As much as I like Janet Malcolm, I’m a little suspicious of her biographical intent, peering into Gertrude Stein’s life with her microscope. Or maybe my hackles are raised whenever anyone attempts to summarize Stein and lacks appreciation (cf this work). At least Malcolm is honest in her appraisal, how reluctant she was to read Stein’s 1911 The Making of Americans, a whopping 900+ page experimental novel which hasn’t gotten its proper due (a fact Malcolm lays at the feet of Katz, the PhD student whose extensive interviews with Alice Toklas left tons of notebooks locked up and unpublished, which would have eased the scholarly notes and transitioned the work into something studied). Malcolm does tend to sneer at the pair, wrestling with how they (as American Jews) were able to live in the Nazi-occupied French countryside without harm. And yet she appreciates Stein’s genius: “Every writer who lingers over Stein’s sentences is apt to feel a little stab of shame over the heedless predictability of his own.” Her usual caveats about biography are evident throughout this, including “The instability of human knowledge is one of our few certainties. Almost everything we know we know incompletely at best. And almost nothing we are told remains the same when retold.”
Janet Malcolm’s collection of essays has a few gems, like the one about the three sisters in their seventies who run Argosy Bookshop on E 59th St, plus the one referenced by the cover image of pianist Yuja Wang, and the Eileen Fisher profile. Coincidentally, these are the first three essays of the book. From there, I felt it was downhill, although I did like the takedown of the P&V translations versus Constance Garnett (people have been inexplicably swooning over P&V translation and I can’t understand why). She also enthusiastically recommends Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books, and waxes on and on about Joseph Mitchell’s dance between fiction and non.
Maggie Nelson referenced this Janet Malcolm book in her talk at the Nourse Theater last week and I scribbled the title down in the dark on my notepad. It was an excellent musing on the relationship between journalist and subject, taking for its example the betrayal of Jeffrey MacDonald by Joe McGinniss in his book, Fatal Vision, about MacDonald’s murder trial and conviction. Joe pretended to be Jeff’s friend to maintain access even as he became convinced of Jeff’s guilt and wrote a series of letters that reveal his lies to Jeff up until the book came out. This “fraud” was then rehashed in a libel suit that MacDonald pursued against McGinniss, which is when Janet Malcolm got involved and tried to start untangling all the bits.
During this libel trial, the question of whether authors can lie to their subjects in order to get them more comfortable with spilling their story came up repeatedly. A few experts were called, including Joseph Wambaugh who later told Malcolm: “When you talk to a sociopathic criminal, you have to flatter him and curry favor with him by telling him something that isn’t absolutely true… They enjoy it. They’ll say ‘You believe me, don’t you?’ right at a point where you’re convinced they’re lying. If you say no, you could lose everything you’ve gained, including your book, your money, your time if you’re a writer, and your case if you’re a cop. So you cannot tell the truth.” This sheds some light on how the current White House is being run, in my opinion.
Also of tangential interest were Malcolm’s musings on letter writing: “But if we are honest with ourselves we will acknowledge that the chief pleasure of the correspondence lies in its responsive aspect rather than with that of our pen pal; what makes the arrival of a letter a momentous event is the occasion it affords for writing rather than for reading.”
She begins corresponding with MacDonald in prison, receiving his 20 to 30 page letters that “were like sledgehammer strokes in their relentless, repetitive, bombastic self-justification. When a letter came, I would put off reading it—the writing was unrelievedly windy…”
Michelle Tea’s How To Grow Up is a delightful breath-mint-respite in the midst of serious reading. Once again you can let your eyes speed along the words and know that you are not missing anything by gulping down these hundreds of pages in a few hours. Best are her tales of life as a sober late 30s something living with roommates in the Mission, realizing she must get her own space before she turns 40. The memoir also details meeting her wife, their marriage, various failed relationships prior, odd jobs, her struggle with money, etc. I confess to completely skimming her section on getting Botox, because what? Also great stuff about feeling conflicted about not finishing college and various attempts to “right” that “wrong” but realizing she was already publishing books, so why would she go backwards in time?
I finally read the awesome Sarah Orne Jewett, specifically her 1896 The Country of the Pointed Firs, a great depiction of a writer visiting a Maine seacoast in the summer, living with Mrs. Todd as a boarder, becoming friends with and hearing all the tales of friends and family. Also read another of Gabrielle Bell’s comics, Cecil and Jordan in New York.
Janet Malcolm’s Forty-One False Starts is an excellent collection of her essays on art and writing. The title story is the strongest – a 1994 New Yorker piece wherein she attempts, 41 times, to start an essay on David Salle, ending up giving us a very compete picture through all those “false” starts. Runner up to that essay in my opinion was the 1995 New Yorker piece about Bloomsbury and Vanessa Bell – a House of One’s Own, referring to Vanessa’s ability to create a unique community around her, more than just a room, of her estranged husband, her lover and his gay boyfriend, along with the variously sired children. Along the way, she dissects the problem of biographies, comparing them to the collections of letters which are stronger:
The genre (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. But, like canned vegetables, biographical narratives are so far removed from their source- so altered from the plant with soil clinging to its roots that is a letter or a diary entry – that they carry little conviction. When Virginia complains to Lytton (another high-strung, single, childless individual) about what a nuisance the baby is, her voice carries great conviction, and so does Vanessa’s when she proudly exclaims over her young son’s aestheticism to his aesthete father. When Spalding writes, “In Cornwall both were infuriated,” and “On the journey out her chief pleasure lay,” we do not quite believe her. Taken from its living context, and with its blood drained out of it, the “information” of biographies is a shriveled, spurious thing. The canniest biographers, aware of the problem, rush massive transfusions of quotations to the scene. The biographies that give the greatest illusion of life, the fullest sense of their subject, are those that quote the most.