsford, she began to write the kind of incisive long-form literary nonfiction for which she is now known. Her 12 books have treated such subjects as psychoanalysis, Chekhov and Sylvia Plath.
Malcolm’s most famous work is probably The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), which teases out the implications of the journalist-subject relationship through the “larger-than-life example” of the convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald and the author Joe McGinniss. MacDonald had contracted with McGinniss to write about his case, but when McGinniss became convinced, during the trial, of MacDonald’s guilt he continued, for the sake of the book, to pretend otherwise. When Fatal Vision came out MacDonald sued McGinniss for fraud and breach of contract.
The assertion with which Malcolm opens the book – “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” – has, she has since noted, come to seem so obvious as to be banal. More unsettling is her comparison of the regressive effect of the journalistic encounter to that of psychoanalysis: “The subject becomes a kind of child of the writer, regarding him as a permissive, all-accepting, all-forgiving mother, and expecting that the book will be written by her. Of course, the book is written by the strict, all-noticing, unforgiving father.”
For the reader there is a discomfiting, voyeuristic thrill in witnessing this flip – much in evidence in Malcolm’s In the Freud Archives, which preceded The Journalist and the Murderer. The Freud book tracks a feud within the psychoanalytic community, and led to Malcolm herself being sued. Jeffrey Masson, a young analyst, claimed, unsuccessfully, that Malcolm had libelled him. In the afterword to The Journalist Malcolm insists that the book is not “a thinly veiled account of her own experience of being sued by a subject”, but the two books can’t but comment on each other, and The Journalist functions – like a deconstructive artist’s statement – as a critique of the very activity in which Malcolm, and all journalists, are engaged.
Forty-one False Starts consists of previously published pieces on literature and visual art. The title essay covers conversations Malcolm held in 1992 and 1993 with postmodernist painter David Salle.
It opens in a tone of chill melancholy:
“There are places in New York where the city’s anarchic, unaccommodating spirit, its fundamental, irrepressible aimlessness and heedlessness have found especially firm footholds. Certain transfers between subway lines, passageways of almost transcendent sordidness; certain sites of torn-down buildings where parking lots have silently sprung up like fungi; certain intersections created by illogical confluences of streets – these express with particular force the city’s penchant for the provisional and its resistance to permanence, order, closure.”
Forty-one False Starts queries, refracts, is in dialogue with both Salle’s own work (“To write about the painter David Salle is to be forced into a kind of parody of his melancholy art of fragments, quotations, absences”) and the impossibility of doing anything like a straight portrait of someone for whom the interview is “another medium in which to (playfully) work”. Motifs and phrases repeat, a sense of eddying takes hold, all these “false starts” subjecting the reader to an ongoing experience of interruptus that, while depriving us of the (false) sense of narrative resolution we seem hard-wired to want, results in something greater than the sum of its parts.
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.