Reading Janet Malcolm is like having a conversation with one’s ideal best friend. She is a staffer at the New Yorker, an essayist and writer known for her wit, exuberance and-occasionally-horridness. In her latest collection of essays, Forty-One False Starts, Malcolm is at her shining best, empathetic but never sentimental, clever but never a show-off. She follows Orwell’s dictum of not using a long word when a short one will do, and so her prose (as she herself praises William Shawn’s) is “profoundly intelligent and utterly intelligible”.
Her sentences glitter with waspish aphorisms, like the sun catching the tips of waves on an already sparkling sea: the artist David Salle’s modernist apartment has “a slight sense of quotation marks” about it. Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf’s nephew, writing about Bloomsbury, is “an upper servant [who] has been with the family for a great number of years”. Irving Penn’s late work falls prey to “the perils of renown”.
Malcolm is most famous for her books on biography, Chekhov and psychoanalysis (quite the line-up) and these are themes she touches on throughout. Journalism doesn’t equip one for autobiography-writing because of “memory’s autism, its passion for the tedious”. Charleston is “Chekhovian — as perhaps all country houses situated in precariously unspoiled country, with walled gardens and fruit trees and not enough bathrooms are”. Cigarettes, in Salinger at least, “have lives and deaths. They glow and they turn to ashes. They need attention . . . [They are] inanimate yet animatable.”
She is never boastful, but the qualities she praises in others’ work shine through in her luminescent, limpid prose. Enjoyable and informative whether she is discussing Ruskin’s famous reaction to his wife’s pubic hair, Edith Wharton’s women or Gossip Girl, she is consistently pleasurable to read. Her writing, and this is her describing again, for I could never do it half so well, has “a rare quality of cleanness-as if it came from a spring rather than from the stale pool of received ideas that most talk and writing comes from”.
The one note that jars (or, rather, the one time she takes it too far) is perhaps Malcolm’s discussion of poor old Angelica Garnett, Vanessa Bell’s daughter, on whom “Bloomsbury bohemianism was obviously lost,” as she “would have preferred to grow up in a household . . . where the children came first”. Angelica is scornfully described as a whiny spoilsport, the sort of little girl who would tell on her siblings if they climbed a too-tall tree. She is “a minor character [who] arise[s] from her corner and proceed[s] to put herself in the center of a rather marvelous story that now threatens to become ugly”. But, as Malcolm doesn’t point out, of course all children want to be put first — and the rackety artist’s lifestyle, for all its beguiling shabby glamour, isn’t the most stable of environments. Angelica is a victim of the old Chinese curse — “may you live in interesting times.” Malcolm, on the other hand, refuses to consider that interesting times might not be to everyone’s taste.