What a splendid judgment of a man, especially of a writer, a species seldom renowned for its at-homeness in the world. Jacques Barzun died on Thursday at age 104, and Joseph Epstein published an appreciation of his former colleague on Friday in The Wall Street Journal. Friday was also my birthday and among my presents was a copy of Epstein’s Essays in Biography (Axios Press, 2012). Few living writers inspire the obligatory acquisition of their books the way Bellow and Nabokov did when I was young. Epstein does (as did Barzun), even though, as with his new book, I’ve already read many of the essays as they appeared in periodicals. The new collection includes the portrait of his friend Matthew Shanahan that appeared last June in Commentary and that I wrote about here. The new book's dedication page reads “In memory of Matthew Shanahan (1917-2012).” The Shanahan piece remains the single best magazine article I’ve read all year.
I stayed up too late Friday night reading half a dozen of Epstein’s portraits. In his essay on George Santayana, “The Permanent Transient,” he acknowledges the conventional wisdom that certain writers are most profitably read at certain times in our lives (“no Hemingway after twenty, no Proust before forty”). Epstein, instead, considers “the best time of day to read a writer,” and reports that in recent years he has read Santayana first thing in the morning:
“Not only did the happy anticipation of returning to him serve as a reward for getting out of bed, but Santayana’s detachment, a detachment leading onto serenity, invariably produced a calming effect. Reading him in the early morning made the world feel somehow more understandable, even its multiple mysteries, if not penetrable, taking on a tincture of poetry that made the darkest of them seem less menacing.”
Epstein’s work has a comparable effect on this reader (his portraits encourage forgiveness of our fellows), though I associate his books more with late evening, when I do my concentrated, undisturbed reading. Epstein accepts contradiction (“multiple mysteries”) as inevitable among humans. We’re constitutionally unable to understand ourselves, even the simplest and most complex among us. How can we expect to reach definitive assessments of others? Yet we never stop trying, and that’s the enduring appeal of biography. Epstein has perfected the brief life, the form introduced in English by John Aubrey, by leavening brute documentation with humor, vast reading, ravenous curiosity, tolerance for human inscrutability and deft prose. A longtime lecturer at Northwestern University, now retired, Epstein is the opposite of an academic writer. I have no doubt he, like the rest of us, writes to please himself, but unlike his drier cousins he never forgets his readers.
In a mixed reassessment of A.J. Liebling, much of whose work he deems “dated,” Epstein notes: “Something grim has happened to the culture. Today we no longer have `characters’ but only `cases.’” True enough, but Epstein consistently writes of “characters” in at least two senses I can think of.