Sunday, May 08, 2016

`The Entire World Is His Hobby'

About the word feuilleton there’s an unmistakable suggestion of pretentiousness, a striving after high-toned European respectability not quite at home in the land of Netflix and Chef Boyardee. I like the idea of a feuilleton, a brief essay or newspaper column without airs. The word is French but I associate it most often with German-language writers – Peter Altenberg, Alfred Polgar, Joseph Roth. Unpolluted with politics, gracefully learned but without an axe to grind, sometimes comic but never merely whimsical, the feuilleton is perhaps too delicate a species to be successfully transplanted to the New World. Its sole practitioner in the U.S. may be Joseph Epstein, though I suspect he would reject the term as pompous, and he would be correct.

At the age of seventy-nine, Epstein remains admirably busy. In four years he has published six volumes, two of which arrived in the mail on Saturday: Wind Sprints: Shorter Essays (Axios) and Frozen in Time: Twenty Stories (Taylor Trade Publishing). Epstein has always preferred the short forms. In this way and many others he is the anti-David Foster Wallace, forever writing Finite Jest. I have a friend who several years ago read all three of Epstein’s earlier story collections in less than a week. She couldn’t get enough of them and prefers his fiction to his essays. That’s a tough decision, and I won’t make it. I’ve hardly skimmed Wind Sprints, which contains 143 short pieces written between 1996 and 2015. Many I read as they first appeared in The Weekly Standard or elsewhere, but Epstein ages well. Keeping with his track-and-field title, he refers in his introduction to “the great decathlon that is literature.” Witty, common-sensical, civilized, reliably pleasure-giving, Epstein is solace. In “It’s Only a Hobby,” he denies ever having, even as a boy, a hobby. His conclusion gives comfort to readers and writers:

“I suppose I could count Reading as my hobby, but I read so much, it is so central to my existence, that, were I to do so, I might as well add Breathing as another of my hobbies.

“I wonder if the problem isn't my vocation. A writer's life tends to be seamless, and he doesn't divide it between work and leisure. On the hunt full time for copy, material, something to write about, he doesn't need to collect anything, or play at anything. The writer's work and his play, if he is lucky, are one. How can he have a hobby, really, when the entire world is his hobby?”

And more good news: due for publication in July is Where Were We?: The Conversation Continues, a sequel of sorts to Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet (Yale University Press, 2013), by Epstein and Frederic Raphael.

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