Su­perb meld­ing of truth and in­ven­tion

Forty-one False Starts: Es­says on Artists and Writ­ers

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Felic­ity Plun­kett

By Janet Mal­colm In­tro­duc­tion by Helen Garner Text Pub­lish­ing, 298pp, $32.99

THE au­to­bi­og­ra­pher, sug­gests Janet Mal­colm, must sub­due ‘‘ mem­ory’s autism, its pas­sion for the te­dious’’. The way to do this — to sus­tain an il­lu­sion of the firstper­son sub­ject’s ‘‘ preter­nat­u­ral ex­traor­di­nar­i­ness’’ — is to in­vent.

Thoughts on Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy from an Aban­doned Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy is the fi­nal piece in Mal­colm’s new col­lec­tion, Forty-one False Starts, which brings to­gether sev­eral decades’ worth of es­says by the Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist.

The gen­er­a­tive po­ten­tial of the place where tedium meets and is re­placed by in­ven­tion is cen­tral to Mal­colm’s work. Lies are a fo­cus: who is ly­ing and why; whether in­ven­tion is some­thing more el­e­vated; and the ef­fects of all this on art and life.

In A House of One’s Own, Mal­colm ex­plores the hous­ing of the Blooms­bury le­gend and an over­lap­ping of re­mem­ber­ing and for­get­ting in its ar­chi­tec­ture. She refers to Vir­ginia Woolf’s pref­ace to an anec­dote in her 1921 es­say Old Blooms­bury: ‘‘ I do not know if I in­vented it or not.’’ Woolf, like Mal­colm, re­turns to this ques­tion, writ­ing in her 1939 es­say A Sketch of the Past that mem­oirs fail be­cause they ‘‘ leave out the per­son to whom things hap­pened’’. She goes on to de­scribe the way ex­cep­tional mo­ments are ‘‘ em­bed­ded in many more mo­ments of non-be­ing’’.

For Woolf, this un­der­stand­ing means reimag­in­ing fic­tional and non­fic­tional prose around ‘‘ mo­ments of be­ing’’. For Mal­colm, it leads to the eth­i­cal and artis­tic ques­tions about truth at the nerve cen­tre of her work.

For some of Mal­colm’s sub­jects, nar­ra­tive pro­vides a way of look­ing for­ward. In Depth of Field, Ger­man pho­tog­ra­pher Thomas Struth, com­mis­sioned to pho­to­graph the Queen, calls nar­ra­tive ‘‘ an in­cen­tive’’. It al­lows him to im­bue a pho­to­graph with en­ergy so it be­comes ‘‘ a sort of sym­bolic, vis­ual ex­pres­sion’’ of some­thing larger than the ob­ject be­fore the lens. The nar­ra­tives ghost­ing Struth’s work cir­cle back to that com­pelling com­pos­ite word Ver­gan­gen­heits­be­wal­ti­gung: ‘‘ com­ing to terms with the past’’.

Al­though he de­scribes a cul­ture of postHolo­caust guilt in­flu­enc­ing his life and work, Mal­colm finds sunny en­thu­si­asm in his art and its re­cep­tion. Yet em­a­nat­ing from this, crit­ics de­scribe the ways one of his pho­to­graphs might bring about a dis­so­lu­tion of ‘‘ alien­ation from oth­ers and from his­tory’’.

In ap­par­ent op­po­si­tion to this is the phi­los­o­phy of Amer­i­can post­mod­ern painter David Salle, the sub­ject of the in­no­va­tive es­say from which this col­lec­tion takes its name. The es­say — a form whose name sug­gests trial or at­tempt, and which os­si­fies when it be­comes too com­fort­able — in­cludes 41 start­ing points from which Salle might be ap­proached.

Dis­cussing lit­er­ary prose, Salle tells Mal­colm: ‘‘ I’m bored by plot . . . I’m bored when it’s all writ­ten out, when there isn’t any short­hand.’’ He might be the char­ac­ter in Woolf’s Be­tween the Acts who, faced with an avant-garde per­for­mance, re­minds her­self, ‘‘ Don’t bother about the plot. The plot’s noth­ing.’’ And so might Mal­colm, ar­rang­ing sharp sliv­ers of ob­ser­va­tion in ways that re­veal their edges, in­ter­sec­tions and con­tra­dic­tions.

Mal­colm may feel ‘‘ forced into a kind of par­ody of [Salle’s] melan­choly art of frag­ments, quo­ta­tions, ab­sences’’ but the im­plicit em­pa­thy, ven­tril­o­quism and host­ing of Salle’s work are cap­ti­vat­ing. When she quotes critic Peter Sch­jel­dahl on the ‘‘ mix of bla­tancy (‘sto­ry­telling’, pic­tures) and elu­sive­ness (the ‘ story’ was im­pos­si­ble to fig­ure out)’’ in Salle’s art, it is as though she has trans­posed this ques­tion into her own ex­plo­ration of the es­say’s pa­ram­e­ters.

Salle’s work ar­gues, as he puts it, for the need to go against ‘‘ the tidal wave of lit­er­al­ism and lit­eral-mind­ed­ness — to in­sist on and live the life of the imag­i­na­tion’’. Mal­colm ob­serves the evo­lu­tion of Salle’s own per­for­mance as in­ter­vie­wee, a con­struct re­spond­ing to his ‘‘ on­go­ing en­coun­ters with writ­ers’’. He in­vents a per­sona for them to por­tray.

Trou­bling this con­struc­tion are two sore spots: Salle’s dis­tur­bance about reach­ing his 40s and the re­ces­sion of his en­fant ter­ri­ble im­age, and the re­cep­tion of his work. Jour­nal­ists’ nar­ra­tives and his own self-in­ven­tion have turned on him, cast­ing him as a ‘‘ has-been’’.

Mal­colm quotes the in­ter­viewer who de­scribes him as ‘‘ def­i­nitely out, like quiche’’, not­ing this must be ‘‘ a lit­tle hard to take af­ter be­ing one of the ge­nius artist boy won­ders of the eight­ies’’. Robert Hughes on Salle is an­other critic Mal­colm finds be­side him­self with ‘‘ dis­like and de­ri­sion’’.

Salle re­turns to this ter­rain ‘‘ like an un­happy moth help­lessly singe­ing it­self on a light­bulb’’. Mal­colm’s own dis­com­fort stems from the in­clu­sion in Salle’s work of con­ven­tional porno­graphic im­ages of women and the ‘‘ un­set­tling’’ ques­tion of how to read them.

Hav­ing re­vealed Salle’s bruises, Mal­colm ex­presses doubts. Af­ter all, she iden­ti­fies a ‘‘ her­meti­cism’’ in Salle’s art and com­ments on ‘‘ the al­most se­cre­tive na­ture of his in­ter­ests

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