Magazine article The Spectator

Coming Up Smarter

Magazine article The Spectator

Coming Up Smarter

Article excerpt

Coming up smarter P. J. Kavanagh

LIFE SENTENCES by Joseph Epstein W. Norton, 17.95, pp. 347

The civilised literary causerie is not dead, it is not even out of fashion. It is alive and kicking in the pages of the New Yorker. Every once in a while Joseph Epstein contributes to that magazine a piece on some author who has tickled his fancy: from Montaigne to Joseph Conrad, to Ken Tynan - the tickle can come from anywhere (or prickle, he doesn't like everybody) - and, as he says, he `gets his education in public'. His procedure is surely right: he tackles authors who

until I actually do write about them, I don't always know all that much about. I read up, I think through, I write out, and, the hope is, at the end I am a bit smarter about the subject under study.

In this collection of those pieces, Life Sentences, he describes himself in the third person as

a sucker for stylish writing. If there is a republic of letters, he has a weakness for its aesthetic aristocrats . . . His essays on the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell and the fiction of Robert Musil show he still has a taste for the deflation of literary reputation.

These last are not cruel or `smart-ass' (as he might say), only blessedly unbedazzled by stardom.

He is capable of good jokes at the expense of writers he admires (`The Enduring V. S. Pritchett'). Epstein is worried when Pritchett, who is otherwise cleareyed, lapses into

the poetic. In one story a man sticks his hands into `his optimistic pockets' . . . several clerks have `dejected buttocks', for which perhaps trousers with `optimistic pockets' ought to be recommended.

His enthusiasms shine; he not only talks of his subjects' writing and quotes revealingly, he also tells of their lives and their circumstances, and successfully leaves us 'a bit smarter about the subject under study'. It is pleasant to learn, for example (`Wise, Foolish, Enchanting Lady Mary') that Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's father commanded her to marry 'a gentleman with the wonderfully Wodehousian moniker of Clotworthy Skeffington' (she eloped with Wortley); and his sense of period comes as a blessed relief, it is now so rare. He does not mistake Lady Mary's 18th-century sense of caste for what we would today call snobbery. He suggests the hierarchical pyramid of the time in a few easy phrases:

Gardening with Italian peasants, chattering with innkeepers, befriending women in Turkish harems, Lady Mary could be charmingly old shoe, but she always kept nearby a high horse for mounting when it pleased her.

Evidently, Epstein has charm of manner, as well as of matter. He quotes a character in Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye as saying that with some authors you feel you would like to call them up on the telephone. Epstein is just such a writer as, in his view, his admired Edmund Wilson (`Bye-bye, Bunny') is decidedly not: `the critical equivalent of a traffic-cop', apt to lecture other writers in print, calling e.e. cummings `half-baked'. To which cummings riposted by describing Wilson as `the man in the iron necktie'. Thus, in a couple of quotes, Epstein introduces us to a literary spat, and makes me laugh.

He rightly deplores biographical intrusiveness (though he admits he is not above it himself) and only mentions Edmund Wilson's `sexual low jinks' because Wilson wrote of them, for some reason:

. . scoring in the Princeton Club in his seventies, mounting the old bed in his Talcottville house, in BVDs and his ,uncomfortably bristling double garters', with his dentist's wife . …

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