Saying almost everything about almost anything

This review of two new books of essays appeared recently in the Irish Times.

On Dolls, Edited by Kenneth Gross, Notting Hill Editions, £12, 186pp; I Remember, By Joe Brainard, Notting Hill Editions, £12, 186pp

‘There is something called the essay,” wrote the novelist and critic Elizabeth Hardwick in 1986, but “it is not altogether genuine in its shape, like fiction or poetry.” Hardwick intended no slight on the form of the essay, at which she excelled; she meant rather that it was not quite a form at all but an experiment or adventure with the idea of a coherent style or genre. An essay could take any shape whatever, and its subject might be anything under the sun.

Of course essays have certain things in common: a personal voice, some commitment to style or self-consciousness regarding their means of expression, a notion (even if ultimately rejected) of truth in nonfiction writing. But if there is indeed a thing called the essay, it must be defined by its freedom – as Aldous Huxley had it, “the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything”.

I thought of Huxley’s and Hardwick’s efforts at indefinition while surveying these latest arrivals from Notting Hill Editions (NHE). Since 2011, this small London publisher has been reprinting some classic essays and commissioning new ones, and there have been familiar names and genuine discoveries among both groups. So far, the highlights have been Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary (written in the weeks following his mother’s death, in 1977), Thomas Bernhard’s scabrous account of being feted by the literary establishment in My Prizes, and the poet Wayne Koestenbaum’s lively and self-revealing essay on humiliation. Among the most recent volumes are a new edition of WG Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction and an anthology, Say What You Mean, of writing from the New York literary and political magazine n+1.

Perhaps the clearest (because least obvious) picture of the literary scope of the essay, at least as NHE conceives it, may be discerned by setting two of these new books alongside each other. Kenneth Gross’s On Dolls is a fascinating and intermittently creepy compilation of writings on dolls, puppets and other lifelike toys. Here is Baudelaire, in The Philosophy of Toys (1853), contemplating the infant urge to destroy the most treasured plaything: “Finally he prises it open, for he is the stronger party. But where is its soul? This moment marks the beginning of stupor and melancholy.”

Predictably, Freud’s 1919 essay on the uncanny is included, though he ultimately uncovers that unsettling sensation not in everyday objects that seem like living things but in more grisly images, courtesy of a bravura reading of ETA Hoffmann’s story The Sandman. Lesser-known essays include Kleist’s odd narrative reflection On the Marionette Theatre, Rilke on curious wax dolls made by Lotte Pritzel and a section from Marina Warner’s Phantasmagoria, about the oldest waxwork at Madame Tussaud’s: a Sleeping Beauty based on Louis XV’s mistress Madame du Barry.

Compact form 

The essay seems an apt vehicle for writing and thinking about these mostly diminutive simulacra, and not only because the essay itself is frequently a compact literary form, covering a great deal of discrepant ground by the shortest route.

It’s also because essayists as a breed appear temperamentally attached to the littlest things. On Dolls includes Walter Benjamin’s delicate and rigorous divagation on the attraction of old toys, but a thorough anthology of essayistic miniaturism would also have to excerpt Xavier de Maistre’s Journey Around My Room and Georges Perec’s excellent essay on the objects habitually arrayed on his desk. And it would need to include the American artist and writer Joe Brainard, whose fragmented autobiography (of sorts), I Remember, evolved from an earlier booklet consisting of 10 drawings of individual hairs from different portions of his body, with captions identifying the parts.

I Remember, first published in 1970 and followed by More I Remember and More I Remember More, is composed entirely of discrete micromemories, often just a sentence long and all prefaced with the same phrase: “I remember a boy who could pull the underside of his eyelids down over his eyeballs . . . I remember stamp hinges . . . I remember rainbows that didn’t live up to my expectations.”

Brainard grew up gay in the 1950s, and many of his memories are tender, unembarrassed recollections of his early sexual experiences. In his preface to this new edition – Brainard himself died of Aids in 1994 – Paul Auster tries to make an inventory of the book’s range of subjects; they include family, food, clothes, movies, school, church, bodies, daydreams, holidays, objects (many of these), jokes and sex.

I Remember, says Auster, is “one of those books that can never be used up”. That’s a banal observation, but it does at least hint at some of the contradictions of the essay form – Brainard’s book is a small masterpiece, at once charmingly casual, or seemingly so, and rigorously arrived at in its repetitive and madly encyclopaedic structure. (Perec spotted its avant-garde heart, and borrowed the technique for his Je me souviens in 1978.)

It’s unlikely that Brainard would have conceived of his little litany as an essay, if he thought of it as literature at all. But like the best examples of the genre, it invents eccentric rules for a form that has none. There are undoubtedly conservative versions of the taste for essays today – a sense that the essay is something well made, or that it represents merely fine writing – but as Elizabeth Hardwick also put it, “there is no end to the essay, and no beginning”.

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