Forty-One False Starts


By Sinéad Fitzgibbon.

Janet Malcolm loves people. This may seem an obvious thing to say about a biographer, especially one as prolific in ‘personality journalism’ as she is – but unlike other purveyors of the genre who concern themselves only with certain people (namely those who find themselves subjects of biographies), Malcolm’s writing is suffused with an intense fascination with the both the individual and the aggregate human conditions. Undoubtedly heavily influenced by her psychoanalyst father – indeed, she has penned a book called Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession – the veteran New Yorker columnist can usually be found merrily rummaging about in the murky depths of her subjects’ psyches, determinedly deciphering the multi-faceted puzzle that makes up their own particular individualism, and then figuring out how this fits into the collective mass of singularities that come together to make up humanity. This unique faculty is, fittingly, what makes Malcolm one of the most human writers of her generation.

This human element of her work is very much in evidence in Forty-One False Starts, a collection of biographical vignettes of some of the luminaries of the worlds of literature and art. Originally published in the New Yorker, a publication which has been Malcolm’s professional home for much of her career, the pieces in this compilation span almost a quarter of a century, including as it does work dating from 1986 to 2010. At first glance, Forty-One False Starts appears to bring together a haphazard mishmash of subjects ranging from stylistically-heterogeneous artists and photographers; to writers as diverse as Salinger, Woolf, and Wharton; to the coterie of idealistic editors and critics who left their mark on the pages of the influential Artforum magazine in the early Eighties. A little further investigation, however, reveals some method in the madness. All of Malcolm’s subjects were avant-gardists in their time; in one way or another, they all were transgressive, they all challenged the accepted orthodoxy in their particular fields. Under Malcolm’s probing pen their backgrounds and their influences are dissected, their raison d’etre examined, and in doing so, their particular genius becomes less inscrutable. These mighty iconoclasts are, in short, humanised.

Aside from the avant-gardism of her subjects there are other, less obvious, links between the essays that make up Forty-One False Starts. The collection, in general, follows a modernist-to-post-modernist arc, with the majority of Malcolm’s biographees having a connection to one or the other of these artistic movements. (Even one of the apparent exceptions to this rule – the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron – is revealed to be Virginia Woolf’s great-aunt). Then there is an essay which discusses Edith Wharton’s apparent dislike for fellow members of her sex (‘The Woman Who Hated Women’), which is followed by an analysis of the notoriously anti-social JD Salinger’s obtuse obsession with his Glass characters (‘Salinger’s Cigarettes’); the misogynist gloriously segues into the misanthropic. And then there is the pubic hair: a study of a photographer who specialised in nudes and who was famously an advocate for pubic hair in art photography (‘Edward Weston’s Women’) is waggishly followed by an anecdote about Ruskin, who some believe to have been so horrified by the discovery of pubic hair on his new bride’s anatomy that he was rendered sexually paralysed to the point that he could not consummate his marriage (‘Nudes Without Desire’).

For all its emphasis on psychology, however, Forty-One False Starts is much more than a run-of-the-mill personality study: this book is also a study of the nature of biography. In ‘A House of One’s Own,’ her essay on Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group (somewhat derisively referred to as ‘the Bloomsbury novel’), Malcolm peppers her narratives with musings on the difficulties faced by serious biographers. She refers to the “congenital handicaps of the genre [which] (like its progenitor, history) functions as a kind of processing plant where experience is converted into information the way fresh produce is converted into canned vegetables.” Here, Malcolm betrays a somewhat surprising ambivalence towards the genre that has made her name. “The ‘information’ of biographies is a shrivelled, spurious thing,” she laments, as if biographies are a kind of diminution of the lives that has been lived. In fact, those very lives become, for Malcolm, part of the difficulty: “Biographical research,” she declares, “leads to a kind of insufferable familiarity.”

Another interesting hint at her tortured relationship with her chosen profession can be found in Malcolm’s piece on Diane Arbus (‘Good Pictures’). When she discusses an unauthorised biography of the photographer, Malcolm slates those friends and acquaintances who collaborated with the writer, those “contemporaries [who] would blab into a tape recorder.” This sentence is striking because it reveals a trace of disdain for those who act as witnesses to the past – those ‘blabbers’ who, however questionable their motives, are vital to the biographer’s trade. Malcolm, it seems, exists in a state of constant battle with her chosen art – she is, perhaps, every bit as tortured as the artists she studies.

Indeed, much of Malcolm’s biographical journalism is pervaded with touches of autobiography. She invariably allows a little of her own personality to leak onto the page and mingle with those of the subjects. Thanks to frequent insights and witty asides, often inserted into the narrative encased in protective parenthesis, a Malcolm interview can often reveal as much about the interviewer as the interviewee. She admitted as much in The Silent Woman, her 1993 book on Sylvia Plath: “In most interviews, both subject and interviewer give more than is necessary,” she writes. “They are always being seduced and distracted by the encounter’s outward resemblance to an ordinary meeting.” Far from being distracting, this is a defining characteristic of Malcolm’s writing, writing which would be much the poorer without it. In fact, when reading the final essay in the collection, ‘Thoughts on Autobiography from an Abandoned Autobiography,’ in which she recounts her inability to finish her own memoirs, one cannot help but feel that Janet Malcolm, with characteristic self-deprecation, is enjoying a not-so-private joke. And the reader, seduced by a writer at the very apogee of her talent, cannot help but laugh along with her.


Sinéad Fitzgibbon is the author of several titles in the well-received History In An Hour series, published by HarperPress. She also writes about the Romantic Poets and their connections to revolutionary politics for the Wordsworth Trust blog.