In awe of the art of the essay

The essay has to be the best possible literary form for times of vaulting ambition and limited attention span.


Juddering along in the Tube the other day, deep under London, I was struck, not for the first time, by how much I love the personal essay form. I was reading a scintillating collection by the fine American writer, Phillip Lopate, in one of those compact and handsome Notting Hill Editions. I had just finished a witty reflection on modern marriage - a piece in which the author tells his "couples therapist" that he refuses to be indoctrinated into "the new, totalitarian Empathy Speak" and follow in the footsteps of the "Great Listener, Oprah".

What struck me, amid giggles, was how much life and thinking could be condensed into the minutes it took to travel three stops. The essay has to be the best possible literary form for times of vaulting ambition and limited attention span.

To rub up close against another mind engaged in the free play of ideas is what the essay encourages. The first encounter with an essayist you've never read before is like the striking up of a friendship. You keep going back for more of their particular conversational genius, their precise ways of seeing and thinking.

The subjects they encounter can, of course, range widely: from social attitudes to politics, history, cultural phenomena, the arts. Often enough, there's also a look or two at the observing self to investigate just how prejudices or habits are organised.

Michel de Montaigne is the great Renaissance granddaddy of the form. He still feels like the closest of contemporaries. Maybe it's his razor sharp, sceptical spirit that questions everything from male mores to religious rapture. Maybe it's his keen appreciation of the work of mourning and its attendant melancholy or the psychology of love, so that at times he reads like those other great essayists, Sigmund Freud and Adam Phillips. "...There is nothing so contrary to our tastes than that satiety which comes from ease of access; and nothing which sharpens them more than rareness and difficulty," he writes, adding that "difficulty increases desire".

Montaigne's mental flights in the course of an essay as he "essaies" or tries out various ideas, can feel wild, but they inevitably gather to reveal a purposiveness and, in his case, a set of insights into human perverseness.

Like Montaigne, the quintessentially English Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt, early romantics both, brilliantly mingled the cultivated and the colloquial - Lamb with a bumbling, genial air, Hazlitt with the panache of an argumentative philosopher who liked to speak "common" if not "vulgar" English, just as he preferred common sense to vulgar opinion. (I would have loved to read Hazlitt on tweeting, a vulgarity to which I confess I am prone.)

In 2013, the writer and academic who for some years headed Canada's Liberal Party, Michael Ignatieff, won the bi-annual NHE Essay Prize set up in Hazlitt's name for a piece on Raphael Lemkin, the Polish refugee lawyer who, in 1943, coined the term genocide to describe the crime that wiped out his entire family; and then campaigned for an international convention criminalising genocide.

The essay is a deeply serious matter- though the word "serious" has nothing to do with reverence or a po-faced demeanour. Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own helped to launch a revolution, but its language has a racy zest.

"Women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time,'' she writes. ''Indeed if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance… in real life she could hardly read; scarcely spell; and was the property of her husband."

Another wonder of the essay is that it's as individual as its makers. It just has to have an idiosyncratic voice and it's the voice you come back to time and again. I think of Angela Carter with her savage, satirical chortles that transform Sartre and de Beauvoir into Darby and Joan, or reveal the essential kinship between Scarlett O'Hara and Margaret Thatcher; Christopher Hitchens and his provocative, contrarian blasts; Geoff Dyer's forays into art, self and world; Zadie Smith teasing out Kafka's genius and inflecting it with her own; Andrew O'Hagan mapping the sinuous corridors of the BBC and the children's programme makers in the Savile mode, among much else.

Phillip Lopate is my latest discovery. He takes you into the world of Philip Roth with a little less rant. But take care. He could become a habit and you'll miss your usual stop. That's the art of the essay, after all, and it's a vital one at a time when computers and social media too easily structure our so-called choices.

Here's the beginning of one of Lopate's for your journey.

"Fornicating is like parenting: no matter how you do it, you have the guilty sense that somewhere other people are doing it more correctly."

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