A CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK by Irving Howe

A CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

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KIRKUS REVIEW

 Working on a miniaturized scale, Howe (The American Newness, 1986, etc.) masterfully surveys the literary field in this posthumous collection of essays. The author planned to amass a book from what he called shtiklakh (Yiddish for ``morsels'') of old-fashioned literary criticism on a variety of subjects; he completed enough of them for his son to arrange in this volume. Fittingly, some of the best pieces briefly explore minute topics: the anecdote, ``gratuitous details,'' the fly in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. The longer, thematic essays range with natural confidence from such traditional aesthetic issues as characterization in Fielding and Sterne to curiosities like the uses of obscurity from Moll Flanders to The Good Soldier, but these disquisitions all contain the same pleasantly modest inquisitiveness. While some approach literary giants such as Dickens and George Eliot with reflective familiarity, others boost novelists with reputations in decline, including Arnold Bennett and Sir Walter Scott, from the perspective of a veteran reader aware of their shortcomings but entertained nonetheless. As much selected shorts of literary appreciation as they are criticism, the pieces have a distinctly personal flavor, whether discussing changes in reading mores or the fading pleasure experienced in rereading books one once enjoyed. Howe occasionally airs his irritation with current academic political fashions and theory but never raises his conversational tone. Sometimes his personal fondnesses crowd out his scholarly nature, most egregiously in his examination of late Dickens through the lens of Dostoevsky, both favorites of his; the Victorian's literary and personal dark side is badly misrepresented by the comparison. Still, the obvious pleasure Howe takes in his literary rambles makes the reader wish he had been able to write as planned on Great Expectations and on picnics in the works of Jane Austen and E.M. Forster. A delightful potpourri in which Howe displays an essayist's ease, a critic's incisiveness, and, when necessary, an academic's scholarship.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1994
ISBN: 0-15-119949-3
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Harcourt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1994