The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Essays by Ian Hamilton (ed) - review by Jeremy Lewis

Jeremy Lewis

A Worthy Enthusiasm

The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Essays


Allen Lane The Penguin Press 555pp £20 order from our bookshop

Although we are told that the average attention span is reduced to a matter of seconds, literary life continues to favour the marathon runner at the expense of the sprinter. No one in his right mind would have expected Nicholas Hilliard to paint the Sistine Chapel, yet publishers persist in their attempts to persuade short-story writers to try their hand at a novel. American-style universities, more interested in bulk than quality, cite publication as a measure of academic advancement, quite forgetting that a 5,000-word essay by Isaiah Berlin or Hugh Trevor-Roper – neither of whom, oddly enough, is included in Ian Hamilton's admirable anthology – will almost certainly be worth a whole lorryload of reheated PhDs, or that many of the best dons never put pen to paper. Nor are writers themselves immune to this fixation with the full-length work: Cyril Connolly – one of life's short-distance men, and all the better for it – was agonised by his failure to produce a book that wasn't, in essence, a collation of glittering shards, and spent time and ingenuity arranging reprinted essays and book reviews in such a way as to promote the notion of solidity and permanence. (It is good to report that Connolly is on display here, casting a waspish eye over the machinations of London literary life, as seen by an idealistic young American writer, ‘hugging a thimble of something warm and sweet with a recoil like nail-polish remover’ at a postwar publishing party.)

‘The essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything’, declared Aldous Huxley, whose own contribution is a rather drivelling conceit about the similarities between cats and men: very much the kind of whimsical, Times fourth-leader exercise that Connolly rightly ridiculed in the early chapters of Enemies of

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