Now nearing 50, literary critic Lesser (The Amateur, 1999, etc.) revisits books she loved in her youth and asks: What kind of person was I then? What have I become? To what extent—if any—did literature contribute?
The author declares early on that “vertigo” is perhaps the best word to describe her new encounters with old literary friends from Don Quixote to A Hazard of New Fortunes, so it’s only appropriate that she ends this engaging volume with an essay about Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which she has seen many times and greatly admires. In a tone that varies from playful to pedantic, earnest to nostalgic to analytical, Lesser proceeds to reread and react to works she selected by applying several criteria: it must be “strong”; she must remember her first reading of it; and she must derive from it some sort of fresh insight or experience. Some books do not surprise by their appearance here (The Education of Henry Adams, The Tempest, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Paradise Lost); others do (I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith, and Black Dogs, by Ian McEwan). Lesser declares that neither Anna Karenina nor Middlemarch retains its magic for her; she decides not to reread Catcher in the Rye, and she now finds Caliban more appealing than she once did, Prospero less so. Some of her observations are riveting, as when she says that Don Quixote and Huck Finn are in fundamental ways more alive for us than either Cervantes or Twain, and her thoughts on The Winter’s Tale are illuminating. But not every insight is a revelation. Lesser labels Richard II “relatively obscure” and flaunts her résumé like a nervous job applicant, making certain we notice her years at Harvard, Cambridge, Berkeley, and the Columbia School of Journalism. Oh, by the way, she’s read Howells in the bathtub in a Venice hotel.
Uneven, but with enough stunning moments to make this a must for avid readers.