Self & Style

February bookmarks
Joseph Severn, ‘John Keats,’ 1821–23 (National Portrait Gallery)

Two very different openings to two very different memoirs. First, consider Richard Wollheim’s Germs: A Memoir of Childhood (New York Review Books, $18.95, 336 pp.). Originally published in 2004 and recently reissued, Germs charts the growth of a self and a sensibility—for the late Wollheim, a philosopher and art critic, the two terms are interchangeable—via a series of crystalline set pieces. We learn of his sickly childhood (like Proust, he “loved the condition of being delicate”), of his growing passion for painting and books, of his horror at disorder. “I was something of a stickler for rectitude,” he writes.  

Wollheim begins his account with a long paragraph that stretches and strains as it goes: 

It is early. The hall is dark. Light rims the front door. The panes of violet glass sparkle. The front door has been left open. Now I am standing outside in the sun. I can smell the flowers and the warmed air. I hear the bees as they sway above the lavender. The morning advances, a startled bird runs fast across the dew. Its breast quivers, in, out, and its song scratches on my ear. Lifting my eyes, I see that the garden, and everything in it, moves. The flowers move, and the lavender moves, and the tree above me is moving. I am standing in the sun, my body is tipped forward, and I am walking. Walking I shall trip, and, if I trip, trip without a helping hand, I shall fall. I look above me, and I feel behind me, searching for the hand that is always there. There is no hand, and therefore, if I trip, or when I trip, and now at long last, the waiting is over, and I have tripped, and I am, am I not? I am falling, falling—and was it then, in that very moment when magically I was suspended in the early light, when the soft smells and sounds seeping out of the flowers and the insects and the birds appeared to be doing for me for a moment what the hand that was not there could not do, or was it, not then, but in the next moment, by which time the magic had failed, and the path was racing towards me, that I did what I was to do on many later occasions, on the occasion of many many later falls, and I stretched out my hands rigid in front of me so that my fingers formed a fan, not so much to break my fall, or to make things better for me when I hit the ground, but rather to pretend, to pretend also to myself, that things were not so bad as they seemed, or disaster so imminent, and that this was not a fall but a facile descent through the air, which would leave me in the same physical state, clean, ungrazed, uninjured, that I was in before I tripped, and that the urine would not, out of sheer nervousness, pour out of me?

By contrast, consider Bette Howland’s W-3 (A Public Space Books, $26.00, 224 pp.), first published in 1974 and reissued in January. At the age of thirty-one, Howland was staying at her friend Saul Bellow’s apartment in Chicago. She wanted to be a writer; she had the talent, the eye and the ear, to be one. But life—marriage and a divorce, her duties as a mother, her work as a librarian—kept getting in the way. “For a long time,” she writes, “it had seemed to me that life was about to begin—real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way.... At last it had dawned on me that these obstacles were my life. I was always rolling these stones from my grave.”

And so, suffering from insomnia and tormented by visions when she drifted off, Howland decided to kill herself. As W-3 opens, she wakes in the hospital:  

In the intensive care unit there was a woman who had undergone open-heart surgery. A monitor was implanted in her heart; it beeped every second of the day and night, a persistent tempo, never racing or slowing down as a human heart seems to, unaccountable times on the most ordinary days of our lives. If it had, the nurses would have been there on the double, their brisk white heels disappearing behind the swaying curtains. The woman was unconscious, she had never come out of it; her life was just a mechanism—its regular pace audible all through the ward.

I must have been hearing this beeping sound for a long time before I knew it.

These two passages and the books in which they appear seem to occupy different formal and stylistic universes. Wollheim writes in present tense while Howland uses past tense. Wollheim offers us nature and the human sensorium that perceives it—sight (glass sparkling), smell (flowers emanating), sound (birds singing), and touch (air warming)—while Howland focuses on the hospital noises to which she has become unknowingly habituated. Wollheim’s prose is, in the best sense, mannered. Perfectly composed, it draws attention to itself. We note its surprising diction (“warmed” rather than “warm” air), its grammatical shifts (the flowers move, the lavender moves, the tree is moving), and its intricate rhythms. (Did you notice that the first sentence has three words, the second four, the third five, the fourth six?) Howland’s sentences, by contrast, are precise and balanced. No pride or showing-off here; the craft lies in restraint, in what T. S. Eliot calls “a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.”

In his passage, Wollheim is a child and everything—the Edenic world around him and the fall (Fall?) he is about to experience—seems new. By contrast, Howland is an adult and everything seems old: she knows what hearts are supposed to do and how nurses respond when they don’t. Life, for Howland and her fellow patient, is “just a mechanism.”


Wollheim and Howland push back against such stylistic slovenliness.

In a 2017 essay, the critic Merve Emre diagnosed a problem in contemporary life-writing:

For a certain breed of personal essayist at work today, there exists a necessary and desirable trade-off between aesthetic clarity and moral complexity; a bargain premised on the depressing notion that words are always insufficient to the task at hand and so we may as well stop trying to choose the clearest or most precise ones. The adjective that best captures the conditions of this bargain is messy.

Messy thoughts demand messy writing, so why bother polishing your prose? Lean into the mess, the thinking goes; that’s the only honest way forward.

Wollheim and Howland push back against such stylistic slovenliness. To be sure, they both write about the mess of existence. Wollheim remembers the day when he learned to wipe himself after going to the bathroom: “It is what I think of when I hear moral philosophers discuss responsibility,” he cheekily remarks. He recalls his confusions over gender difference and sexual attraction. He notes his dismay after telling an anecdote that doesn’t land: “At that moment, I believe, though I have not fully appreciated it until now, the certainty that I had had interesting experiences, and that one day I would be able to convey their poignancy in words of great precision, died.” (Here and elsewhere, Wollheim’s extravagantly fussy, exceedingly queer syntax resembles that of Henry James, on whom he wrote.)

