Introduction

What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Ben McGrath is not like a piece by Jill Lepore, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Goodyear, or Filkins for Khatchadourian, or Bilger for Paumgarten. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Janet Malcolm's "Forty-one False Starts" - Part IV


There’s a basic paradox at the core of Janet Malcolm’s brilliant deconstructive style: despite her express distrust of narrative as a means of representing reality, she uses the novels of, among others, Henry James, George Eliot, and Leo Tolstoy as sources of meaning-making. For example, in her superb “A House of One’s Own” (The New Yorker, June 5, 1995; included in her new collection Forty-one False Starts), Malcolm says, “Life is infinitely less orderly and more bafflingly ambiguous than any novel.” But, earlier in the same essay, she writes, “The legend of Bloomsbury has taken on the dense complexity of a sprawling nineteenth-century novel, and its characters have become as real to us as the characters in Emma and Daniel Deronda and The Eustace Diamonds.” How real is that? It’s not real at all if you accept, as I do, Malcolm’s central tenet that “our lives are not like novels,” that we should accept life’s inherent messiness and “live without a story” (“Six Roses ou Cirrhose?,” The New Yorker, January 24, 1983; included in her great 1992 essay collection The Purloined Clinic).

Zoë Heller, in her engrossing review of Forty-one False Starts, says, “The tension between the messiness of truth and the false tidiness of art is Malcolm’s great subject” (“Cool, Yet Warm,” The New York Review of Books, June 20, 2013). This is well said. Malcolm is skeptical of narrative art’s ability to represent life’s disorderliness. But it appears her skepticism admits at least two exceptions: (1) certain nineteenth century novels; (2) certain journals, memoirs, and letters. Regarding this second exception, she says of Vanessa Bell’s letters: “Vanessa’s letters make us care about these long-dead real people in the way novelists make us care about their newly minted imaginary characters.” Here, once again, Malcolm’s “novelists” analogy seems at odds with her “life is not a novel” theory.

Malcolm’s “A House of One’s Own” is curious in another way, as well. It departs from the usual journalistic mission of finding the real story behind the legend. Instead, it defends the legend (“the legend of Bloomsbury”) against a perceived threat – Angelica Garnett’s memoir, Deceived with Kindness (1987). Malcolm says,

Angelica denies that Vanessa was a splendid mother and believes Vanessa’s life was a shambles. Her book introduces into the Bloomsbury legend the most jarring shift in perspective. Until the publication of Deceived with Kindness the legend had a smooth, unbroken surface.

Malcolm calls Angelica’s book an “attack from within.” But she also considers it “a primary document,” one that “cannot be pushed aside, unpleasant and distasteful though it is to see a minor character arise from her corner and proceed to put herself in the center of a rather marvelous story that now threatens to become ugly.”

Angelica’s memoir seriously provokes Malcolm. She’s written about it before. In “What Maisie Didn’t Know” (The New York Review of Books, October 24, 1985; included in The Purloined Clinic), she says,

Angelica’s psychological insights seem half-baked (significantly, they are almost always insights into the motives of others), and the discussion of her complicated relationship with her mother – though it forms the matrix of the book – remains on a vague, platitudinous level.

In “A House of One’s Own,” Malcolm returns to this point, saying,

We withhold our sympathy [from Angelica] not because her grievance is without merit, but because her language is without force…. Angelica cloaks and muffles the complexity and legitimacy of her fury at her mother in the streamlined truisms of the age of mental health.

In “Cool, Yet Warm,” Zoe Heller says she finds this passage “shocking” (“In the absence of moral certainty, Malcolm suggests our sympathies are assigned on what are essentially aesthetic grounds – on the basis of who has the more attractive language, or the more engaging style. This is a rather shocking proposition and it is meant to be”). Is that what Malcolm is saying? I’m not so sure. Language that is “vague” and “platitudinous” is “without force.” It’s unpersuasive. This, I think, is Malcolm’s point.

Interestingly, “A House of One’s Own” appears to temper “What Maisie Didn’t Know” ’s harshness, concluding that “Angelica’s cry, her hurt child’s protest, her disappointed woman’s bitterness will leave their trace, like a stain that won’t come out of a treasured Persian carpet and eventually becomes part of its beauty.”

My favorite part of “A House of One’s Own” is Malcolm’s description of her visit to Vanessa Bell’s Charleston Farmhouse, “now a museum, complete with a gift shop, teas, lectures, a twice-yearly magazine, and a summer-study program.” Reading it, I recalled April Bernard’s “What I Hate About Writer’s Houses” (The New York Review of Books, December 22, 2011, in which she says,

Here’s what I hate about writers’ houses: the basic mistakes. The idea that art can be understood by examining the chewed pencils of the writer. That visiting such a house can substitute for reading the work. That real estate, including our own envious attachments to houses that are better, or cuter, or more inspiring than our own, is a worthy preoccupation. That writers should be sanctified. That private life, even of the dead, is ours to plunder.

Malcolm’s inspired description of her Charleston visit counterpoises Bernard’s dour view. She writes,

The ubiquitous decorations only extend our sense of Charleston as a place of incessant, calm productivity. They give the house its unique appearance, but they do not impose upon it. They belong to the world of high art and design, the world of postimpressionist painting and early-modernist design, and yet, quite mysteriously, they are of a piece with the English farmhouse that contains them and with the English countryside that enters each room through large, old-fashioned windows. During my tour of the house, I was drawn to the windows as if by a tropism. Today, we come to the house to see the decorations and the painting that Clive and Vanessa and Duncan collected as well as the ones that Vanessa and Duncan produced; but what Clive and Vanessa and Duncan looked at when they entered a room was the walled garden and a willow and the pond and the fields beyond, and as I looked out the window they had looked out of, I felt their presence even more strongly than I had when examining their handiwork and their possessions.

Janet Malcolm’s Forty-one False Starts is an endless source of literary stimulation. It branches in so many interesting, intricate directions – towards transfixing art (Arbus’s, Weston’s, and Struth’s photographs, Salle’s canvases), intriguing visits (to Salle’s studio, a Struth photo session, Vanessa Bell’s Charleston, Rosalind Krauss’s loft), brilliant writing (Quentin Bell’s Virginia Woolf, Carol Armstrong’s “Cupid’s Pencil of Light: Julia Margaret Cameron and the Maternalization of Photography,” The Daybooks of Edward Weston), and Malcolm’s own extraordinary oeuvre (e.g., her wonderful 1980 Diana & Nikon). It’s a great collection. I’m enjoying it immensely.

(This is the fourth part of a four-part review of Janet Malcolm’s Forty-one False Starts.)

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