The essay is an attractive option for addressing a huge range of subjects in a kind of prose that may be casual and simple, or scientific, ornate or allusive. It has no rules. It is demotic or rhetorical, compact or discursive, or all of these. Its only requirement is, as the word suggests – from the French essayer, to try or attempt – that it might take risks, experiment, have a go.
Despite the attractions of this most supple literary form, until recently the fashion for writing essays had dwindled. Regardless of the ongoing popularity of the form in the United States, arguably begun as a way of examining what it was to be a citizen of a brand new world, it wasn’t picked up and used here as a mirror to show the nature of a country and its inhabitants in a way that might have been useful. While the New Yorker and the Atlantic magazines offered essays alongside fiction and poetry, journalism and reportage, thus contributing to national debate and understanding, in Scotland, despite, one might think, the need for that kind of writing, we’ve been slow to pick up the essay as a way of probing who we are.
The situation is changing, though. The Scottish editor and writer Dan Gunn, based in Paris, has created ‘The Cahiers Series’ which champions a kind of writing that is free-falling, open-ended and as go-anywhere in mood as the essay’s founder, Michel de Montaigne, loved to be. Closer to home, the Saltire Society has generated its own support for essays through their regular printing as separate, easily available publications, though more linked to a national agenda than Gunn’s. In England, Notting Hill Editions, set up with the single purpose of publishing essays, offers contemporary work by British and international writers, promotes a biennial international prize, and rehabilitates essays that have fallen out of print with introductions by well-known writers and critics.
Here, we may not have a publishing house dedicated solely to essays, but we do have a writer, internationally acclaimed, who writes essays and essays alone. Chris Arthur has been describing himself as an essayist since the publication of his first collection of meditations and reflections on landscape and identity, Irish Nocturnes, in 1999. Since then he has brought out four further volumes of work featuring his particular take on the world. To understand what he means by the large questions that underpin each of his forays into the unknown – about mortality, time, the significance of individual lives, the links in the chain of family and shared human inheritance – Arthur breaks each theme into parts. In ‘Mistletoe’ in his last volume, Words of the Grey Wind, he wrote about his mother by writing about the swing she used to play on as a girl. ‘Looking back, I can see her dappled with light as the sunshine falls upon her through the leaves. The weight of her body, and the backwards and forwards motion of the swing, send tremors through the tree.’ In turn he places her childhood within the frame of old age as he also sees the way the shaking branches shower petals upon her dark hair that seem to turn it white.
Reading Life, like the earlier work, zigzags from recent experiences to return to old subjects, letting ideas occur to him as he goes. Arthur doesn’t limit himself, as do so many writers of non-fiction, to what might be fashionable or relevant or shocking or entertaining. He follows the line of his own pen, and in so doing releases them into a universal perspective. So, glimpsing smashed fuchsia blossom on wet tarmac becomes ‘a glimpse of alternative destinies’, flinging him back, not only to the memory of a past love affair but into a world ‘changed’ by flowers, as he researches the work of fellow essayist Loren Eiseley and his work on the colonization of flora, ‘the weight’, as he puts it, ‘of a petal’. Arthur may seem to be being diverted in his various wanderings that come under headings like ‘Memory Sticks’ and ‘Breath’, as he picks up fresh insights and veers off into detail, but ‘seem’ is the key word here. Beneath the fizz and dance of memory and imagination that play so beautifully across his pages, is the single idea which is at heart, a devotional one. Pay attention, the essays say. Be still. This life all around us is larger, more mysterious than we are. Let us take our place within it.
In each of these pieces we hear that note sounding – like a prayer – along with the writer’s own voice, catching a sensibility that is measured and particular, self conscious and wry and… decent. There’s nothing here that doesn’t claim Arthur’s attention, get any more or less of his concentration, than any other. Whether looking at footsteps in the snow in ‘Tracks’ to a consideration of Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney in ‘Coincidences, Graces, Gift…’, each essay is granted the same level of active scrutiny. And there’s always a surprise. In ‘Sonatina for Oboe and Bayonet’ we have the unexpected consideration of a terrible weapon kept in a bottom drawer that he pulls out to show his daughter while she in reading All Quiet on the Western Front for school. ‘What’s a bayonet, Dad?’ his daughter has asked him, and after describing it in words, ‘It’s a long knife fitted to the end of a rifle’, he shows her ‘how to draw the blade and slide it back into its metal scabbard.’ This is the kind of prose that moves from words to things with a modernist’s understanding of form that creates its own time-scale for a subject, that is not afraid to pose questions that may go unanswered, that is knowing about the risks it takes. Why don’t more of us know more about this particular, extraordinary writer?
