The Half-Life of an American Essayist recently landed (triumphantly) in our office, and I had the opportunity to read a few essays over the weekend. First, Let me say that Arthur Krystal is no ordinary essayist. There is very little of the John Milton here (and I mean that, having studied Milton's essays on marriage and free speech, in the best possible way). The introduction opens:
Somehow, without ever intending to, I’ve ended up a freelance intellectual. Not quite a man of letters, not really a critic anymore, but a sort of literary mule – a cross between haphazard journalist and restive seminarian. And it’s no fun.But he could have fooled me. In the course of being insightful Krystal has (through the same human, self-deprecating and, at times, other-deprecating sense of humor) kept me well entertained with a fantastic wit. Even in his essay on sin, a topic which, by virtue of 16 years Catholic and Jesuit schooling, I am well acquainted, I found myself enjoying every turn of the page. From the Godine website:
The twelve essays in The Half-Life - the title is from Goethe's "Experience is only half of experience" - go deeper than the standard book piece; they hew to the line first drawn by Montaigne and later extended by Dr. Johnson, Hazlitt, Woolf and Orwell. Although there may be no preordained way of writing about literature, Krsytal takes his cue from Edwin Denby, who maintained that the first duty of the critic is to be "interesting." No matter how large the subject - whether it is the history of boxing or the growth of the Holocaust industry, Krstyal paints broad subjects with precise brushstrokes. Erudite, lettristic, and informative, the essays here are nonetheless accessible to the general reader. The reason is simple: as Dr. Johnson noted, "What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure." To this one might add that there is satisfaction to be had in the effort itself. How else could one write as committedly and entertainingly about Paul Valery's Cahiers as about Joe Louis's left jab?
** Keep an eye out for Godine's Half-Life of an American Essayist book launch, date to be announced soon. **