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When 41 false starts provide more dots to join

When friends and relatives travelled to the US in the pre-liberalisation days, most of us then in college – if we were asked – requested jeans or perfume or music. I usually asked for copies of New Yorker magazine (and was usually ignored). But I read from cover to cover the few I did get, and many writers in its pages became personal favourites. None more so than Janet Malcolm, who has died at 86.

To write unselfconsciously about a profession that breathes self-consciousness was Janet Malcolm’s special gift. Her range was vast. She wrote on Freud and psychoanalysis, on Chekov, on Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, on Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, on journalism, true life murder, photography, but in each of her books she examined the art of writing itself.

Her opening para in The Journalist and the Murderer was provocative, but less so now than when it was written in the 1980s: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse …”

There is something unexpected in this beginning; in a book about a lawsuit between a convicted murderer and the author of a book about his crime, and thus a study between a journalist and his subject, it could go anywhere. Malcolm wasn’t the first writer to use the techniques of fiction to write non-fiction, but she did it with a scrupulous attention to detail, and deep research.

Her ‘I’ in such pieces, as she explained, was not autobiography, but “a functionary to whom the crucial tasks of narration and argument and tone have been entrusted… an emblematic figure, an embodiment of the idea of the dispassionate observer of life, …”

Malcolm wrote at the angle where intense objectivity met untrammeled subjectivity, a balance few writers can carry off. In The Silent Woman, the story of the marriage between Plath and Hughes, she wrote “Writing cannot be done in a state of desirelessness …” That word conveys her meaning precisely.

There was another word she used in an essay on a photographer which also looks clumsy at first sight but is a tribute to precision too: defamiliarization. That, she said, was the photographer’s aim.

All superior art aims to make the familiar unfamiliar, and vice versa.

Forty One False Starts, from the lead essay in that collection, is quintessential Janet Malcolm. It is a profile of the painter David Salle, but there are 41 false starts, some digressing into unexpected areas, others fizzling out, but taken together giving us a picture of the artist that a traditional profile cannot.

The form suggests possibilities while the content allows a touch of uncertainty that reflects Malcolm’s philosophy that it is impossible to know another human being fully. And that omissions – as in Salle’s paintings - can be as eloquent as inclusions.


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