Collective thought

Collected Essays, by Hanif Kureishi, Faber, RRP£17.99, 400 pages

The Essays of Virginia Woolf: Volume 6: 1933-1941, edited by Stuart N Clarke, Hogarth Press, RRP£35, 768 pages

On The State of Egypt: What Caused the Revolution, by Alaa Al Aswany, Canongate e-book, RRP£9.99

The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death, edited by David Shields and Bradford Morrow, WW Norton & Co, RRP£12.99, 336 pages

Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches, 1998-2003, by Roberto Bolaño (May), New Directions Publishing, RRP£19.99, 352 pages

Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews, by Geoff Dyer, Graywolf Press, RRP$18, 432 pages

“Why, since life holds only so many hours, waste one of them on being lectured?” asked Virginia Woolf in her amusing 1934 essay “Why?”. The question could equally well be applied to the essay form itself: why? Why do novelists write essays? Why do we read them?

Next month, a new imprint called Notting Hill Editions will be launched to publish great essays, past and present. Lucasta Miller, its editorial director, says: “In the 19th century, essayists such as Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt and Thomas De Quincey found a huge readership, as did George Orwell in the 20th. Now is the perfect time to reinvigorate the essay.”

It’s already happening. In the past month, Hanif Kureishi’s Collected Essays, the sixth and final volume of The Essays of Virginia Woolf and The Inevitable, a collection of pieces on death edited by David Shields and Bradford Morrow, have all been published. Alongside these, Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany has assembled a collection of essays, On The State of Egypt, which is available now as an e-book and will be published in the UK in May.

The essay in its modern, playful, discursive form dates back to Michel de Montaigne, who published his ground-breaking Essais (“attempts”) in 1580. He shocked his contemporaries by putting himself in his work, admitting that he didn’t have the answers to big questions (but would try to address them anyway), and looking at the world with scepticism: “Que sais-je?” (what do I know?) was his motto. Despite the advent of blogging, Facebook and short attention spans, Montaigne’s template remains attractive to writers today.

Perhaps part of the attraction is that essays offer a neutral platform from which to examine big issues such as race, class, politics and mortality. Vehicles for sublime writing, essays can also convey urgent ideas that novels often can’t sustain. In an essay, reader and writer come together to examine messy, complicated ideas that reflect a messy, complicated world.

In the introduction to his Collected Essays, British novelist and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi offers his definition of the essay: “If a novel is concerned with numerous voices,” he writes, “an essay is a monologue, a form of direct speech, and a whisper at that ... It can be as intellectual as Roland Barthes, Adam Phillips or Susan Sontag, as informal and casual as Max Beerbohm, or as cool and minimalist as Joan Didion. Unlike academic writing, the essay is usually written for the general or ‘common’ reader rather than for experts or students; for someone in a deckchair rather than at a desk.” Above all, though, it is, he says, “a meditation rather than an act of persuasion”. As Montaigne’s word essais makes clear, these pieces attempt to engage.

Growing up in suburban Bromley, his bedroom door closed to the racist, reactionary world beyond, reading (and listening to music) opened Kureishi’s mind to people and ideas beyond the jackboot of 1970s skinhead fascism. “As a teenager, I began to write. I wrote for my life,” he says in “Humouring the State”, his acceptance speech for the 2010 Pen/Pinter Prize, awarded in memory of the Nobel-winning playwright. Writing gave him an identity that was “both consolidating and liberating, like a Cartesian assertion of existence”.

The collection is divided into sections: Politics and Culture; Films; Writing; Domestic. Each is ordered chronologically, although there are no dates or sources – a particularly problematic omission in the section on politics and one that throughout lends the collection an air of a sloppy proof copy rather than the finished article. There “should neither be footnotes nor much information in an essay”, he writes; yet the odd note wouldn’t have gone amiss here.

In all forms of reading there is a communion between writer and reader but, unlike the story, novel or poem, the essay allows a communication of ideas and thought processes that is more personal and informs a wider understanding of a writer’s art and the world in which we live. This is the case with Kureishi’s collection, which moves from his political essays into a long diary covering the development of his screenplay for the 1987 film Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and on to lighter pieces that include taking his twin sons to see the rock band the Black Keys, swimming in the sea near Deià, Mallorca, and a family trip to Venice. The collection shows a writer and his life, not just his work.

Montaigne wrote more than 400 years ago: “I am myself the matter of my book.” That still holds true. There is a thread running through the labyrinth of words that reveals a writer’s path. Ignacio Echevarría, editor of the late Roberto Bolaño’s collected essays Between Parentheses, concurs: “Taken together,” he writes, “[these pieces] make up a surprisingly rounded whole, offering in their entirety a personal cartography of the writer: the closest thing ... to a kind of fragmented ‘autobiography’.” For readers who see novelists as celebrities, the essay’s promise of access to a favourite writer’s inner life holds great appeal.

Perhaps the best piece in Kureishi’s collection is “The Rainbow Sign”, written as an introduction to the screenplay of My Beautiful Laundrette (1985). Taking its title and inspiration from James Baldwin’s essays The Fire Next Time, “The Rainbow Sign” mixes personal history with contemporary events to explore the film’s themes of race, sex and class – themes that Kureishi revisits throughout his essays and fiction.

Born to an English mother and Pakistani father, Kureishi relates how he does not feel English, yet on visiting Pakistan to rediscover his heritage, he learns he can never truly be Pakistani. What follows is a painful return “home” – to England. “The two countries, Britain and Pakistan, have been part of each other for years ... they cannot now be wrenched apart, even if that were desirable. Their futures will be intermixed.” Kureishi concludes: “It is the British, the white British, who have to learn that being British isn’t what it was. Now it is a more complex thing.”

