Some 400 years ago, Michel de Montaigne retired from the world to take pen in hand and have a go at his favorite subject -- himself. Since then, countless writers have taken up the art of the personal essay. At its worst, the tradition has given free range to a kind of exhibitionist narcissism. At its best, the tradition has produced the subtle pleasure that is Phillip Lopate.
In his new collection of essays, "Portrait of My Body," Lopate continues the task of self-examination begun in two previous volumes, "Bachelorhood" and "Against Joie de Vivre." Lopate, a New Yorker by birth and by temperament, treats us to reflections on subjects ranging from the trivial (his penchant for "shushing" moviegoers with a tendency to gab) to the profound (the meaning of the Holocaust).
Lopate's style is an indirect one; he prefers to take his time, prodding his subject and peering at it from every available angle. Lopate deliberately seeks out difficult topics, hoping that an examination of his resistances will produce a deeper kind of self-knowledge. He takes up his problematic relationship with his father; he attempts to perform a post-mortem on a relationship with a woman that never quite "took." He examines the subject of mentors in large part because the very notion of mentoring (with all its strange psychosexual overtones) unsettles him at some primal level. He reluctantly considers the Holocaust because he is troubled by the tendency of many of his fellow Jews to turn "remembrance" into kitsch.
To those with little taste for self-reflection, Lopate may seem exasperatingly, even willfully, self-indulgent. "In first person writing, there is a thin line between the charming and the insufferable," Lopate coyly notes. "For a while now, I have dreamt of pushing at this line, slipping over occasionally to the other side, stretching the boundaries of acceptable first-person behavior, increasing like a dye the amount of obnoxiousness in my narrator -- just for the thrill of living dangerously."
In all but a few instances, Lopate stays on the charming side of the line. The worst I can say about any of these essays is that they are slight; the best of them, I can say with only a small fear of hyperbole, recall Montaigne -- or, at least, what Montaigne might have been had he grown up in the streets and the bookstores of New York.