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Biography’s Challenges: Janet Malcolm’s Answer

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Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers

By Janet Malcolm 

Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Janet Malcolm is well known to aficionados of biography. She has done excellent work on Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas and on Chekhov, as well as in the realm of non-fiction crime reporting, where she has returned often to what she views as the troubling relationship between the journalist and her subject. In her new collection, Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, she returns, in essays written over a period of nearly thirty years, to what she calls the “congenital handicaps” of biography.

It’s unusual for a practitioner to highlight the weaknesses of her chosen craft, but Malcolm does this with incisive, even savage insistence.  She does this in a revealing piece on Bloomsbury and Virginia Woolf called “A House of One’s Own,” by comparing autobiography, letters, the writing of insiders and the outcome of more traditional biographical writing.

Biography, she tells us, “functions as a kind of processing plant where experience is converted into information the way fresh produce is converted into canned vegetables. But, like canned vegetables, biographical narratives are so far removed from their source – so altered from the plant with soil clinging to its roots that is a letter or a diary entry – that they carry little conviction.”

A related problem, which Malcolm highlights in relation to Woolf, is biography’s status as a “workshop where biographical narratives are manufactured.” With Woolf, and the Bloomsbury group more broadly, mythology replaces real contact with the subject at hand, leading to guesswork and nonsense. In Woolf’s case, this includes, according to Malcolm, unrealistic and fabricated notions regarding the Jewishness of Virginia Woolf’s husband and creative collaborator Leonard Woolf.

By examining the faults in biographical writing, Malcolm triumphs in the genre.  With regard to her chosen subjects she aims not to please, nor to tie up loose ends, nor to seem to master her subject.  Rather, she studiously highlights the rough edges and irresolvable aspects of the lives she studies.

The best example of this can be found in her title essay, a tour de force published in The New Yorker in 1994 on the Manhattan-based artist David Salle.  Salle’s figurative paintings, built from a pastiche of images that include startling female nudes, brought him to the forefront of New York’s art world in the 1980s. But by the time Malcolm began to spend time with him in his studio and at gallery openings, Salle’s “declining reputation in the art world” became a guiding theme in their discussions.

The effect of such writing is a certain edginess and surprise, and even a touch of mischievousness. But Malcolm’s interest and commitment to her subjects is so sustained and deep – in part thanks to her editors at The New Yorker, who support her kind of journalistic work – that her attitude toward her subject inevitably deepens our understanding.

Another idiosyncratic aspect of Malcolm’s essays is their tendency, especially in the set gathered for Forty-One False Starts, to choose subjects whose story might be told from the point of view of Jewish identity, which is only mentioned in the most digressive, even offhand way. The impact of Virginia Woolf’s misrecognition based on her marriage to Leonard is one example of this. Again and again, a paragraph or two, in essays of thirty pages or more, is all one gets. Malcolm has apparently decided that Jewishness is in some way a secret code or key to the lives of her subjects, and she leaves it almost hidden, like a recessive gene.

This is true in the Salle piece, where we learn little about the artist’s upbringing in the American Midwest, including the stray detail that he is the son of “second-generation Russian Jewish parents.”

This approach recurs in almost every piece in Forty-One False Starts, and the careful reader may begin to feel that it is one of Malcolm’s unsettling but fully intended writerly strategies. In the recent essay, “Depth of Field,” about the major German photographic artist Thomas Struth, we learn, as an aside, that his “mother was in the Hitlerjugend and his father served in the Wehrmacht from 1937 to 1945 ...   Like many, if not most Germans of his generation, Struth has been haunted by the Nazi past, and speaks of the Holocaust as a major influence on his life and work.”

In a novelistic piece, some 75 pages long, on the young, preternaturally energetic and influential New York art magazine editor Ingrid Sischy, aspects of Malcolm’s subject remain out of focus.  These include Sischy’s sexual identity, though subtle details are suggestive, and her Jewishness. The most substantial comment on the latter is Malcolm’s characterization of Sischy as a “kind of reverse Jewish princess: she goes through life gratefully accepting the pleasures and amenities that come her way, and if they are not the particular pleasures and amenities she ordered – well, so much the better. Her relationship to the world of consumer objects is almost bizarrely attenuated ... She has no credit cards, no charge accounts, no savings account ....”

In a wonderful essay entitled “Salinger’s Cigarettes” Malcolm makes the act of burying one’s Jewish identity an overt part of her appreciation of the writer’s work. As critics lost patience with Salinger’s stories in the late 1950s, a routine complaint arose that he was intentionally downplaying his own Jewish ancestry by presenting characters whose ethnicity was elaborately coded or unclear.

Malcolm challenges these critical assaults with the following remarkable anecdote: “As it happens, Salinger is himself honestly half Jewish: his mother, née Marie Jillich, was an Irish-Catholic who, however, changed her name to Miriam and passed herself off as a Jew after she married Salinger’s father, Sol, with the result that Salinger and his older sister, Doris, grew up believing they were wholly Jewish; only when Doris was nineteen, and after Salinger had been bar mitzvahed, were they told the surprising truth.”

Hiddenness, mistaken and misapprehended identity were themselves part of Salinger’s life. The reappearance of such troubling and rough-edged themes in his stories makes perfect sense if one takes into account the stories’ biographical context.

Malcolm is so much livelier and surprising than the bulk of her colleagues in the “workshop” of “biographical narratives” that one might be tempted to declare the genre moribund but for work like Forty-One False Starts.


Norman Ravvin tries his hand at biography in the forthcoming Wordless Leonard Cohen Songbook, as well as in talks on Leonard Cohen to be delivered in Poland in the spring.

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