The essay can seem to be the cosy heartland of belles-lettres, a place where nothing urgent is ever said. Recently, though, publishers have seemed willing to take on and even promote this landlocked genre. Notting Hill Editions, which publishes essays exclusively, has established a prize of £20,000 for an unpublished submission of up to 8000 words. Fitzcarraldo awards a prize of £3000 to a book-length essay (minimum 25,000 words) not yet taken on by a publisher.
There is a distinction between the literary essay and the personal essay, but it’s a variation of flavour rather than a difference between species. Guy Davenport, one of the masters of essay form, wrote two sparkling pieces a year apart on table manners, one for the Hudson Review in 1979, the other for Antaeus in 1980. Shockingly, there is no overlap between them, though cannibalising your own material is generally regarded as anthropophagy at its most respectable. The Antaeus piece is the jazzier and more anecdotal, though the level of self-exposure is modest (Davenport owns up to living by preference on fried baloney, Campbell’s soup and Snickers bars). The title is ‘The Anthropology of Table Manners from Geophagy Onward’, ‘geophagy’ being the eating of clay, something that Davenport did as a child, when his black nurse decided he needed ‘a bait’ of it:
Everybody in South Carolina knew that blacks, for reasons unknown, fancied clay … The eating took place in a bedroom, for the galvanised bucket of clay was kept under the bed, for the cool. It was blue clay from a creek, the consistency of slightly gritty ice cream. It lay smooth and delicious-looking in its pail of clear water. You scooped it out and ate it from your hand. The taste was wholesome, mineral, and emphatic. I have since eaten many things in respectable restaurants with far more trepidation.
Only from reading Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History did he learn that the eating of clay was a prehistoric habit, something that kept the stomach filled until the next kill of aurochs. When he met Toynbee, he mentioned his own experience of this primitive practice. Toynbee gave him ‘a strange, British look’.
The piece in the Hudson Review is more formal, a reckoning with Lévi-Strauss’s Introduction to a Science of Mythology, Vol. III. So there are thrilling historical assertions, unclouded by evidence: ‘The fork came to the United States from Bordeaux, by way of the diplomatic corps during the Revolution (to Bordeaux from England, to England from Venice); one would like to know who turned it over American and French fashion.’ There is plenty of scrupulous ludic paraphrase of the text under review: ‘The hero gets a frog pregnant by pointing his penis at her, they marry, go hunting together, and straightaway bump into the fact that they dine on wholly different things, and the hunter’s mother has a sharp word for a daughter-in-law who serves cockroaches as a delicacy.’
He quotes a scene from Walter Scott’s The Antiquary, in which the old mendicant factotum Edie Ochiltree is given qualified access to a moment of celebration: ‘A table was quickly covered in the parlour, where the party sat joyously down to some refreshment. At the request of Oldbuck, Edie Ochiltree was permitted to sit by the sideboard in a great leathern chair, which was placed in some measure behind a screen.’ This travesty of hospitality brings Davenport out in a rash of italics and exclamation marks. ‘Was permitted to sit! Behind a screen!’ Then we’re on to the marginal social acceptability of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, whose hand, ‘holding the teacup, was very brown, and very, very wrinkly with the soap-suds; and all through her gown and her cap there were hairpins sticking wrong end out; so that Lucie didn’t like to sit too near her.’ Both these essays show off Davenport’s range and gusto, his feats of intellectual scampering; both give the sense of a live mind being decanted onto the page.
Brian Dillon’s Essayism, both a book of essays and a meditation on the form, doesn’t include Davenport in his pantheon of practitioners, but Dillon’s responsiveness is wide, to Virginia Woolf, to William Gass, to Susan Sontag, to Lester Bangs and to Roland Barthes (his first and most important inspiration). Most practitioners regard essay-writing as a sideline – Davenport set store by his stories, so much less vital than his non-fictional prose – but Dillon sees ‘some version of the essay’ as the only writing of which he is ‘capable’. His titles take the hallowed form ‘On X’ (Montaigne and Bacon preferred ‘Of X’), and ‘On Consolation’ is the only title to be used more than once, recurring a number of times.
