Portrait of My Body: Personal Essays

Portrait of My Body: Personal Essays

by Phillip Lopate, Sonia Bailey
Phillip Lopate's richest and most ambitious book yet—the final volume of a trilogy that began with Bachelorhood and Against Joie de VivrePortrait of My Body is a powerful memoir in the form of interconnected personal essays. One of America's foremost essayists, who helped focus attention on the form in his acclaimed anthology


Phillip Lopate's richest and most ambitious book yet—the final volume of a trilogy that began with Bachelorhood and Against Joie de VivrePortrait of My Body is a powerful memoir in the form of interconnected personal essays. One of America's foremost essayists, who helped focus attention on the form in his acclaimed anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, Lopate demonstrates here just how far a writer can go in the direction of honesty and risk taking.

In thirteen essays, Lopate explores the resources and limits of the self, its many disguises, excuses, and unmaskings, with his characteristic wry humor and insight. From the title essay, a hilarious physical self-exam, to the haunting portrait of his ex-colleague Donald Barthelme, to the bittersweet account of his long-delayed surrender to marriage, "On Leaving Bachelorhood," Lopate wrestles with finding the proper balance between detachment and empathy, doubt and conviction. In other essays, he celebrates his love of film and city life, and reflects on his religious identity as a Jew. A wrenchingly vivid, unforgettable portrait of the author's eccentric, solipsistic, aged father, a self-proclaimed failure, is the centerpiece of a suite of essays about father-figures and resisted mentors. The book ends with the author's own introduction to fatherhood, as witness to the birth of his daughter.

A book that will engage readers with its conversational eloquence, skeptical intelligence, candor, and mischief, Portrait of My Body is a captivating work of literary nonfiction.

Editorial Reviews

David Futrelle

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

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A series of essays completing the trilogy of Bachelorhood and Against Joie de Vivre finds the author surrendering to marriage. (Oct.)
Library Journal
Lopate (The Art of the Personal Essay, Doubleday, 1995), who teaches English at Hofstra University, readily admits that his writings are mainly autobiographical in nature, so it should come as no surprise to his readers that his "I" is very much in evidence in this final work of his memoir trilogy. Lopate is quite good at explaining motivation--his, in particular and, when it interests him, the motivation of others. Few, if any, of his observations escape his skepticism and judgment. The essays included are wide-ranging but interconnect loosely, thanks to Lopate's unchanging point of view. In "The Moody Traveler," for example, he muses on the benefits of traveling solo, while "The Dead Father" is a fond remembrance of the author Donald Barthelme. The title essay is of singular interest: standing naked in front of a mirror will not reveal for the reader what Lopate sees when he looks at himself; for that, another kind of vision is needed. Recommended for public libraries.Robert Kelly, Fort Wayne Community Schs., Ind
Donna Seaman
Lopate, editor of the invaluable anthology The Art of the Personal Essay (1994), has been an important advocate for the essay, but he is a master of the form in his own right and has never written more daringly and skillfully than he does here in this set of thrillingly honest, psychologically precise, and quietly dramatic thought pieces. Brooding yet rigorous, self-conscious yet bemused, Lopate has honed skepticism to as fine an art as eloquence and employs both to great effect in his analyses of the "carapace of self," the "inescapability of ego," and habits of mind that result in dull-witted sentimentality and knee-jerk reactions. Lopate explores these subtle and intriguing aspects of the human condition in riveting portraits of various individuals, including his father, a former lover, a conceptual artist, and several colleagues, most memorably the late Donald Barthelme. Lopate also writes with startling originality and verve about going to the movies, teaching, dating, marriage, Buddhism, and, in perhaps his boldest essay, the Holocaust. These are entertaining and revelatory compositions by virtue of their candor, exactitude, and implicit faith in confession.
Kirkus Reviews
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.

Product Details

The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group
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5.88(w) x 8.65(h) x 1.14(d)

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