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Cool, Yet Warm

Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library
Vanessa Bell, circa 1920s

The warning she issues in “A House of One’s Own,” her essay about Bloomsbury, is typical in this regard:

In what I have written, in separating my Austenian heroines and heroes from my Gogolian flat characters, I have, like every other biographer, conveniently forgotten that I am not writing a novel, and that it really isn’t for me to say who is good and who is bad, who is noble and who is faintly ridiculous. Life is infinitely less orderly and more bafflingly ambiguous than any novel…. We have to face the problem that every biographer faces and none can solve; namely that he is standing in quicksand as he writes. There is no floor under his enterprise, no basis for moral certainty.

In the essay, Malcolm considers two competing versions of history. On one hand there is the legend of Bloomsbury, wherein “a luminous group of advanced and free-spirited writers and artists” blow away the cobwebs of grim Victorian England and usher in the modern era; on the other is the baleful counternarrative of Angelica Bell, daughter of Vanessa, who has published a book, Deceived with Kindness, declaring that all was not so wonderful in her mother’s house at Charleston.

Malcolm argues that while Angelica’s book “introduces…the most jarring shift in perspective,” it fails to decisively disrupt the Bloomsbury legend. This is not because the primary Bloomsbury narrative is “truer” than Angelica’s account of family dysfunction and abuse, but because it is more rhetorically persuasive. Angelica’s shrill complaints lack the sprightly irony, the wily obliqueness of the classic Bloomsbury tone:

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.

She concludes:

But 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.

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.

Another writer, recognizing the necessary and irreducible ambiguity of “what really happened,” might resist stating an allegiance. But that sort of mealy-mouthedness is not an option for Malcolm. “Fairmindedness” and “evenhandedness,” she famously observes in The Silent Woman, are only ever “rhetorical ruses.” The strong views that one conceives about the nature of the Hughes-Plath marriage, or about the family life of the Bells, may, as the critic Jacqueline Rose points out, be “false and damaging”—never quite equal to the complexity and infinite nuance of the reality of the case—but it is a “psychological impossibility,” Malcolm argues, for a writer not to arrive at such views. “Without some ‘false and damaging certainty,’” she observes, “no writing…is humanly possible.”

Malcolm’s habit of taking a side, while simultaneously pointing out the questionable grounds for doing so, is one of the most distinctive and controversial features of her writing. Some readers would prefer that she do one thing or the other. They find the combination of Solomonic judgment and candid epistemological skepticism too unsettling. Others are happy to accept Malcolm’s frankly novelizing approach when it is used to animate Bloomsbury quarrels, but are less comfortable when it is applied to murder trials.3 Still others find that her authority is enhanced by her acknowledgment of bias.

The title essay of this new collection is Malcolm’s unique experiment in telling a story without the ballast of an organizing point of view. In lieu of a conventional narrative profile of the artist David Salle, she offers up a series of “false starts” at a narrative. Each of her beginnings, with its slightly different emphasis, points to a subtly different conclusion, but none is pursued. Malcolm cannot “capture” Salle. His ambiguity and inconsistency resist novelization. The impressions and incidents and ideas accumulate, but fail to add up. “I feel,” she writes a little plaintively at one point, “that I can only almost know him.”

In order to accommodate this “almost knowing,” she finds herself borrowing Salle’s artistic strategies. “To write about the painter David Salle,” she explains, “is to be forced into a kind of parody of his melancholy art of fragments, quotations, absences—an art that refuses to be any one thing or to find any one thing more interesting, beautiful, or sobering than another.”

One might interpret this “parody” as a homage—the ultimate sign of Malcolm’s identification with and affection for her subject—but she leaves this possibility, like everything else in the piece, unconfirmed. Her affection for Salle comes and goes. She is aware of “benign, admiring feelings” during her interviews with him, but in his absence, these feelings curdle. “As I write about him now—I haven’t seen him for a month—I feel the return of antagonism, the sense of sourness.”

“Forty-One False Starts” is a remarkable and, in its strange way, gripping piece of work. It achieves the rare feat of communicating something valuable about the largely ineffable “creative process.” And while it never resolves itself into a decision about Salle, it does, like one of those scent-impregnated strips in a magazine ad, offer up a very strong and complicated whiff of him.

It is a sign, perhaps, of how well Malcolm’s work has trained us that while we admire the beauty and skill of this piece, we never fully accept its spirit of inconclusiveness. If Salle resists Malcolm’s efforts to give him the fixity and consistency of a literary character, we end up assigning him a mythical status anyway. He is Malcolm’s Difficult Subject, or the Man She Only Almost Knew. Or perhaps just the One That Got Away.

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    In his recent book, A Wilderness of Error, Errol Morris revisits the murder trial of Jeffrey MacDonald and suggests that when Malcolm wrote about the same case in The Journalist and the Murderer, she was too quick to conclude that the objective truth about the murders was unknowable from the available evidence and that any firm conclusions about the case came down to one’s “impressions of the defendant.” 

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