A poignant, nostalgic collection of literary criticism by one of America’s premier authors, gathered in the aftermath of her husband’s recent death.
After 48 years of marriage, the author’s husband, Ontario Review founder and editor Raymond Smith, died unexpectedly in February 2008. In a remarkably forthright and moving preface, Oates (A Fair Maiden, 2010, etc.) explains the emotionally fraught “rough terrain” from which many of these essays derived. For example, because she was working on “Boxing: History, Art, Culture” when her husband passed away, she could return to the essay “only sporadically, with a residual sort of excitement, as there might be observed, in the waning light of the iris of the eye of a decapitated beast.” In these selections, divided into “Classics” (e.g., Poe, Dickinson, Malamud), “Contemporaries” (Updike, Doctorow, Rushdie, Atwood) and “Nostalgias” (“Nostalgia 1970: City on Fire”), the author effectively combines her highly tuned sensibilities, sharp research and concise, vivid prose. As a fiction writer of the highest order, Oates shares her subjects’ writerly obsessions with mortality, loss and death. She recalls, for example, the oeuvre of Poe and its effect on her own early work, and of Emily Dickinson, who offered a “fusion of female stoicism and pragmatism.” The author writes that Annie Leibovitz’s recent book of photographs containing excruciating shots of her dying friend Susan Sontag has the “heft and intransigence of a grave marker.” She admires the work of James Salter, whose heroines are “women in extremis, for whom all pretense has vanished,” and the poetry of Sharon Olds for that “something subversive, even mutinous in the poet’s unflinching child-eye.” Always a teacher, Oates imbues each essay with a careful sifting of the evidence and consistently acute observations.
A top-notch literary talent invites readers to find new inspiration in these works, and in her own.