Forty-One False Starts by Janet Malcom

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Review by Victoria Best

I’ve been a huge fan of Janet Malcolm since reading her brilliant biography of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, The Silent Woman. What she could do – a secret known to very few other non-fiction writers – was bring a supposedly ‘difficult’ topic to life. Non-fiction is often accused of being dry, unless it’s scandalous, but Malcolm always seemed to cut through the verbiage to find the beating heart of her subject. She had the unusual perspective and asked right the searching questions and generally found ways to be cunning and clever that made you, the reader, feel clever and stimulated too.

What to make, then, of her recent book of collected essays on artists and writers? These are the most difficult topics of difficult topics (discounting the territory that belongs to Stephen Hawking) and quite unfashionable these days, except to the few devotees of literature and modern art who get labelled ‘elite’. Which is media nonsense as ever, because anyone has the capacity to enjoy a good book or a provocative picture and we shouldn’t stand for such divisive and ultimately patronising assumptions. The question here is whether Janet Malcolm is the person to lead us all forward into relatively new artistic territory. I like to think I’m reasonably versed in artists and writers, but there were lots of new names to me here: artist David Salle, photographer Thomas Struth, writer Gene Stratton-Porter, for instance. And then a handful I had heard of and was curious to know more about: the Bloomsbury set, Edith Wharton, J. D. Salinger, Diane Arbus and Julia Margaret Cameron.

In fact, one of my favourite essays was about a writer I’d never heard of before: Cecily von Ziegesar who is the author of the now infamous Gossip Girl novels. Janet Malcolm obviously had a whale of a time reading and writing about them, and had profound admiration for the dark, subversive humor that fuels them. Blair Waldorf, the books’ anti-heroine may be vile and scheming but Malcolm puts her at the end of a lineage including Becky Sharp and Lizzie Eustace who are slaves to the ‘impulses that give us such up and go as we have’, and who draw us into that era of hard-hearted late adolescence – ‘a delicious last gasp (the light is most golden just before the shadows fall) of rightful selfishness and cluelessness.’ Blair has a would-be boyfriend, Nate, ‘a kind of Vronsky manqué’ and parents who ‘are cast in the pitifully minor roles that actual parents play in their children’s imaginative lives.’ It’s all a lot of snarky, biting, non-pc fun. ‘There are no brussel sprouts hidden in her Rice Krispie marshmallow treats’ Malcolm tells us, and by the end of the article, I was seriously contemplating reading the whole series myself.

This is perhaps the most outright playfulness Malcolm shows with any of her subjects, but her profiles and analyses were consistently engaging. The opening essay is a tour de force of cleverness, in which she begins to write about the incomplete and unresolved world of artist David Salle forty-one times, abandoning each beginning as if unable to make it connect and come alive – the sort of sterility critics have often accused the artist of in his work and which seems to haunt the man himself. It’s actually a really unusual and provocative piece. I loved her take on Julia Margaret Cameron, the Victorian photographer perhaps best known for being Virginia Woolf’s great-aunt. She was keen on dressing up servants and visitors alike and making them pose for her melancholy tableaux that illustrated scenes from the bible or great myths. One of the very few early female photographers, she has tended to be mocked for the group scenes and admired for the portraits of grand old men of letters she also took. By contrast, Malcolm suggests that it’s the fact those group scenes show their seams and look homemade that makes them radiate such fascinating energy.

I often disagreed with Malcolm’s approaches to her topics, but that never once diminished my pleasure in reading them. What kind of uncanny and disturbing world would I have entered if a book of essays corresponded entirely to my personal opinions? Arguing the toss mentally with the author is part of the fun. For instance, Malcolm criticizes Edith Wharton for only producing female characters who are Mean Girls, while her men are portrayed with tender charity. I think Malcolm’s right but doesn’t take it far enough: those girls are mean because their position in Wharton’s society is so fragile and insecure. They feel forced to get their retaliation in first. Equally I don’t hold the same reverence Malcolm does for the characters in Franny and Zooey; heavily burdened as they are by each and every over-described movement, they left me with a feeling of painful artificiality. But this is all good – I wouldn’t have had the enjoyment of pushing my own responses further without Janet Malcolm’s ideas to encourage me.

Perhaps the only place where I felt a bit bogged down was in her two long essays. I generally love reading about Virginia and Vanessa Woolf, but was quite relieved to reach the end of the 40-page article, as if I’d been swimming in the deep end for too long and was thankful to have the poolside tiles under my hands. Malcolm is never less than interesting in her analyses, but the lovely clear structure of her shorter pieces becomes somewhat compromised, inevitably, over so many pages.

Overall, though, this is a fine collection of writings from the past twenty years, stimulating, intriguing and ever intelligent. Janet Malcolm is always present in her essays, and this prevents them from fading into abstraction or becoming overburdened by clever thought. She’s way too sharp and ironic for that. Give her a try – and find out that you’re smarter than you thought you were.

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Victoria is one of the Shiny New Books editors.

Janet Malcolm, Forty-One False Starts; Essays on Artists and Writers, (Granta, August 2014) 978-1847088567, 320 pages, paperback.

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