Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, by Janet Malcolm, Granta, RRP£20/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, RRP$27, 298 pages

It is a wonder anyone agrees to be interviewed by Janet Malcolm. Though her talent for reading superficial gestures and remarks as self-disclosure would have made her a great psychoanalyst, her inner dial is not set all that firmly on compassion. She makes no secret of this; in fact, the moral indefensibility of the journalist is one of her subjects, and she has said of her profession that “malice remains its animating impulse”.

Forty-One False Starts is a bumpy collection of her (mostly old) New Yorker pieces. The bumps could have been diminished with reference to the conditions under which each was produced. To view the longer essays, some the result of several years’ refinement, alongside short reviews is like comparing oil paintings with sketches.

Even so, there are pleasures on every page. “Nudes Without Desire” is full of characteristic thrills. Referring to Kenneth Clark’s The Nude, in which he insists that nudes must arouse “some vestige of erotic feeling”, Malcolm observes that “by the end of the book, Clark is obliged to create a category called ‘the alternative convention’ to accommodate the fat, flabby, or aging bodies …that do not turn him on and thus make a mockery of the early dictum”. The juxtaposition of sassy “turn him on” and uptight “dictum” is typical of her reductive wit; she often recalls the amazing child who dared talk back to the teacher.

Equally transgressive is Malcolm’s gift for characterisation. It is sometimes abstract in tone – “Barbara Rose’s speech puts me in mind of a simultaneous translation: she speaks very rapidly and a bit remotely, as if dealing with someone else’s text” – and sometimes lavish and 19th-century. But it is always ruthless.

In the “The Genius of the Glass House”, the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron is caricatured as the “wacky great-aunt” – despite the trials she faced as a non-beautiful (as Malcolm repeatedly observes) middle-aged woman in Victorian England, who plainly longed to make an impression on people. The poignancy of what Malcolm describes as her “almost pathological generosity”, which saw Cameron forcing jewellery and rugs (more beautiful than herself, possibly) into the hands of mortified friends, seems lost on Malcolm. Or perhaps it just came second to the comic potential.

Throughout the essays, a favourite concern of Malcolm’s, the power struggle between journalist and subject, appears in fresh contexts. She describes the nude model’s invariable “facial at-a-lossness” – and notes that the photographer, unlike the painter, is at the mercy of its tonal implications. In “Good Pictures”, she imagines the way Diane Arbus photographed “a girlishly dressed older woman” who might have served Arbus’s “ongoing project of documenting …the point between what you want people to know about you and what you can’t help people knowing about you”. Since the subject was her patron’s mother, Arbus “accepted Mrs Matthaei’s idea of herself as a woman with a nice smile and good legs”.

The most Malcolm-esque essay is “A Girl of the Zeitgeist” (1986). Ostensibly a portrait of the new editor of the magazine Artforum, it’s really a delicate massacre of the art scene in 1980s New York. Malcolm takes us from loft apartment to loft apartment, pinning each of her subjects like a butterfly to cork: “George Condo …is wearing a white shirt and a red crewneck sweater under a dark suit that is two or three sizes too big for him, to indicate that he is not an Ivy League college student but an artist”.

But the lofts themselves are the main attraction. Rosalind Krauss’s loft is “disdainfully interesting”, suggesting “all the things which have failed to capture the interest of Rosalind Krauss – which are most things in the world, the things of ‘good taste’ and fashion and consumerism”. Building to the exquisite crescendo of characterisation that sets the piece off, she notes that Krauss “makes one’s own ‘niceness’ seem somehow dreary and anachronistic”, though Malcolm is never dreary, or anachronistic – and she certainly isn’t nice.

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