The specific misery needing remedy is depression. Dillon’s mother was a depressive, and he seems to have anticipated long before the event that the condition would be part of his inheritance. He writes about emotional darkness with a careful suppression of detail:
The new crisis had come about for all the usual reasons that such things happen: time, and change, and lack of change, problems unacknowledged in the face of love and contentment and security as much as fear of the needed unknown. And the acknowledgment, my acknowledgment, after much time, that my heart was already elsewhere, that it would take very little (it was actually so much) to fall out of this life and into another – or into the genuine void of not-being – with all that implied of discovery and loss and guilt and relief.
The consolation that essays offer seems to be less a matter of their meaning – the consolation of philosophy, conventionally regarded – than the magic of phrasing, verbal formulas capable of becoming mantras of a sophisticated sort, gaining power from repeated contemplation. Elizabeth Hardwick’s ‘coolly composed sentences’, for instance, gave Dillon something to hang on to, ‘but there was enough about them of intentional disarray that I felt as though in her essayism she understood extremes.’ He makes a meal of one particular sentence (the subject is Dylan Thomas):
‘He died, grotesquely like Valentino, with mysterious weeping women at his bedside.’ Sonically, musically, it is a straightforwardly beautiful sentence: the rhyme and more between ‘died’ and ‘bedside’, the ‘i’s in ‘Valentino’ and ‘mysterious’ elongated into the double ‘e’ of ‘weeping’, the keening sound (and look) of ‘mysterious weeping women’ slowing the sentence’s progress towards the image of the deathbed … The sentence performs its role perfectly, reminds us of a lineage of literary deathbeds. There is enough assonance and alliteration to remind us also of Thomas’s poetry itself.
He then goes on to worry ‘about the placing of that first comma’. ‘I suspect Hardwick of pausing over the comma’s placement, suddenly aware that the mere parallel between the two deaths – poet and silent star, both loved by many women, though the poet a little more bafflingly – was not enough: what truly appalled was the fact one could, in fact must, set these men alongside each other in the first place.’ That ‘must’ seems forced, and readers who didn’t immediately grasp the talismanic force of the sentence may not be persuaded of it even now.
Dillon is anxious to transcend the genre of the cento, ‘a work made up largely of quotations, citations and glosses on the works of others’, whose supreme example is The Anatomy of Melancholy. But when an essay follows an admired writer closely, and ends with a quotation, the kinship can seem to be with the sermon, as commentary arises out of cited scripture and sinks self-effacingly back into it. That’s the case with ‘On Diverging’, devoted to the odd movement – ‘the greatest rhetorical swerve or digression I know’ – at the end of Woolf’s essay ‘On Being Ill’. Woolf considers suitable reading for invalids, starting with the classics, then suddenly says: ‘But enough of Shakespeare – let us turn to Augustus Hare.’ She goes on to paraphrase a passage from Hare’s genteel biographical work, The Story of Two Noble Lives (1893), presumably the light-reading equivalent of beef tea or a milk jelly, sustaining the system without taxing it. But Woolf has found in Hare’s book a scene of extremity with which to end her essay: Lady Waterford
would wave to [her husband] and think, each time, what if this should be the last? And so it was one morning. His horse stumbled. He was killed. She knew it before they told her, and never could Sir John Leslie forget, when he ran downstairs the day they buried him, the beauty of the great lady standing by the window to see the hearse depart, nor, when he came back again, how the curtain, heavy, mid-Victorian, plush perhaps, was all crushed together where she had grasped it in her agony.
The reader may wonder ‘how precisely Woolf has got us here’, but her process can be charted, as Hardwick’s could not, by comparing her version with Hare’s, which quotes Leslie’s account. Those short sentences, for one thing (‘His horse stumbled. He was killed’), are anything but 19th-century, though they have the effect of making Woolf’s next sentence seem longer and more awkward than it otherwise would. She has compressed and intensified the details, substituting ‘crushed’, for instance, for the rather ineffective ‘wrinkled’. She plays a sophisticated game with historical context, both liberating the emotion from its setting and confining the gesture that expresses it – the grasping of the curtain – in its period. Out go Leslie’s standard formulas about ‘nobility of character’ and ‘Christian goodness’, the fulfilment of his ‘idea of all high qualities’ – the stripping of past pieties being Bloomsbury’s own piety. In revenge the decor is insistently historicised – that ‘plush perhaps’ curtain (a window-blind in the original) – to provide the homoeopathic dose of mockery required to authenticate Waterford’s suffering for a self-consciously modern sensibility.