Certainly they know about him in America. There, where the yearly collections Best American Essays and Pushcart Prize for Essays are accompanied by much literary attention, and where great essay editors such as Philip Lopate and Robert Atwan have championed the form as of equal importance to American public life as the so-called American novel, Arthur’s work has been fêted. He’s been twice nominated for the Pushcart, and is continuously included in those shortlisted collections, as well as all the best magazines. Here, however, he continues to have to seek out publishers. Perhaps that is about to change, because Reading Life is a showcase of an essayist at the top of his game. Though each of his pieces is highly crafted and finished, they have a tentative, contingent quality to them that leaves them hanging in the air long after our reading. ‘Fragments are interesting precisely because of where they might fit in,’ Arthur writes, prompting us to look again at the moment, the detail, the now, to place the texts of what we know against the grand erratic pattern of things. In a haiku by Kobayashi Issa that he returns to throughout this volume, he quotes, ‘What a strange thing/To be thus alive/Beneath the cherry blossoms!’ Reading Life in its very title suggests the same relationship of the self to nature – obvious and surprising at the same time.
Taken together, the collection reads as though freshly put down in the moment of thinking. Yet upon closer examination it has all the features of that innate patterning Arthur sees underlying our human experience and the natural world. The final essay alludes to an unborn child, engaged in a kind of ‘aboriginal’ reading that happens in the womb, beginning a ‘thirst for reading deep-salted in our veins’. It’s an image that speaks to the very first piece in the book that also alludes to the child’s journey through life, youth and age a theme that plays out in various registers across all the essays here. By the time we come to the end we have not only read our way through a series of reflections of a particular life and ‘those wonderful and surprising insights that come only from an inspired divided attention’ as Atwan puts it, we are also in another world of our own, where, as Arthur has written, the ‘fractions of existence that happen to catch my interest’ have caught ours as well.
There are times, however, when we want him to risk a bit more of that particularity. Go back to that bayonet, for example, and ask why it is is that he might own such a thing, would keep in a bottom drawer to bring out to show a child? It’s dangerous, the something lurking here, but not quite dangerous enough. ‘How close might oboe and bayonet sometimes be.’ he writes, regarding the steel blade and what it’s been used for, while classical music plays in the background – and we find ourselves wanting him to let his writing style, discursive and open in so many ways, go off track a bit more here, instead of being tied back to an original question about the nature of his daughter’s reading and the emergent themes of good and evil in the world. We see his young daughter hold it, ‘as long as her arm held straight form wrist to shoulder’, and it’s a marvellous moment of hesitation and horror, of revelation along with restraint – a kind of deeply Protestant management of the syzygies of good and evil, right and wrong, the split-selving that hounds the sensibility of post-reformation Scotland and Northern Ireland, where Arthur was born. ‘I suspect we harbour all manner of disturbing contiguities within us,’ he finishes, seeming to hold the two in balance. But can he, really? Can we?
Essays are great for allowing ambivalence, of course. Though the term has become associated all too often with the grim exigencies of exams and assessment, the reality of the form is that it means the opposite of pass or fail. Essays aren’t really about results, as such, at all. When Tom Kremer, founder of Notting Hill Editions, decided he wanted to publish essays only, he did so because ‘the essay has no obligation to have the last word’. The flexibility, the uncertainty of outcome, entwined with a kind of writing that is fine-grained in texture, that gives itself time and space to develop and expand on the page – this might be described as true creative writing. And who better to draw upon for expertise and advice in this shifting, beautifully amorphous form? To read life, as Reading Life suggests we might learn to do, we need first to wait, listen, watch. Only then can we write.