Howland’s sense of life’s fundamental mire, its chaos and unreason, is even stronger. Her title refers to the psychiatric ward she was placed in after her attempted suicide, and W-3 offers extraordinary portraits of the other patients—all damaged, all seen with cool lucidity. We meet Frankie, zonked out on lithium, “still wearing the shorts and sleeveless summer blouse she had had on when she was admitted—abruptly”; we get to know Trudy, who flashes her genitals at the staff and whose body seemed to be “undergoing some basic change, chemical, hormonal.” The residents take their time at the mirror, applying their makeup and doing their hair with great fastidiousness. But the entropy of W-3 always wins: “We were exempted from the normal order of things. All claims had been superseded by the claims of this existence.”

Even when reinhabiting the nightmarish aspects of childhood, though, Wollheim’s writing is punctilious. His sentences are worked, his rhythms perfectly pitched; he’s a stickler for rectitude in prose and in life. He fashions a self, or comes to understand the self he has been fashioning all along, through fashioning his prose. Likewise, Howland’s writerly carpentry—measure twice, cut once—is exquisite. She eventually leaves W-3 and writes several outstanding collections of stories (also re-issued by A Public Space Books as Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage). Howland finds the right words for her experience and, in doing so, comes to know she has won a fragile victory over it: “One day some months after I had left W-3 for good it all of a sudden occurred to me—I had had what is called a breakdown. That was what had happened, but I didn’t know it. That is, I believe, one of the characteristics of the condition. By then I had moved on into other regions, and the word held no special terrors for me.” That’s what good life-writing does: find pattern, even if provisional; assert meaning, even if incomplete.


“To try to write love is to confront the muck of language; that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little.”

A good memoirist is a good critic of her own life, so it’s not surprising that good critics (Frank Kermode, Terry Castle, Hilton Als) tend to make good memoirists. In previous books, Anahid Nersessian has shown herself an excellent scholar of Romanticism. With Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse (University of Chicago Press, $20.00, 160 pp.), she proves that her criticism can have memoiristic range, too.

Nersessian borrows her subtitle from the French critic Roland Barthes. In A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, Barthes describes the challenge of talking about love: “To try to write love is to confront the muck of language; that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little.” Nersessian argues that it’s precisely in this impossible region that Keats’s six great odes dwell. (Well, five: Nersessian finds “Ode to Indolence” a bit embarrassing: “We don’t expect Keats to write like this, so flatly, with so loose a grip on the world of people and stuff.”)

Keats’s Odes, a book that describes itself as “both critical and autobiographical,” offers less a single argument than variations on a theme. Everyone knows that Keats was, in Nersessian’s words, “an irrepressible sensualist.” Reading his poems, we taste the grape bursting on our palate and feel the sun warming our skin. And many know that Keats had Jacobin leanings: “He hung out with well-known radicals, and was a radical himself.” But few critics have convincingly connected Keats’s sensuality to his politics. That’s the task Nersessian sets herself, and she doesn’t want to look to his biography to do it. “Keats’s radicalism lies elsewhere,” she writes, “in his style.”

Nersessian’s political reading of Keats’s voluptuous style goes something like this. The poet’s famous notion of negative capability involves “empathy of an especially extravagant kind: it involves ‘filling some other body,’ to the point of knowing everything about how it thinks, feels, moves, and affects the bodies around it.” To feel deeply is to be vulnerable to others; to be vulnerable to others is to know the pain they feel; to feel the pain they feel is to know the need for a more just politics. Nersessian puts it succinctly: “To perceive is to hurt—sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. If the task of Marx’s critique of political economy is to locate the cause of that pain, the task of Keats’s poetry is to make it unforgettable.” Keats doesn’t write poems about radical politics. His style—loving, empathetic, vulnerable—is itself potentially radical.   

Nersessian is a sensitive close reader, noting allusions (Keats’s “emprison her soft hand” in the “Ode on Melancholy” recasts a line from Paradise Lost) and pressing down on small formal elements (her reading of the adjective “branched” in “Ode to Psyche” has changed how I read that poem). But what most impresses about Keats’s Odes is how deftly Nersessian moves from Keats’s vulnerability to her own. Keats’s love was strained and straining; so is Nersessian’s, for Keats and for the world around her. She writes about being sexually harassed by her Latin teacher in high school: “I never studied Latin again.... That was a great loss. I also learned how it feels to be inconvenient, and that was a great gift.” She talks about a relationship “at whose heart lies the radiant wish of two people to bear everything for each other but which has lately sagged into an actually degrading ritual of provocation and rebuke.” She gets angry at Keats for writing “To Autumn,” perhaps the most perfect lyric in the English language, right after the Peterloo Massacre, and not allowing that terrible event to make itself felt in the poem. Nersessian loves Keats despite and even because of his failures: “I tell these stories about Keats because they helped me love him, since it is hard not to love other people’s damage, or at least it has been hard for me.”

Writing against and around and through “To Autumn,” Nersessian comes to see that the poem’s choice of natural beauty over political rage isn’t a failure—or, isn’t just a failure. Keats “forces us to inhabit an excruciating contradiction: we are attached, despite everything, to this place that has been weaponized against us, where the earth ingests our oozings and its ambient noise muffles our screams.” Keats “makes us sit in the discomfort of our own receptivity to beauty.” This twinning of beauty and discomfort is in the nature of love, and it’s why we continue to love Keats as we do.   

Anthony Domestico is chair of the English and Global Literatures Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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