Three loosely connected essays by Threepenny Review founder and author Lesser (The Pagoda in the Garden, 2005) explore her concern with the connection between art and experience.
A recent trip to Berlin, Germany, informs these three reflections by Lesser, a self-described atheist and secular Jew who never expected in her lifetime to set foot in Germany. As a fellow in 2003 at the American Academy in Berlin, Lesser overcame her aversion to things German and writes in the first essay, “Out of Berlin,” of her recognition of how deeply Jewish the city still is, especially in terms of its passion for art and culture. The rigorous self-examination undergone by Germans since World War II suggests “a nation of people who are very much alive to their own capacity for unforgivable behavior.” And this darkness attracts Lesser, who, at 51, is at the “Mittelweg” of her life and prone to feelings of regret, as she delineates more fully in the last essay, “Difficult Friends,” about the recent death by cancer of her dear friend, writer Leonard Michaels. Sharing with Lenny, as she calls him, a quick temper and little moderation for passions, she quarreled often with him during the years of their long friendship over issues of loyalty. In the end, his death robbed her of a sizable part of her intellectual life at Berkeley, where she lives. The middle essay, however, is the most toothsome, examining her failure to write her intended book about Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, whose work she first encountered at Cambridge 25 years ago. A kindred figure and fellow atheist until the end, Hume strikes her as “someone to be carried through life as a sort of talisman against non-sense.” Although she shares his literary bent and admires his personal benevolence toward others, his class snobbery dooms him.
A personality-driven, authoritative, sometimes circuitous work.