Introversion has its limits, even in the literary form that seems consecrated to it. The essay form doesn’t need to be chained to the bookshelves: it’s free to leave the house and to go for a walk, with the author in tow. That’s what happens in Bella Bathurst’s Sound, which starts and ends with sections of memoir that describe her own experience of hearing loss, and uses the intervening chapters to explore issues related to deafness both journalistically and essayistically. This structure has the great virtue of contesting the logic of deafness, which is one of withdrawal. Bathurst’s project propels her into settings where her hearing difficulties are an advantage as much as a setback. To be asked a sympathetic question is enticing enough; to be asked about hearing loss by someone who knows what it’s like becomes an irresistible invitation.
For the deafened (those who have had their hearing fail them, a separate category from the deaf), social spaces become progressively uninhabitable. An elderly gentleman Bathurst spoke to sketched for her the slow progress of his retreat. First of all he stopped going to the theatre:
‘I’d just go to sleep – there’s no point, I can’t hear, I’d miss far too much of it.’ Then he found that he couldn’t hear church services, then concerts became pointless, then he stopped going to dinner parties. Finally even family dinners became tricky. His grandchildren are still young, and, ‘Oh, it’s very annoying, it’s one of the most annoying things of all, because I can’t hear children’s voices – either the pitch or the volume … I feel more embarrassed about being deaf in front of my grandchildren than I do among my contemporaries’ … He changed his car to something much quieter, he soundproofed the barn, he stopped answering the phone.
Even in the memoir sections, Bathurst includes as much outward-facing detail as she can, describing how her refusal to admit to her hearing difficulties (she was in her late twenties when they started) made her potentially dangerous on a sailing trip with friends.
Still water carries sound beautifully because there’s such a big surface area from which it can rebound, but choppy water presents a thousand different points of connection. The only surfaces with a good echo are the ones on the boat itself – fibreglass, metal, wood. And when the engine is running it lays a steady thrum over any lower sounds. What that means in practice is that all the sibilants get knocked out of speech: Nyoupuenerou? Ucuthemooinroe? Ilanacoupleougarleae?
Where Dillon relied on continued literary immersion to stabilise him, Bathurst stayed true to her professional habits, putting her faith in interviews and research. Their temperaments are as different as their histories, with Bathurst seeming resilient and even bouncy (an exasperated friend told her: ‘You’re not deaf, you just don’t listen’). But her world closed in on her just as much as his did. One Friday night she turned up at the inpatient department of the local mental health unit, pleading to be sectioned. They told her to come back on Monday.
Readers secure in their hearing can hope to sharpen their intuition when confronted with odd-seeming bits of behaviour – perverse restaurant choice, for instance.
‘What about Mash?’ they’d say.
I’d remember the scrape of crockery and the roar like an aircraft hangar. ‘Sort of,’ I’d say, ‘or the local Chinese?’, my thinking being that, OK, so the local Chinese might have been twice condemned by the Food Standards Agency, but at least it had carpet.
She was mortified to learn, long after the event, of how hostile or distant she had seemed even to old friends, one of whom told her, ‘It sounds awful, but sometimes you were so far away it was just easier not to see you.’ But Bathurst’s withholding of the truth about her hearing wasn’t just for her friends’ benefit. Looking back at her notebooks, containing personal as well as work-related entries, she was disconcerted to find they made no reference to her state. This painful slowness of acceptance seems to be the rule rather than the exception.
Making the deafened state a subject for investigation rather than a fate produces some surprising results, widespread pockets of trauma more often denied than acknowledged. She visits a shipyard, the sort of place that for more than a century manufactured deafness as relentlessly as it manufactured ocean-going tonnage. It becomes clear as she pursues her inquiries that the armed forces are substantially deafened, if not in combat then in training.
