The Amateur: An Independent Life of Letters , by Wendy Lesser. Pantheon Books, 274 pages, $24.
I dislike autobiography, and that includes this sentence.
The tide, though, is too strong for the lonely swimmer. Everybody–sturdy “he,” settled “she,” coy “you,” pompous “one”–all are swept into the vast solipsistic sea of personal history. “I” is now default mode: Assume that any new book is a memoir, or at least whispers toe-curling confessions. Today, the absence of the first-person singular is conspicuous, a flamboyant refusenik gesture.
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. That’s what Wendy Lesser must have said to herself before gathering up the fragments artfully arranged in The Amateur . But because she can never jettison her esthetic judgment (“I think I was born,” she writes, “with a sense of an instantaneous connection between the things I perceived in the world and my feelings about those things”), she has produced a model memoir: a capitulation to the tyranny of moi that leaves her dignity and her privacy intact (the two grow more and more closely related). If you–yes, I mean you –feel the urge to spill your lousy life on the page, read this book first.
Ms. Lesser accurately describes herself as “an 18th-century man of letters, though one who happens to be female and lives in 20th-century Berkeley.” Who is this latter-day Dr. Johnson? And what has she done that could (who knows?) have attracted a latter-day Boswell and thus spared her the embarrassment of autobiography? Ms. Lesser is founding editor of The Threepenny Review , a 19-year-old literary quarterly with 9,000 loyal subscribers. She is also the author of four previous books, none of which made much of a splash. And she happens to be one of the best critics in America. Not the kind of stuff that stirs a biographer’s lust; not the most promising memoir material, either.
And yet The Amateur is consistently engaging, sly, witty, understated (though still provocative) and written with simple elegance and strict economy. She tells how her mind developed in a particular cultural context, but she does not insist on cause and effect. She keeps her life in the background, using only sparingly the crude facts of her daily existence, using them only as a way to illustrate ideas and attitudes. The discipline required to keep the self in check while writing I-me-mine charges her sentences with a peekaboo tension. “The crucial art of the essay,” she declared in 1992, “lies in its perpetrator’s masterful control over his own self-exposure…. He must be the ringmaster of his self-display.” You meet in the pages of The Amateur an intelligence at work, an elaborated sensibility, a coherent set of forthright opinions. You are not asked to gasp at the drama of puny events linked by the irrefutable phony logic of chronology and transformed by vanity into personal fate. She refuses to shape a story, to slot her career into a narrative pattern that somehow explains or justifies.
The most charming example of her autobiographical indirection is the chapter called “Vocabulary,” a short essay about a collection of words coined, according to the Oxford English Dictionary , in 1952, the year Ms. Lesser was born. Her “birthright words,” an eye-opening list that includes clitoral, hallucinogenic, desegregate, apolitical, porno, tumble-dryer, automate, rubberiness and vomitous, come to seem like key elements of a “linguistic architecture” erected around young Wendy and her coevals: “It was as if the house we were collectively to occupy had been built at the time of our birth and had waited–completely furnished, not a speck of dust in sight, every appliance fully operational–for us to move in years later, as we grew toward adulthood.” Though her theme here is the way “language not only reflects but actually forecasts our daily existence,” daily existence, as she herself endured it, takes a back seat. All we learn about Wendy Lesser in this chapter is what year, exactly, she was born.
The frugal way in which she dispenses personal information makes every private tidbit seem special, and when she splurges, the rush of intimate revelation sticks in the mind. “Often, people in California think I am from New York,” she remarks casually, and then lets loose: “This may be because I am brash, impatient, judgmental, loud, energetic, efficient, pale-skinned, and red-haired.” Once evoked, this image of a woman both forceful and delicate lingers in the margins, so that Ms. Lesser is on every page even when the vertical slash of the first-person singular is not.
She does sketch the outline of her career: born safely middle-class in Palo Alto, Calif.; educated at Harvard College, King’s College, Cambridge, and then the University of California at Berkeley for her Ph.D. in English literature; desultory employment first as a public policy consultant and later with an arts foundation; and then the birth of The Threepenny Review in 1980. We learn that her parents divorced, that she has a younger sister, that her father worked for I.B.M. and that her mother has written novels. We learn that Wendy had an unhappy love affair as a student in England and that now she is married to a man with an Italian family name and a son from a previous marriage; she and her husband have also had a child together, another son. We learn that she is a “confirmed atheist,” that she hates being late and others being late, and that she does some of her best reading in the bath.
But that’s all trivia, and implicitly tagged as such. She tells us important things, too; for example that “it is useful for critics, especially extremely opinionated critics, to have a few touchstone artists”; her list includes choreographer Mark Morris, filmmaker Errol Morris, novelist Ian McEwan and poet Thom Gunn. She explains how the touchstone is useful: “When you attach yourself to a cherished artist … you cede to that artist a certain portion of your own intellectual development. You are not just the learned critic, commenting on the work; you are also the novice, being molded by that work.”
Or she tells us about how she overcame her resistance (“Change is always difficult for me, and resistance is at the core of my personality”) and became “an e-mail maniac.” Once she’d tried it, she was sucked in by “the special enticements of the form’s mixed nature–at once private and public, solitary and communal, so that it seems to combine the two oldest types of American writing, the diary and the sermon. With e-mail, you begin with the former, alone at your desk, and end (if you use your ‘multiple send’ button) with the latter, broadcasting to the whole congregation.”
Or she tells us about her early reading habits, about how she learned to get beyond the sticky business of identifying with the main character. Eventually she accepted the sad lesson novels can teach, “such as the awareness that people can never truly identify with each other, or that life is a matter of alienation, isolation and false projection.”
Like a powerful novel, The Amateur works in mysterious, subterranean ways. You might begin by identifying with Ms. Lesser (especially if you happen to be an extremely opinionated literary critic, and an atheist who deplores lateness and reads most happily in the bath). But then you see that Ms. Lesser is uncompromisingly herself. She will not meet you halfway. She will not coddle lazy readers. Her “I” is hers alone, private, like a diary. She will share only what she chooses to share and only for her own inscrutable reasons (those are the moments when she hits her “multiple send” button). And so you begin to read in a different way: You are the novice, being molded by her curiously elliptical memoir. You realize that she herself could be a useful “touchstone,” a cherished critic whose opinion, whether you agree with it or not, must always be taken into account.
I just want to say: That’s how I read it.