Among the best of best

Literary Criticism


Adam Kirsch is one of the best young literary critics in America. Rocket and Lightship (W W Norton, £17.99) is a collection of his previously published essays, mostly in American literary magazines, and they show why literary journalism is so much better in America than it is here. The best American reviewers are not afraid of being highbrow, or of European literature or, above all, of Jews.

What is immediately striking about Rocket and Lightship is his non-academic, personal, jargon-free style. He writes clearly, for the general reader. There are none of the dreary academic orthodoxies: multi-culturalism, post-colonialism, feminism and all the other isms. "All literature," he writes, "not just poetry, is a criticism of life." It's the sort of thing one of his heroes, Lionel Trilling, might have written. It is no coincidence that the critics Kirsch mentions in his book, apart from those he reviews, are Arnold, Eliot, Trilling and Wilson, all but one from his golden age of modern criticism, the mid-20th century.

The range of Rocket and Lightship (the title is a quotation from Gerard Manley Hopkins's The Wreck of the Deutschland) is impressive. There are essays on fiction and non-fiction, on critics and political philosophers.

It opens with long pieces on Darwin and Francis Fukuyama, and later ranges from the 19th-century Italian poet and essayist, Giacomo Leopardi to E M Forster; from mavericks like Zizek and Sloterdijk to Sebald and McEwan.

The best essays are on Jewish subjects: Saul Bellow and Cynthia Ozick; the American critics, Alfred Kazin and Susan Sontag; Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin, and best of all, a piece from The Jewish Review of Books on Bialik and the Jewishness of Marcel Proust.

'The leading American reviewers are not afraid of being highbrow'

The one surprising omission is a proper selection from Kirsch's prolific writings from the Jewish website, - where he has written more than 150 articles and reviews since 2004. There are, however, eight pieces from The New Republic, where he first appeared in 2001, discovered by the redoubtable Leon Wieseltier, one of the great literary editors of our time.

I hope this will be the first of many anthologies by one of our best critics.

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