Forty-One False Starts by Janet Malcolm – review

She may be wilfully anxious but Janet Malcolm, as these minor works show, remains a ruthless, dazzling journalist

Given that Janet Malcolm owes her reputation to a series of books that began as articles for the New Yorker, a collection of her journalism has the effect not of dignifying her occasional pieces but of formalising their status as also-rans. A long and scrupulous essay from 1995 on what Malcolm variously calls "the annals of Bloomsbury", "the Bloomsbury story", and "the novel of Bloomsbury" finds its resting place alongside one-page obituaries and the odd indifferent book review, whereas the similar subsequent investigation into the mythology surrounding Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes became The Silent Woman. But while Forty-One False Starts will not add to Malcolm's stature – only another masterpiece could do that – it confirms her shrewdness as a judge of her own talent. She did get more out of Ted and Sylvia than Vanessa and Clive Bell, and apart from "A Girl of the Zeitgeist", a behind-the-scenes tour of the magazine Artforum during a period of "wild and assertive contemporaneity" – which also appeared in her previous collection The Purloined Clinic – there is nothing here deserving of fuller treatment or stand-alone publication.

Malcolm's subtitle, "Essays on Artists and Writers", imposes loose criteria for inclusion, unnecessarily as it turns out since the book is consistent to the point of being crankish. With a few exceptions, such as the Gossip Girl novels by Cecily von Ziegesar ("the lightest of light reading"), which allow Malcolm to praise a gift for observational cruelty not unlike her own, every subject stirs up ideas about the difficulty of granting reality its sometimes inconvenient lack of shape and order. Malcolm has written that the word "objection", uttered in a courtroom, "betokens the story-spoiling function of the law", but in the cultural realm – in criticism and biography, for example – an unspoilt orthodoxy all too often reigns. Malcolm's ambition is to displace "good stories" with "true ones", though sometimes it's more a case of displacing narratives she doesn't like with ones she does (Salinger's Glass stories didn't mark his decline, she asserts, but his apotheosis).

The essay on Diane Arbus, "Good Pictures", one of various attempts to defend the dead against the living, shows her at her most appalled. She begins by discussing a collection of Arbus's photographs, Revelations, presided over by her daughter Doon ("the keeper of the Rhine gold"), who is seen to have blurred the "radicalism" of her mother's achievement by following "the recent trend of gigantism" in photography publishing, and by "mingling" the mass of pix (Arbus's word) with numerous commissioned texts. The rest of the essay looks directly at Arbus's work, showing the ways in which this so-misconstrued photographer herself traded in the "fictive".

Photography, the subject of Malcolm's first book of essays Diana and Nikon, is the object of fascination and disappointment throughout this new one. An art form of "inescapable truthfulness", it is also one which, by posing models, arranging backgrounds, and observing the traditions of painting, "perpetuated and elaborated the stylisations and bowdlerisations of art". In "Nudes Without Desire" – the finely wrought essay in which that minatory phrase appears – Malcolm attempts a similar double task as in "Good Pictures", considering art's misrepresentation of nude subjects, and also "the nude genre's resistance to easy generalisation". It is a resistance that proves strong indeed. Kenneth Clark's failure to stick to his own definition of the nude – he says that nudes must be arousing, then appears to change his mind – may not be "mere inattentiveness", Malcolm argues, but "a signaling of his recognition that the subject is more unruly and complex than he anticipated and than his sleek treatise can handle". This isn't the only time that Malcolm's logic gets scrambled by her obsession with the unruly/sleek dichotomy.

Malcolm makes some overt attempts to meet her own prescriptions, but the results tend to be wilfully anxious. The title essay presents 41 accomplished but, for Malcolm, inadequate openings to a profile of the artist David Salle, a figure no more deserving of tentativeness than the handful of subjects (Edith Wharton, say, or Edward Weston) she writes about with ease. A swerve into detachment in the Bloomsbury essay ("I have … conveniently forgotten that I am not writing a novel") shows Malcolm alerting the reader to her own acts of involuntary ordering. It is difficult to square the writer who anxiously observes her own footsteps with the literary tap dancer whose unguarded moves – the description of the various critics' loft spaces in "A Girl of the Zeitgeist", for example – are so dazzling to watch.

Often there is a battle between Malcolm's personalities, the metajournalistic flourishes – the allusions to the "handmade-ness" of her work – coming as interruptions of her polished fluency. There's an odd, calculated moment in the otherwise unruffled profile of the German photographer Thomas Struth, in which he recalls that his teachers would discuss everything – movies, journalism, literature. "For example," Struth tells Malcolm, "a typical thing Bernd would say was, 'You have to understand the Paris photographs of Atget as the visualisation of Marcel Proust.'" Malcolm's response is frosty. "I don't get it. What does Atget have to do with Proust?" Struth gives in, admits that he never actually read Proust, and dismisses the example as "bad", to which Malcolm replies that it is "terrible", and the two laugh it off. A page later, Malcolm explains that as the two of them were leaving the cafe, Struth, evidently recognising "the Proust-Atget moment as the journalistic equivalent of a photographer's 'decisive moment'", apologised again. "I made reassuring noises, but I knew and he knew that my picture was already on the way to the darkroom of journalistic opportunism."

Malcolm's desire to honour the truth is shown here as demanding compromises of another kind. But what stays with you about the Atget dispute is not Malcolm's ruthlessness in recounting it but her signposting of ruthlessness, just as she revealed not her predatoriness but her probity when she wrote that the journalist is "a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse". (Other analogues include the "charming young man" who relieves the "credulous widow" of her savings, and the controversial psychologist Stanley Milgram.) In sentences such as the one on Struth, Malcolm's devotion to her brand of ruminative reportage proves so strong that the mind of her subject – who after all was talking through his hat – inspires less interest than her own acts of noticing, transcription, and mutation. It is a priority better suited to allegory and treatise and veiled self-flagellating confession than the profile or essay, forms in which, as Malcolm most of the time knows very well, the reader's enjoyment is reliant on small-scale acts of unavoidable truth-slighting and strategic trust-gaining, of which it is pointless in two senses to keep count.

Contributor

Leo Robson

The GuardianTramp

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