From the Publisher
"So immensely pleasurable to readlike time spent with a wonderfully intelligent and learned, witty, observant and very open friend. Sometimes you want to argue, but more often to say, 'Oh, right.' I was alternately moved and amused, entertained and enlightened."Alice Adams
Critical Acclaim for Phillip Lopate:
"Lopate more than fulfills his authorial obligation to be engaging as well as honest. His is the work of a fascinatingly complex individual, clearheaded and intermittently cantankerous, calmly articulate, hungry for truth, and above all, appealingly forthright."Philadelphia Inquirer
"Lopate has the true essayist's gift of living on the page ."The New York Times
Some 400 years ago, Michel de Montaigne retired from the world to take pen in hand and have a go at his favorite subject -- himself. Since then, countless writers have taken up the art of the personal essay. At its worst, the tradition has given free range to a kind of exhibitionist narcissism. At its best, the tradition has produced the subtle pleasure that is Phillip Lopate.
In his new collection of essays, Portrait of My Body, Lopate continues the task of self-examination begun in two previous volumes, Bachelorhood and Against Joie de Vivre. Lopate, a New Yorker by birth and by temperament, treats us to reflections on subjects ranging from the trivial (his penchant for "shushing" moviegoers with a tendency to gab) to the profound (the meaning of the Holocaust).
Lopate's style is an indirect one; he prefers to take his time, prodding his subject and peering at it from every available angle. Lopate deliberately seeks out difficult topics, hoping that an examination of his resistances will produce a deeper kind of self-knowledge. He takes up his problematic relationship with his father; he attempts to perform a post-mortem on a relationship with a woman that never quite "took." He examines the subject of mentors in large part because the very notion of mentoring (with all its strange psychosexual overtones) unsettles him at some primal level. He reluctantly considers the Holocaust because he is troubled by the tendency of many of his fellow Jews to turn "remembrance" into kitsch.
To those with little taste for self-reflection, Lopate may seem exasperatingly, even willfully, self-indulgent. "In first person writing, there is a thin line between the charming and the insufferable," Lopate coyly notes. "For a while now, I have dreamt of pushing at this line, slipping over occasionally to the other side, stretching the boundaries of acceptable first-person behavior, increasing like a dye the amount of obnoxiousness in my narrator -- just for the thrill of living dangerously."
In all but a few instances, Lopate stays on the charming side of the line. The worst I can say about any of these essays is that they are slight; the best of them, I can say with only a small fear of hyperbole, recall Montaigne -- or, at least, what Montaigne might have been had he grown up in the streets and the bookstores of New York. -- Salon
At once intimate and objective, Lopate's (Bachelorhood, 1981, etc.) further personal essays meander through the latest stages of his life, continuing their sophisticated, witty explorations of it.
If Lopate's contemporary interest in pushing at the first-person essay's "thin line between the charming and the insufferable" marks him as a literary performer, his writing here still keeps one foot in the impartial, searching tradition of Montaigne and Hazlitt. Picking up his life where his last collection of autobiographical essays, Against Joie de Vivre (1989), left off, and focusing on his recent preoccupations with fathers, father figures, and paternity, these essays nicely juggle meditative themes with autobiographical disclosure. Lopate calculatedly adopts a self-centered persona to give himself some creative distance, but this first-person camouflage doesn't conceal his genuine concerns with emotional isolation and egoism. The persona entertainingly takes center stage in his confessions about his irritable vacations, his schoolmarmish movie-going manners, and his baffled, superrogatory role in his daughter's birth. It also provides a revealing, slightly warped mirror in such pieces as the title essay, a droll, frank, gossipy tour of the author's anatomy. There are also more serious reflections on the role of the mentor in literary life, as well as a somewhat unoriginal but still provocative essay on guilt-policed Holocaust obsession. At his best, he plays himself off against other personalities: his aged father, former colleague Donald Barthelme, and fellow writer Anatole Broyard, with subtle and moving disclosures on both sides. Caring for his doddering father, he painfully reacquaints himself with the solipsistic obstinacy they share and his reactions to it. ("We spend most of our adulthoods trying to grasp the meanings of our parents' lives; and how we shape and answer these questions largely turns us into who we are.")
A mature voice honestly and humorously addressing a variety of universals through carefully observed particulars.