Attacks From Within: On Janet Malcolm
People like Malcolm, that’s who. People like her are the only people here. They are immensely cultivated, with vocabularies of unusual breadth (Malcolm uses “rum” as an adjective). They keep their distance from lowbrow culture and therefore can write of a painting that it is “a small nude owned by a film actor”—as if the owner, Steve Martin, wasn’t the world’s most famous comic at the time Janet Malcolm began writing about photography. And yet they are never so entranced by high art that they allow aestheticism to entirely obliterate morality. The democratic impulse, so good at fighting off snobbery, can also yield compassion.
One benefit of an essay collection is that its presentation of many pieces written over many years can reveal a tendency the writer may not have known she had. Malcolm probably does not fancy herself very sentimental, let alone familial, least of all maternal: until 2010, when The New Yorker published her article “Iphigenia in Forest Hills,” about a custody dispute that led to an alleged contract killing in the Bukharan Jewish community of Queens, New York, no child had been a main character in her books. Her own daughter is almost entirely absent from her work (to be fair, her two husbands are as well). One can admire the purity of her reticence, although because she uses the first person liberally elsewhere—the essay “The Window Washer,” collected in The Purloined Clinic (1992), is a very personal tale of returning to the Prague her family fled when she was a child—her loud silence about her family is a bit ostentatious. Yet there are two pieces, residing near each other in Forty-One False Starts, that show her heart nearly besting her brain.
Near the end of her essay on Bloomsbury, Malcolm discusses Deceived With Kindness, a 1985 memoir by Virginia Woolf’s niece Angelica Garnett, who does not share Malcolm’s easy, warm enthusiasm for the Woolf/Stephen family tree. Garnett writes that her mother, Woolf’s sister, was inadequate, and her childhood pained and difficult. Her book clearly upsets Malcolm. Before its arrival, the Bloomsbury legend “had a smooth, unbroken surface”—one that Malcolm clearly enjoys polishing. “But Angelica’s attack from within,” she writes, “is something else. It is a primary document; it 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.”
Malcolm inhabits a voice here—that of a reader seeking light fare who is betrayed by an author with dark intentions. She almost sounds like someone disappointed by a romantic comedy that turns out to be cruel and brooding. But Malcolm herself really seems to mean it; she is not affecting annoyance. “More than anything else, it is the tone of Angelica’s book that sets it apart from other Bloomsbury texts,” Malcolm writes. “The note of irony—perhaps because it resounded too insistently in her ears when she was growing up—is entirely absent from her text.” When we read Garnett, “we withhold our sympathy”—once again, that “we”—“not because her grievance is without merit, but because her language is without force.”
Malcolm never says that bad writing is a moral failing, and that Garnett thus deserved whatever she got, but I’m not sure she thinks otherwise. If she does, however, she at least knows that she ought not. She concludes the section with a neutral meditation on how different voices and various perspectives make it impossible to get at the truth, making it clear that we must listen to Garnett, even if, given our druthers, “we” would rather not. Garnett’s half-brother, Quentin Bell, did not agree with his sister’s version of their childhood, and he did his best to mitigate her book’s claims. Malcolm clearly prefers the elegant, erudite Bell.
Uncannily, a similar brother/sister contest arises in another of Malcolm’s essays, a captivating piece about J.D. Salinger (there’s nobody like Malcolm to make you want to pull from the shelf a forgotten book from your youth). Near the end, Malcolm turns to the publication in 2000 of Dream Catcher, a vengeful memoir by Salinger’s daughter, Margaret, accusing her parents of abuse. This time, Malcolm does not even deign to quote the offending memoir, blindsiding the book by quoting Margaret’s brother, Matt, who responded to it in a letter to The New York Observer. “I do not remember even one instance of my mother hitting either my sister or me,” Matt Salinger writes. “Not one…. She remembers a father who couldn’t ‘tie his own shoe-laces’ and I remember a man who helped me learn how to tie mine, and even—specifically—how to close off the end of a lace again once the plastic had worn away.”
Here is how Malcolm adjudicates the bout: “What is astonishing, almost eerie, about the letter is the sound that comes out of it—the singular and instantly recognizable sound of Salinger, which we haven’t heard for nearly forty years (and to which the daughter’s heavy drone could not be more unrelated).” The sin of inferior writing, perpetrated by an ungrateful daughter!
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