Superb melding of truth and invention
Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers
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