The Amateur: An Independent Life Of Letters

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published March 8, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

| Wendy Lesser is a good dancer, she tells us, for an amateur. The founder and editor of the Threepenny Review, the distinguished literary journal, has studied many different forms of dance but reports that she has always hated "guided" improvisation, a staple exercise in much modern dance training. "A dance class, for me, is a place to be somewhat anonymous; I don't want my interior life splayed out in front of the other participants, except insofar as it happens to be revealed by the way I do the pre-set steps," she writes. "Or perhaps I feel that to dance at all is to reveal oneself, almost to the verge of embarrassment, so that the additional dragging-in of one's inner life is bound to tip fruitful nervousness over into paralyzing shame."

These apparently offhand, deceptively elegant sentences describe not just Lesser's attitude in dance class but her approach to autobiography and to the craft of writing in general. To write at all is to reveal oneself, she implicitly argues throughout this collection of tenuously connected essays, and she is content to remain the "somewhat anonymous" (a wonderful phrase!) intermediary between her subject and her audience, never splaying out her interior life for us curious hens to peck at. We learn almost nothing about her sex life or her neuroses, except when she chooses to deliver facts and judgments in almost clinical fashion (she once had a bad breakup with an English boyfriend; she loathes lateness; she doesn't adjust well to unexpected change). But the self-portrait rendered in "The Amateur" is remarkably clear and consistent.

In the short introductory essay that opens the book, Lesser describes herself as "an eighteenth-century man of letters, though one who happens to be female and lives in twentieth-century Berkeley." She means, first of all, that she has found ways to live as a writer, editor and critic with no academic or institutional affiliation, 3,000 miles from Manhattan. (Sharing, as I do, Lesser's California background and her profoundly mixed emotions about its cultural legacy, I was especially interested in her discussion of these issues.) Second, she means that she has had the courage or the stubbornness or the sheer irresistible need to focus her attention on whatever has come along that interested her, without benefit of a guiding theory or system: Dickens, contemporary poetry, dance, theater, TV melodramas. Also, by calling herself a "man of letters," Lesser is clearly dissociating herself from the female-coded confessional mode of so much contemporary autobiography. She casts no withering glances into her own soul. Whether her subject is choreographer Mark Morris (one of her particular passions), the troubled and troubling nature of philanthropy or the evening she spent in the first-aid room of the San Francisco Opera House, we see her most clearly in the light her free-floating critical intelligence casts on the world around her.

Lesser's desire to avoid cheap solipsism is undeniably refreshing, but once in a while it gets her into trouble. Her writing in "The Amateur" is always delightfully lucid, and essays as different as "Passionate Witness" (about Morris) and "Ralph" (about her easygoing cat with no nose) are models of clear thinking and eloquent economy. When she scrambles crablike away from self-exploration, as in the essay "An American in England," in which she briefly alludes to the romantic traumas and accompanying depression she suffered as a student at Cambridge, the effect is less satisfying. She seems to be writing about someone else, some other American in England she only dimly remembers, whose emotional life was said to be in disorder. As smart and agreeable as much of "The Amateur" is, it nonetheless has an occasional undercurrent of defensive affectation that renders it slighter than it ought to be. Lesser is probably a better writer than she is a dancer; my guess is, she could handle the risks that come with a bit more improvisation and a bit less anonymity.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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