A couple of years ago, the New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm, who knows enough about journalism to hardly ever give interviews herself, spoke to Katie Roiphe for the Paris Review. Except that she didn’t actually speak to her — or at least, not while Roiphe’s tape recorder was rolling.
Roiphe was allowed to visit Malcolm’s book-lined home overlooking Gramercy Park in New York — “If I were a journalist walking into the room, I would immediately start composing a satiric portrait of the New York writer’s apartment with its standard tasteful objects (cat included) and general air of unrelenting culture,” joked Malcolm later — but she was required to ask her questions only via e-mail, the better that her reluctant interviewee might “tinker” with them (for “tinker” we may read: avoid).
The result is rather odd. There are periods when Malcolm’s presence is so vivid, you feel almost sorry for Roiphe, a controversialist who is well able to look after herself. “I think you are asking me, in the most tactful way possible, about my own aggression and malice,” Malcolm tells her at one point. There are also moments when she simply slips from the room like a ghost.
“This may be too deep a subject for an e-mail exchange on the art of nonfiction,” she replies, when Roiphe asks her if having a child ever conflicted with her writing.
Malcolm’s latest book, “Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers,” affords the reader a not dissimilar experience. In a 1986 profile of Ingrid Sischy, the then editor of Artforum magazine, Malcolm is mostly content to let her cast of art world egomaniacs hang themselves, quoting them at such length, you might almost be reading a transcript. On and on they go, blustering and narcissistic. But at other times, her irritation is uncontainable and it bursts on to the page, bitchy and magnificent. (Malcolm’s cattiness is underpinned by her great intelligence and by her aversion to what she calls, in this book, “the streamlined truisms of the age of mental health.”)
In a long essay on Vanessa Bell and Charleston, for instance, she gets her claws well and truly into the professional biographers — for all that without their efforts her own piece would have been impossible to write. Biographical research leads, she says, to “an insufferable familiarity,” while the books that are its end result function only “as a kind of processing plant where experience is converted into information the way fresh produce is converted into canned vegetables.”
Malcolm, you understand, is not a great one for canned vegetables. She is after market freshness in all things, a position that, long ago, was influenced by deconstruction and the idea that every narrative is inflected by narrator’s bias.
This book is probably less fresh than she might hope, being a collection of old pieces from the New Yorker and elsewhere; it is tethered, as all collections of journalism are, by ancient deadlines and the confines of column inches, and some of its subjects — Sischy, who now works for Vanity Fair, being the prime example — have moved on to such a degree that it’s hard to care too much about Malcolm’s painstaking analysis of them.
Certainly, this volume is not up there with her great page-turners, her books about the Sylvia Plath industry, the Freud archives, Gertrude Stein and, most gripping of all, the conviction for murder of Jeffrey MacDonald (this last is the book that famously begins: “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”). But still, it is full of good things, being a distillation, albeit a slightly clunky one, of Malcolm’s presiding belief, which is that while art — even wild post-modern art, such as that of the painter David Salle, another of her subjects — is mostly a pretty tidy sort of narrative, real life is messy, chaotic and generally impossible to unpick. Malcolm’s authorial voice, beady, strict and deeply sane, tends to suggest her superiority as a tale-teller. But she is always careful to undermine this by showing her workings. See where I went, and who I spoke to, she says. See how I had to take up a position, even though I was full of doubt. And the trick of it is, of course, that the reader only grows more certain that she is more right than most.
There are 16 essays in “Forty-One False Starts,” of which the piece about Vanessa Bell is my favorite. You would read it for her description of Charleston alone: “It is an artist’s house … but it is also the house of an Englishwoman … a house where sagging armchairs covered with drooping slipcovers of faded print are tolerated, and where even a certain faint dirtiness is cultivated.” (It’s hard to imagine a more crushing sentence.)
Malcolm sees the world of Bloomsbury as a “sprawling novel,” its protagonists having placed in “posterity’s hands the documents necessary to engage posterity’s feeble attention.”
She gives short shrift to those who would cling to their skirts and shirt-tails. Even Angelica Garnett, Vanessa’s daughter by Duncan Grant, is little more than a moaner in Malcolm’s eyes, her un-ironic tone as a writer making for a drab contrast with the “natural gaiety” of her aunt Virginia (I must admit that gaiety is not a word I previously much associated with Woolf).
“The Genius of the Glass House,” an account of the life and work of the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, who was Woolf’s great-aunt, should certainly be read alongside it (in the book, they’re separated by pieces about J.D. Salinger, Edith Wharton and Gene Stratton-Porter, another American novelist). Malcolm’s account of Cameron’s narrative “fancy-subject” photographs is one of the best I’ve read; for her, their pleasure lies in “the truth of the sitting” — the spectacle of seeing a bunch of Victorian housemaids, nieces and village children dressed as characters from the Bible or Tennyson, and all desperately trying to hold their poses — rather than in their technical accomplishment.
Photography is a long-standing interest of Malcolm’s, and other pieces are devoted to Edward Weston, Diane Arbus, Thomas Struth and the photographic nude, all of them good. Much more surprising is a review from 2008 of the “Gossip Girl” novels by Cecily von Ziegesar. Personally, I think she takes these consumerist fairy tales a little too seriously — comparing von Ziegesar’s sense of comedy to that of Nabokov in “Lolita,” and one of its male characters to Vronsky in “Anna Karenina” is mischievous, to say the least — but her pleasure in them seems to be entirely authentic. And why shouldn’t it be? Von Ziegesar’s technique of narration through (spiteful, grasping) interior voice is a perfect match for Malcolm, whose interest in the id knows no bounds. When she writes that nasty Blair Waldorf’s “over-the-top selfishness and hatefulness has the ring of behind-our-masks-we’re-all-like-that truth,” she sounds almost envious, as if von Ziegesar had somehow been able to visit a place that she had glimpsed only through the window of a passing car.