Sound is pressure, which means the higher the volume, the greater the impact of that pressure on the body. An armoured personnel carrier can hit 110 dBs, a mortar fired at close quarters is about 190 dBs, the round of an M16 assault rifle firing is about 158 dBs, and the flight deck of an operational aircraft carrier can reach 125 dBs … No one, in other words, has ever invented a quiet way to blow things up.
(A sound pressure wave of 150 dBs or above can burst the eardrum.) Sound protection is rarely worn in the military since it interferes with verbal communication, although damaged ears may not hear crucial commands. In one test American tank crewmen who could hear the command to engage a target hit it 94 per cent of the time, as against 41 per cent of those who couldn’t hear it – the majority hit nothing or hit something else.
The elderly gentleman who told Bathurst about his reluctant withdrawal from the pleasures of life was Sir Peter de la Billière, commander-in-chief of British forces during the first Gulf War, whose deafening began when he was still in his twenties (he was born in 1934). He was downgraded on the basis of his poor hearing at the age of 36, but appealed and was reinstated on condition that he took a special test every three years. He managed to avoid those tests, and seems relatively at ease with the idea that military personnel above a certain rank are predominantly deafened. Those in the ranks who are losing their hearing are unlikely to seek help. Chances are that they will keep quiet, becoming even more of a danger to their comrades than Bathurst was as crew on her friend’s boat.
Digital hearing aids gave Bathurst a phantom access to the sounds she loved. ‘The shape of the song was still there all right – Beck was still Beck, Bowie still Bowie – but the emotional jolt had gone. There on the radio was the song’s skeleton – its height and shape, its familiar attributes, but its guts weren’t there any more.’ When life becomes a foreign-language film without subtitles, it’s vital to keep your eyes on the screen. ‘Real seeing is a raptorish faculty, a sharp, hungry tool, stripping information from the visual world.’ She had laser surgery to make the most of her vision, and learned to supplement the meagre information provided by her ears with a rich set of corroborative cues. Consolation for her is an active process, a form of self-help. She acquires skills. By the time she discovered that her hearing loss was caused by otosclerosis and might be reversible by an operation called a stapedectomy (where the bone is replaced with a titanium replica), Bathurst had recast her personality to accommodate her losses. Intervention would involve risk: any movement the surgeon makes sets up a vibration capable of stirring the cilia as if they were little fields of wheat, making the smallest gesture a potential ‘tsunami for the inner ear’. Even a miracle cure wouldn’t give her back the intervening 12 years – but why should she want that? They don’t need to be redeemed.
Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies describes itself as ‘A Memoir in Twenty-Four Attempts’, going back to the root meaning of the word essay, although Blanchfield’s barnstorming style is hardly Montaignian. Even the titles of the essays – ‘On Man Roulette’, ‘On Confoundedness’, ‘On Frottage’ – cut a dash. Blanchfield chose not to check his references while writing, or, to put it more grandly: ‘I decided on a total suppression of recourse to other authoritative sources.’ At the end of the book, after a black page like the one that represents mourning for Yorick in Tristram Shandy, there is a list of corrections.
This way of working is described as a ‘constraint’, but it seems much less than that: a constraint would be more active, shaping what can and can’t be said. Perhaps it’s just a good habit, designed to keep distraction at bay. There’s no reason not to incorporate corrections in the text by the process known as editing – memorialising the process in the finished volume is a matter of rhetoric. It was a different thing when Nicholson Baker, writing about his literary relationship with John Updike in U & I, decided not to reread Updike’s work, or to read for the first time the books he hadn’t finished (or hadn’t started). That was a piquant part of the book’s business, an acknowledgment – rare in criticism, which like any other specialism overrates both itself and the object of its study – that even a loved book or favourite author degrades to a spangled mulch. ‘I remember almost nothing of what I read. What once was The Portrait of a Lady is now for me only a plaid lap-blanket bobbing on the waves; Anna Karenina survives as a picnic basket containing a single jar of honey; Pnin is a submerged aquamarine bowl.’
