You may well be asking by now what sparked off the previous cake-mix of reminiscence and New Age flummery, and I am about to tell you. Are you sitting comfortably? It’s having read The Art of the Personal Essay, selected and introduced by Phillip Lopate. Lopate, an American now aged 71, has been a film critic, essayist, fiction writer, poet and teacher. One of his own essays Against Joie de Vivre is included in the book. It’s worth buying the book for his lengthy introduction alone, by the way.
Until fairly recently, being Tech School (syn: sketchily; inadequately; unambitiously; unimaginatively) educated, I thought of essays as tedious items that people of school age were forced to knock up in order to pass their GCEs, having titles such as The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was Quite a Good Thing: Discuss and Virginia Woolf Drowned Herself Just in Time: Ponder. The essays in this anthology are anything but tedious: funny, sad, illuminating and revealing, taken together they’re a masterclass.
This is not one for reading in the bath or brandishing airily in the tube; you’ll need something to prop it up against. I measured it against my shamefully unread paperback copy of The Bible and equally unread paperback Complete Works of Shakespeare and it’s bigger than both. Published in 1994, it’s one of a series called Teachers & Writers Collaborative Books (www.twc.org) starting with Seneca’s On Noise and Asthma and proceeding by way of Plutarch, Montaigne, Addison & Steel, Charles Lamb, Max Beerbohm, George Orwell, Ivan Turgenev, Roland Barthes, Henry David Thoreau, James Baldwin and a treasure chest of others to Richard Rodriguez in Late Victorians writing about gay life and death in San Francisco during the AIDS epidemic. Essays only started to be called essays after the publication of Michel de Montaigne’s three books of Essais (‘attempts’ or ‘trials’) around 1580 but this volume includes personal essays, or personal essay equivalents by both male and female writers from such diverse origins as tenth century courtly Japan and twentieth century France.
Lopate has also provided not one but two handy Contents lists, the first divided into more historical/geographical movements such as The Rise of the English Essay, Other Cultures, Other Continents and The American Scene, the second grouped by subject matter or theme – Ambition, City Life, Education, Family Ties, Memoir, Portrait, Analytic Meditation, Consolation, Book Review and so forth. So you don’t have to schlep from start to finish or, as one Amazon reviewer boast of having done, from finish to start. You may chart your own course, devour, dip in or maybe read an essay a day, like those people who set out to read the whole of Samuel Pepys’ Diary date for date or the whole of The Bible from Genesis to Revelations.
Finding this book was an epiphany for me. Oh that’s what I’ve been writing all these years – the Personal Essay. Not only does the sort of stuff I’ve been writing have an actual name but it’s OK to write like that. Real writers do it. Yaroo! Or should it be Yahoo? No, that sounds like email. So many years on this neglected outpost of the Vogon Empire and only now do I discover that I fit – really, genuinely and totally fit – into some kind of genre. I’m not claiming to be the next Michel de Montaigne or Virginia Woolf but…Yaroo! Virginia Woolf didn’t just write To the Lighthouse and that thing Mrs Thingummy about the poor man who jumped out of the window and landed on the railings, she wrote Personal Essays too. Good for you, Virginia! Yaroo! Sorry about the drowning an’ all.
Maybe if I’d started young…but then I did start young. I just didn’t know how to describe, even to myself, the thing I was writing – or what to do with it ‘having writ’. In any case it could be to one’s advantage to have grown old and wise before essaying the Personal Essay. Yes, that’s the thing – experience, worldly wisdom, the essayist maturing like a fine old…camembert.
And maybe not so stinky.