Sunday, July 15, 2012

Against Joie de Vivre: Personal Essays (1989)

Phillip Lopate's second collection of essays, eight years after the first, is more explicit about his ambitions, signaling it from the subtitle and opening the front further with a piece entitled, "What Happened to the Personal Essay?" Indeed, if Amazon reviewers are anything to rely on as cultural barometer, it is a clear case of mission accomplished. "If anyone has an inkling of reservation about the form personal essay, they need to read Lopate," writes one of them. "He's a master of the form." To which I can only add: ☺LIKE. But while Lopate does drop a number of useful names in that meditation on the form (Montaigne, of course, and Jonathan Swift, Dr. Johnson, Addison and Steele, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Washington Irving, Oliver Wendell Holmes, etc.), most of us tend toward agreement that the piece "Chekhov for Children" is the best one here, and likely one of the best he's ever done, a simple and straightforward account of his experience staging Uncle Vanya with a group of 5th- and 6th-graders. From the primary expectation that the material could well be over the heads of its players to the concrete problems of memorization and the usual chaos of putting on a show, Lopate teases out all the intriguing detail and troubles and unexpected successes of the project. Anyone who likes Chekhov and those who don't know him but have an interest in the arts and sciences of pedagogy will find much to fascinate and even move them in this account. One only wishes to have been present for either of the two performances, especially the second one, which Lopate found successful beyond his wildest hopes. All the intricacies of casting, managing bored, impatient children, and just plain taking a big chance are chronicled with Lopate's usual wry, clarion language. And that goes for everything else here as well. Much of the self-involvement that occasionally marred Bachelorhood has been cleaned up, no poems are included this time, and Lopate's choices of topics are loose, wide-ranging, and searching, whether it's opening up more about his lifelong career as a cineaste, or the politics of landlords, or smoking, or patience, or more of his experiences both as writer and teacher. It's a perfect pleasure front to back.

In case it's not at the library.

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