The plan was to have an orderly Year in Reading. To finally fill the gaps, dammit, to scale The Magic Mountain and read Hollinghurst properly instead of flipping around for the filthy bits. To read sitting up for a change — like a human adult — rather than burrowing in bedclothes like a vole.
But it was comfort I craved, reliable pleasures: Anne Carson and Elizabeth Hardwick, Sarah Waters’s novels, Virginia Woolf’s diaries, Zadie Smith’s essays, Martin Amis’s reviews (on Malcolm Lowry: “To make a real success of being an alcoholic, to go all the way with it, you need to be other things too: shifty, unfastidious, solipsistic, insecure and indefatigable. Lowry was additionally equipped with an extra-small penis, which really seemed to help.”). I read so much Larkin I worried I’d start sprouting anti-Indian attitudes myself.
In its quality of attention and faith in the salvific power of the right words in the right order, the essay resembles nothing so much as a secular prayer. That, at least, was the original point. The essay has proved wayward, which has been the great secret to its longevity.
Invented in France by Michel de Montaigne, the 16th century’s great oversharer; perfected in England by Samuel Johnson and William Hazlitt; the essay found America very agreeable: “The United States itself — and even its name, according to some sources — is partly the outcome of the essayistic brilliance of the radical English artisan Thomas Paine,” Christopher Hitchens, one of its finest modern practitioners, wrote. Its health, however, has never been guaranteed.
Virginia Woolf had to reassure the public in 1922: “Oh, yes dear reader: the essay is alive. There is no reason to despair,” even as journalists crowed over the death of “that lavender-scented little old lady of literature.” “Everybody is forever saying that the essay is dead,” John Leonard observed in 1982. “This is always said in essays.”