Another ‘constraint’ announced by Blanchfield but not really fitting the definition is the resolve ‘to stay with the subject until it gives onto an area of personal uneasiness, a site of vulnerability, and keep unpacking from there’. In practice the ego, much as it enjoys the spotlight, knows better than to put itself on the spot. Every essay in the book is prefaced with the formula ‘Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source’, described as ‘an invocation of sorts, a ritual’ – not so very different, perhaps, from the talismanic phrases Dillon fixates on in the essays that most matter to him. It’s a rhetorical formula with no necessary relation to self-knowledge or the taking of responsibility.
It’s unusual to come across a book as evenly divided between under-sharing and over-sharing as Proxies. Blanchfield’s family history is complicated and presented obliquely: his father, Curtis, left when Brian was nine or ten, and from the time Brian was 12 saw him very rarely – for an hour or so every few years. His mother remarried, and his stepfather, Frank, formally adopted him when he was 11. Blanchfield was brought up in the ‘personal salvation dynamic’ of Primitive Baptism, although his mother was only baptised in the mid-1980s, after her remarriage (‘a couple dozen feet out beyond the bottom plank of a half-submerged wooden staircase down into a dark green pond’). It’s unclear how this stringent religion, with its intense social conservatism, impinged on Curtis (Harley rider, grifter, cad) or Frank, an Irish Catholic who had been a student leader at NYU law school in the 1970s, a tax attorney who didn’t make a will.
The portrait of Frank that emerges from the early part of the book (its essays are printed, Blanchfield says, more or less in order of composition) is flatly vengeful.
When my stepfather Frank, in a torrent of spite and fury, humiliates my mother in the company of family or friends … as he does regularly, the room is stunned, shaken. There is nothing like it … However nefarious or admirable his other dealings may have been, the great disgrace of his life will have been his terrorism of the one devoted to him.
This generalised indictment is supplemented by an account of Blanchfield’s mother cleaning a chronic wound in the sole of Frank’s right foot. (The wound’s refusal to heal rules out the kidney transplant Frank needs.) ‘My mother cleans it, every evening, after dinner, after the dishes … She wipes the gullet of it, and the rim, she gets it to granulate. After 25 years of marriage she knows this part of his body best. He hasn’t ever really seen it. Often, during, feeling nothing, he watches television.’ Why does he feel nothing? Because thanks to diabetes he has no sensation in his feet. Why has he never really seen the wound? Because it’s on the sole of his foot. Why is it the part of his body his wife knows best? Because her son says so.
Vengeance isn’t a negligible motive among memoirists, but there is a particular worked-up ugliness on display here, since foot-washing is one of the ritual practices of Primitive Baptism. Making a grotesque tableau out of his mother’s attendance on her husband takes on an edge of desecration. It’s surprising, reading a later essay, to be told that a month before he died, Frank attempted to soothe Brian after a flare-up of mother-son antagonism by telling him: ‘You’re a good man.’ And not for the first time, since this was ‘the last time’ he said it. It’s fair enough to place limits on their intimacy (‘We didn’t love each other’) but where in the earlier essay was the unpacking from a site of vulnerability, or the acknowledgment of complexity? Blanchfield is the name Frank gave Brian, and he hasn’t gone back to Overby or started from scratch.
It’s in describing adult intimacies that Blanchfield most obviously struggles to find a convincing tone. ‘With each other physically we are like a couple of elk,’ he writes of life with his partner John, ‘or something rarer and even more complexly antlered; there are whole seasons when in our need we get kind of stuck in the lock of our racks and settle for nuzzling. And then, occasionally, a breakthrough, and it can feel like moulting might feel, velvety after, and then the good itch for new growth.’
Self-exposure of a confrontational sort has only recently become a part of essayistic writing, though its practitioners and advocates can point to Montaigne for endorsement. In the note to the reader at the beginning of the Essais Montaigne wrote that he would portray himself ‘tout entier et tout nu’ – but nakedness, full exposure, has no fixed and final meaning, one person’s honesty being another’s exhibitionism. Blanchfield remarks that being scandalised by your own behaviour is ‘a uniquely queer attribute I love’, and though this psychology is fairly widespread it does seem to be gay writers who hold back least from sexual self-disclosure, there being a historical backlog of candour to be cleared.
