A literary critic (Readings, 1999, etc.) and professor (English/Harvard Univ.) revisits some novels he read years ago and finds in them both enduring beauty and a sometimes shifting resonance.
Birkerts has always been a bibliophagist, from his early days roaming in The Jungle Book and adventuring with the Hardy Boys and James Bond, and he recognizes one of his life’s great fortunes—to be able to read and write both for pleasure and profit. Some of the books he re-examines are predictable choices—The Catcher in the Rye, Women in Love, Madame Bovary, Lolita—but there are some surprises, too, both mild (The Moviegoer, The Beggar Maid) and major (Pan and Montauk). He says that Humboldt’s Gift is his favorite. Birkerts has arranged these essays in rough chronological order. In adolescence, he was captivated by The Catcher in the Rye and Holden’s remarkable voice; at 19, it was Madame Bovary, which he read while working on a Montana cattle ranch. Walker Percy helped him through some tough personal issues (lack of money, among them). He confesses to an inability to read Henry James’s The Ambassadors in his youth, despite repeated attempts, and is proud that, at age 52, he finally completed it. The strongest and most engaging essays weave the personal with the literary (his fine piece on D.H. Lawrence, for example). At times—especially when dealing with books more unfamiliar to general readers—Birkerts spends much time summarizing and quoting, and his emotional, provocative voice becomes too faint a whisper. But the author is a remarkable reader, sensitive and alert, and these qualities pervade much of his writing. “Such is the power of memory,” he writes of Virginia Woolf, “and such is its human extent: to create in the person the sensation of vanished circumstance living on.” Great novels, in his view, are all books of revelations.
Birkerts is a dedicated reader and a novelist’s best friend.