Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Wendy Lesser's Room for Doubt

Wendy Lesser is editor of The Threepenny Review and author of eight books. Apart from The Pagoda in the Garden, all her work is nonfiction. She is, in her own words "an eighteenth century man of letters who happens to be female and lives in twentieth century Berkeley." (The Amateur, 5)

This inclination toward scholarly work outside academia brings us Room for Doubt, three extended essays. In this era of linked short fiction, postmodern fantasia, falsified memior, and cheesy self-improvement, Lesser is an anomaly. Reading her work is like brain floss: thanks to her thoughtful arrangement of words, sentences, and ideas, the world is suddenly (briefly, alas) a clearer place.

Part One, "Out of Berlin," discusses the Jewish reaction to Germany. Germany, Lesser realizes, remains a forbidden, frightening place to even the most deracinated Jews. Lesser herself is a vehement atheist whose relationship to her Jewish roots is akin to her having red hair: no more than a simple genetic trait. Yet she is in her fifties before a fellowship leads her to spend several months in Berlin, a city she comes to adore.

Lesser makes some excellent points about the tendency of some Jews to view the Holocaust as especially horrific, somehow worse than other genocides, of a more serious magnitude than the Armenians or Native Americans or Darfurians. Of course the Holocaust was horrific, but we Jews haven't cornered the market. And Lesser's very lack of religious feeling makes this clear to her perhaps sooner than to other Jews. Germany has compounded the Jewish inclination toward prioritized suffering by filling the nation with any number of wrenching plaques, museums, and memorials, not to mention the preserved camps themselves. Yet Lesser also find the German way of recalling human capabilty instructive:

"There is a level of moral awareness that invades everything in the country's daily existence, from the way it is governed to how people act toward each other on trains...what it has done is to produce a nation of people who are very much alive to their own capacity for unforgivable behavior--a capacity, they have learned, that is completely in keeping with being a nice, civilized, conventional sort of person in ordinary life." (13-14)

It is impossible to read these words without thinking of American culpability in certain international arenas; indeed, Lesser makes short work of the current Adminstration. Visiting the Reichstag, which is filled with artwork symbolizing the Final Solution, she writes:

"And I couldn't help thinking, as I looked at them, how differently we do things in America, where oblivion and cultivated ignorance are the government's chief mechanisms for getting through the day, and where commemoration of our national misdeeds--espcially through any kind of publicly funded art--would seem to be unthinkable." (16-17)

Lesser goes on the comment on the quality and availablity of German artistic performance. Because the arts are funded by the government, the insane ticket prices to the opera, concerts, or ballet that Americans endure are nonexistent in Germany. For twenty-five dollars, one may purchase an excellent seat, then go out to eat afterward. (Restaurants stay open late, and the reservation games we play here are nonexistent in Berlin.) The irony-laden pretension dicating the New York art scene is absent; people from all walks of life partake of cultural life the way Americans shop at Target.

The second essay, "On Not Writing about David Hume," documents just that. At one point Lesser set out to write a short, accessible biography of Hume. She failed, and the unwritten book followed her spectrally. She describes the sick feeling only a dead book can give a writer (and all writers, I think, have at least one dead book buried someplace). Hume appeals to her innate orderliness: by her own account, Lesser is impatient, given to polar thinking, honest to the point of brusqueness. Hume's decency appeals to what she calls "this lack of inherent kindness" in herself. (85)

Hume reminds Lesser of her friends, especially the poet Thom Gunn, who went to great lengths to conceal his own mania for orderliness. Gunn, like Lesser (and like me) was intolerant of spontenaity, a manic planner who always had a backup plan lest the worst occur and things go awry. While Lesser doesn't speculate on the origins of this mania, I suspect it has to do with a chaotic childhood--or a perceived one. Planners are hedging against the uncontrollable, which remains, for all our careful planning, uncontrollable.

Hume lamented what he saw as the division between society and scholarship, writing that "Learning has been as great a Loser by being up in Colleges and Cells, and secluded from the World and good Company." (Quoted from Essays Moral, Political, and Literary) This in 1742; what would Hume make of the blog wars, the Mendelsohns and Tanenhauses and Fords aligning themselves against the hoi polloi? We'll never know, though Lesser agrees with his assessment:

"We too are starved for intelligent conversation-" (109)

We are, and arguably this starvation has given rise to fools like me, who are compelled to read and write critically for no other reason than community with fellow travelers, nasty critics be damned.

The final essay, "Difficult Friends," is a tribute to the writer Leonard Michaels, who died 2003. It seems I keep finding myself in the midst of elegies. Lesser's is most unusual in its honesty: Michaels was a difficult man, stubborn, prickly, quick to seek out enemies. By Lesser's account the two had numerous serious fights leading to periods where they did not speak. Yet they always reconciled; Lesser, notoriously unforgiving, always forgave Michaels. She even introduced him to his fourth wife, her best friend Katharine. Lesser's clear-eyed account of the normally composed Katharine disintegrating as Michaels lies dying in Alta Bates Hospital is painfully affecting. At one point Katharine wants to block the door to the waiting room, as if this futile gesture will somehow keep bad news out, even if the room's inhabitants suffocate in the heat.

I found this final section difficult for an odd reason: the events take place in Berkeley, in restaurants and hospitals I am intimately acquainted with. When Lesser discusses meeting Michaels in their regular café, or her wish that he like the painting she's hung in her Victorian dining room, I can all too easily envision the places she describes. Ironically enough, I recently began Bill Buford's Heat, a book that could not have less in common with Lesser's text. Yet:

"I was living in Berkeley as a student until 1979 and now appreciate that the revolution had begun only a few blocks away at Chez Panisse...I had two meals there and two recollections...a specific one of Leonard Michaels, a fiction writer and English professor, eating at the next table. Michaels had grown up on New York's Lower East Side, had an urban, jaded manner, and was refreshingly suspicious of wacky California enthusiasms. But on this occasion, Michaels, surrounded by three rapt disciples, was holding forth with uncharacteristic animation on a piece of food--an asparagus spear." (Heat, 22)

I say ironically because I have also eaten at Chez Panisse in the company of Berkeley faculty, though my experience did not include analyses of aparagus spears. Nevertheless I can see the tiny dining room; only this morning I drove past Alta Bates, my car inevitably slowing to accomodate the never-ending march of pedestrians to and from its buildings. While doing so I recalled Michaels' absence, and realized that Lesser had been successful in her wish to record him, lest anyone forget.

Bill Buford: Heat. New York: Knopf. 2006.

Wendy Lesser: The Amateur: An Independent Life of Letters. New York: Pantheon Books. 1999.
Room for Doubt. New York: Pantheon Books. 2007


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