In his foreword to Tricks, dated 1979 (the English translation appeared in 1981), Renaud Camus defended himself against charges of exhibitionism: ‘If this book helps to make its subject banal as subject, it will not have been written in vain. Once we know where the obsessions are, we can talk about something else.’ The book presented the sort of itemisation of encounters between men that was previously the territory of the police interview or (as it soon became again) the sexually-transmitted-diseases clinic, although it establishes that sex, however ‘impersonal’, always happens in social space, in a blizzard of projections and judgments (‘He asked if a framed text by Gilbert and George was some sort of diploma’).
Blanchfield arrived in New York aged 22 in 1996, the year Aids deaths peaked (‘That summer Thanatos and Eros was an intersection quite as real as Christopher and Hudson’). Under these circumstances frottage, ‘a rather broad category of consensual, nonpenetrative, (usually) hands-free sex wherein both optimally naked bodies press against each other’, was a prudent choice that had its own magic. ‘We don’t have to do anything. The opening for disinclination was the space of intimacy. As hesitation, it often functioned anyway as aphrodisiac.’
Some gay men arriving from a backwater to a more sophisticated milieu have a hard time adjusting: Eddy in Edouard Louis’s The End of Eddy realises that all his posh new friends would have been beaten up as faggots back home and wonders if the physical signs he gives off, the fluting voice and skinny, poorly co-ordinated physique, have been misread all along. Perhaps he wasn’t gay after all, just trapped in a middle-class body? Blanchfield was luckier, since a comely poet from an exotically deprived background has an almost unbeatable hand at stud poker. In one passage he talks about playing the rough trade card in a New York bar to tease a friend’s friend he didn’t much like (a high-end residential real estate agent), both conjuring and exorcising the figure of his reprobate dad, so much at ease shooting pool in the Waterin’ Hole on Tyvola Boulevard in Charlotte, and a persona now ripe to be exploited. The scene ends with some clumsy alliteration and a sense of preening – ‘My friend Matthew recently helped me reel in this anecdote’s true conclusion: It is a particular sensation of sluttiness to head home with jizzy jeans.’
The gap between the ages of Dillon and Blanchfield is less than five years, but their practice as essayists makes it seem as if they belong to different literary generations. Both place a high value on vulnerability in the essays they admire, but only Blanchfield gives a rhetorical performance of it himself. Well into his twenties he was convinced that ‘disclosure was the enemy of integrity,’ and even now he throws out contradictions rather than examining them. The pattern of his life, he acknowledges, has been to move on rather than be known, retreating from the honesty about his emotions he owed to past lovers, to his grandparents and to extended family – all those ‘to whom I have never revealed my adult self but have only moved further away, to the city, to the west, into more remote territories of poetry and the academy, too incompletely realised to judge properly, too far to reject, too busy at Christmas to visit’. Dillon hunches protectively around his feelings: it’s only with the appearance of the word ‘girlfriend’ late in the book that he even lets slip his sexual orientation. Blanchfield scatters his text with the names of friends and lovers while Dillon holds fast to them.
Reticence isn’t a fashionable quality, but it needn’t represent a failure of nerve. It could indicate an understanding of the real risk of collapse. It can also be an effective literary strategy. Clive Wilmer, writing about Thom Gunn’s poem on his mother’s death, identifies ‘the note of reticence needed for speech to occur at all’ as being what moves the reader. In his struggles with depression, Dillon seemed to find in books the antidote to uncontrollable emotion. ‘I thought that if I wrote about the horror at a distance, or described it askance, then it would stay in its place, but I’d be saying enough about it to be able to tell myself that I was not running away.’ He needed, in fact, ‘some assurance that the world could not only be recast in words but had been made of language in the first place’. But he also has a sense that he is going round in circles. ‘What if the ruinous and rescuing affinity between depression and the essay is what got you into this predicament in the first place? What then?’ Immersion in books may not be a cure for the difficulty of living in the world but just another symptom masquerading.