Where Kureishi is concerned with race, more than 70 years ago Virginia Woolf tackled another great social taboo: class. In her 1940 essay, “The Leaning Tower”, based on a talk to the Workers’ Educational Association, Woolf addressed the beginnings of Kureishi’s “more complex thing”. Considering the clean sweep of English literature up to 1914 when, “suddenly, like a chasm in a smooth road, the war came”, Woolf argues: “All writers from Chaucer to the present day, with so few exceptions that one hand can count them, have sat upon the same kind of chair – a raised chair. They have all come from the middle class; they have all had good, at least expensive, educations.”

The second world war was causing this “tower of stucco ... and of gold” (middle-class birth and expensive education) to lean precariously; Woolf predicted a future quite unlike the past. “The novel of a classless and towerless world should be a better novel than the old novel,” she wrote.

Woolf’s own modernist fiction, such as Mrs Dalloway (1925) and To The Lighthouse (1927), and her famous extended essay A Room of One’s Own (1929), explored Britain’s juddering transformation into post-Victorian society. The essay, for Woolf, was an opportunity to explore and expand, to experiment and investigate. Fiction was an arduous process, essays (and speeches, diaries and magazine articles) were simpler, more immediate and could reach thousands of her “common readers”.

Published to mark the 70th anniversary of Woolf’s death, this volume is a fitting finale to an ambitious publishing project by her own imprint, the Hogarth Press. Here, in a fine volume, meticulously edited by Stuart N Clarke, a founding member of the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain, are some of Woolf’s most assured essays, which are coloured by the second world war. In June 1940, Woolf noted in her diary that in her writing she wanted “to keep the flight of the mind, yet be exact”; these essays are learned, feisty, funny and cool.

As Woolf concludes in “The Leaning Tower”: “English literature will survive this war and cross the gulf – if commoners and outsiders like ourselves make that country our own country.” To read this alongside Kureishi’s essay “Newness in the World: An Introduction to The Black Album” published more than 40 years later, it’s hard not to see a connection between these two very different authors that goes beyond race or class. “Almost blindly, in the postwar period, a huge, unprecedented social experiment had been taking place in Britain,” writes Kureishi. “The project was to turn – out of the end of the Empire and on the basis of mass immigration – a predominantly white society into a racially mixed one, thus forming a new notion of what Britain was.”

Many of the essays in these collections were previously published in newspapers and magazines; a nice little earner that often doubles as a promotional vehicle for the latest novel. Even Woolf wrote essays as “a relief from fiction and as a means of making money”. But they also offer novelists the opportunity to react rapidly to world events, whether the economic crash, terrorist attacks, war or revolution (Ian McEwan’s pieces about the attacks on New York published in The Guardian in September 2001 come to mind). Where a novel might take years to formulate, an essay can react instantly and, as readers, we look to our favourite writers for intelligent, reflective pieces that contextualise our world.

Alaa Al Aswany’s On The State of Egypt is a case in point. Written in Arabic as newspaper columns, these essays have been translated and assembled into a book available digitally now and as a paperback next month. Short of blogging the protests live from Tahrir Square as they happened (Aswany camped out there for the duration of the recent revolution), On The State of Egypt is surely as close as a novelist can get to formulating a rapid response to the shifting sands of history.

“Why did Egypt unexpectedly revolt? What were the problems and contradictions in Egyptian society that made revolution inevitable? This book may contain many of the answers,” he writes. The essays, mostly written between 2009 and December 2010, build a tense picture of the hopes and fears of Egyptians struggling to wrest power from President Hosni Mubarak. Aswany’s pieces are logical, his arguments often numbered “firstly”, “secondly” and so on, and their immediacy is palpable, with references to events “last week” or “days ago”. Tellingly, each piece ends with Aswany’s rallying cry: “Democracy is the solution.” These are not abstract writing exercises; they are integral to the intellectual life of a nation in flux.

The Inevitable is a different kind of collection. “Here,” write editors David Shields and Bradford Morrow, “is an early-21st-century attempt to look at death from distinctly different points of view, by writers who see death as a brute biological fact that does not necessarily guarantee some passageway to eternal peace or punishment.”

In his previous book, Reality Hunger, Shields wrote: “I doubt very much that I’m the only person who’s finding it more and more difficult to want to read or write novels.” In collecting disparate writers such as Jonathan Safran Foer, Joyce Carol Oates and Geoff Dyer under a single thematic umbrella, the editors have forced connections between pieces, creating a whole greater than its parts. Rather than developing an idea of a single writer, we explore death through a wide range of clever, articulate, thoughtful and often funny pieces.

Foer’s “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease” pushes the limits of the essay form. Foer uses symbols such as □ to mean “an absence of language”, or ■ to signify “an intentional silence”, or ??, which “denotes one family member’s refusal to yield to a willed silence”. The unspoken conversations of a family skirting the painful issue of death are given form here. It’s tricksy, experimental and in keeping with Foer’s fiction.

Dyer’s contribution, “What Will Survive of Us”, begins more journalistically. A white “ghost bike”, placed on a New York street to commemorate a fallen cyclist, is the starting point for a discursive exploration of life and death, relationships, monuments and the purpose of public art. Dyer’s essay also appears in his US collection, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, (published as Working the Room in the UK last year). The collection’s pleasure, he writes, lies in its “pick ’n’ mix variety”.

Working the Room begins with an epigram from Don Paterson, which is wryly fitting: “There are writers for whom no forms exist: too clever for novels, too sceptical for poetry, too verbose for the aphorism, all that is left to them is the essay – the least appropriate medium for the foiled.” All that is left? For the writers considered here the essay is often the most appropriate medium. Its freeness of form encourages exploration and leaps of imagination in writer and reader that is both a pleasure and a challenge. “Why?” Why not!

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