The Lost Origins of the Essay

John D'Agata, Editor . Graywolf $20 (695p) ISBN 978-1-55597-532-6

From Ziusudra of Sumer to Antonin Artaud and beyond, the essay in all its glory is on full display in this ingenious anthology. The title doesn't convey the volume's range—the spirit of factual expression, worked on by the imagination, transplanted into many times and in many cultures. This is a book to dip into or read through, certainly to savor for its diversity. The essay tent is wide, and under D'Agata's (Halls of Fame ) editorship and astute eye it includes hybrid forms, from William Blake's “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” through the prose poems of Aloysius Bertrand, Baudelaire and Mallarmé to a “performative essay” on Bob Marley by Kamau Brathwaite. Readers will be familiar with the aphorisms of Francis Bacon, somewhat less familiar with the eccentric virtuosity of Sir Thomas Browne and much more so with Jonathan Swift's “A Modest Proposal.” But readers are perhaps most likely to be turned on for the first time by the prose artistry of Matsuo Basho, the avant-garde musings of Clarice Lispector on the (not-so) simple egg and the obsessive documentarylike musings of Marguerite Duras. Overall, this imaginative international collection showcases the art of short nonfiction at its best. (Aug.)

Reviewed on: 06/29/2009
Release date: 08/01/2009
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