Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers
“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.” The opening sentence of Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer – the story of the lawsuit between the convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald and Joe McGinniss, the author of a book about the crime – has become the stuff of literary legend. Malcolm has made her name with astute takedowns of this simplicity and magnitude. Her pen proves consistently mightier than the sword – from biography to psychoanalysis, Malcolm has had the last word on each subject. Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers is her 12th book – a collection of pieces originally published in The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review and the magazine in which in essay form most of her books have been conceived, The New Yorker.
As the subtitle suggests, her subjects are writers (Edith Wharton; Gene Stratton-Porter; J?D Salinger; Allen Shawn; and Cecily von Ziegesar of the Gossip Girl novels) and artists (the painter David Salle; and the photographers Thomas Struth, Julia Margaret Cameron, Diane Arbus, Edward Weston and Irving Penn). There’s a brilliant essay on the Bloomsbury Group “novel”: “Were their lives really so fascinating, or is it simply because they wrote so well and so incessantly about themselves and one another that we find them so? Well, the latter, of course”; obituaries of her New Yorker colleagues and mentors William Shawn and Joseph Mitchell; an extended profile of Ingrid Sischy from 1986, the then twentysomething editor of Artforum magazine who was shaking up the New York art scene; and finally, the epilogue of the collection, Thoughts on Autobiography from an Abandoned Autobiography.
The two significantly longer pieces – that on Bloomsbury, A House of One’s Own; and Sischy, A Girl of the Zeitgeist – are the gems of the compendium (the latter clearly thought of as such, as this is its third incarnation – first appearing in The New Yorker, then in The Purloined Clinic, Malcolm’s first collection of essays, published in 1992). It may irk the most devout of Malcolmites that this is not an original work, but it’s worth remembering that these pieces are her daily bread, and there’s nothing like watching a master at work.
Malcolm’s trademark is the precision and elegance with which she identifies the heart of the matter in question, so it’s of great fascination that the volume is bookended by pieces about projects that have supposedly eluded her. The opening essay, from which the collection takes its name, comprises 41 incomplete and uncompleted profiles of Salle. “To write about the painter David Salle is to be forced into a kind of parody of his melancholy art of fragments, quotations, absences,” she writes in one, apparently unable to spear her subject with her customary lepidopterist’s skill, having him squirming on a pin while she, magnifying glass in hand, swoops in for the extreme close-up. Nevertheless, the profile Malcolm (un)intentionally produces is a carefully crafted comment on Salle and his work, particularly apt for a painter for whom “every stroke of the brush is irrevocable; nothing can be changed or retracted”. Though, whereas Salle decrees that “a few false moves and the painting is ruined, unsalvageable”, Malcolm achieves the opposite: together, the 41 apparently disconnected, often overlapping and repetitive beginnings appear a coherent piece in collage form.
She concludes the collection with another false start, a fragment of her own unwritten autobiography. “When one’s work has been all but done – as mine has been for more than a quarter of a century – by one brilliant self-inventive collaborator after another, it isn’t easy to suddenly find oneself alone in the room.” Rooms haunt Malcolm’s work – she began her career at The New Yorker writing a column about interiors and design called About the House; she uses the excellent image of a cluttered house, its rooms packed with detritus that must be cleared away into rubbish bags, for the mind of a writer in The Silent Woman; and she reads the rooms of her subjects as extensions of their psychology. In A Girl of the Zeitgeist, she and the art critic René Ricard are conversing in the Mike Todd Room, “where the celebrities of the art world like to congregate”, at the Palladium nightclub. Here, Malcolm has penetrated the gilded interior of this world of privilege and personality, but I’m reminded of a contrasting moment in The Silent Woman when Al Alvarez talks of Hannah Arendt’s New Year’s Eve bashes: “They were marvellous parties. Did you ever go?” Alvarez had “flatteringly mistaken me for someone who might have been invited to Hannah Arendt’s parties in the 1950s”, Malcolm admits.
Her pieces that delight the most feature these choice moments of Malcolmian self-reflection. Claiming it’s an exercise in illustrating the difference between an amateur and a professional, she brings some of her own artwork to show Salle, only to realise “that for all my protests to the contrary, I had brought them to be praised”; or her comprehension, nearly a year after the fact, of the “latent meaning” of a story Sischy related to her: that it was a “covert commentary” on their relationship.
Alas, these momentary glimpses into her psyche are all we’re afforded, but, if autobiography confounds her, biography is where she demonstrates her genius. In A House of One’s Own, she describes it as functioning “as a kind of processing plant where experience is converted into information the way fresh produce is converted into canned vegetables”.
“But,” she warns, “like canned vegetables, biographical narratives are so far removed from their sources – so altered from the plant with soil clinging to its roots that is a letter or diary entry – that they carry little conviction.”
Malcolm is not a biographer; she is a philosopher of the pitfalls of biography. What she does is more akin to the work of conceptual artist Sherrie Levine, one of the extended cast members of A Girl of the Zeitgeist, who first became known for her series of photographs After Walker Evans, copies of photographs that Evans took of tenant-farmer families in Alabama which Levine, “following Duchamp”, then made her own simply by signing the copies she’d had made. Malcolm too is only concerned with the original, the plant with the soil still clinging to its roots, the original photographic image, but, like Levine, she adds her own unique signature.
The final false start to the Salle profile reads as follows: “One day, toward the end of a conversation I was having with the painter David Salle in his studio, on White Street, he looked at me and said: ‘Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever thought that your real life hasn’t begun yet?’” She responds: “I think I know what you mean. You know – soon. Soon you’ll start your real life.”
When, indeed, is Malcolm going to write her “real” opening paragraph? But we can extend the metaphor to the brilliance of her practice in general: the “real” piece is the preparatory draft, the meditation on the subject, the aside about Sischy’s “inefficient” manner of chopping tomatoes that throws light on her entire approach to life. What Malcolm does may well be “morally indefensible”, but we’re joyfully complicit in her crime.
Lucy Scholes is a freelance journalist who lives in London.
Two more books by Janet Malcolm
The Journalist and the Murderer (1990)
Malcolm’s controversial book examines a lawsuit between the convicted killer Jeffrey MacDonald and Joe McGinniss, who wrote a book about his crime. Considered a contemporary classic, it is number 97 in the Modern Library’s “100 Best Works of Nonfiction”.
The Purloined Clinic: Selected Writings (1992)
Malcolm examines art from a psychoanalytical perspective in this collection of profiles and essays. She takes a close look at the New York art scene, observes the work of an iconoclastic family therapist and meets a former Czech dissident during the Velvet Revolution in Prague.