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An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on 20th…

An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on 20th Century Literature (A Nonpareil…

by Sven Birkerts

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Wandering The Wilderness Until The Desert Blooms

This book by Sven Birkerts -- whose fine essays have appeared in The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, and elsewhere -- may just serve to keep alive the fine art of literary criticism after the ravages of a post-modernism that has all but torn it apart. If this seems too harsh a verdict to render on the bleak outcomes to which elite intellectual efforts can all too easily lead, then please think again. Well before An Artificial Wilderness ever appeared, John Bayley had this to say in New York Review of Books way back in June 4, 1981. "The reality of the thing, the return of the thing. Structuralism and deconstruction . . . have banished physical realities from literature, replacing them with the abstract play of language, the game of the signifiers. They were on their way out anyway, they were leaving literature, and the critical process, as usual, found ways of explaining and rationalizing their departure, even of suggesting they had never been there."

Enter Sven Birkerts. He had been quietly "worrying the matter" of his voluminous readings as far back as his early days as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, when he stumbled into a second-hand bookstore as well as upon the life-lasting pursuit that later led him to the proliferating gleanings that comprise the bounty of this insightful book. But how to lay out the scatter of it all in "a single balanced entity," or better still, in some "more concrete narrative"? Avoiding the trap of trying to survey the entire span of a century, Birkerts wisely chose here instead to excavate the sites of some of its better-known prospectors in order to assay their findings -- thus dealing in substance instead of sweep. What he finds is high-grade ore. Since Birkerts has to fend off his share of sharpshooting detractors sniping at him from the hills', who take him to task for being much too fond of foreign writers over those from America's own shores, let us pick an American writer to enter as evidence and make our case. Birkerts, who clearly understands that it takes a soul to sense the sickness, lostness, or absence of another one, excavates Malcolm Lowry's overwhelming achievement Under the Volcano, rightly recognized the world over as a masterpiece in depicting nothing less than the ruin of a soul -- which in his own life, Lowry certainly lived out. No empty, arid, condescending, ivory-tower, vacuous, stuffy theorizing here. Every phrase is taut as a drawn bow string and terribly telling . . . Birkerts's no less than Lowry's. But don't take my word for it. Read this book and judge for yourself.

Because of how subtly his own mind works, Birkerts is also able to discern the subtleties working in the artful minds of those treated in his insightful essays. That, in its turn, is what can bring forth in even the most barren wilderness a bloom in the desert as rare as this. ( )
  GeneRuyle | Aug 28, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0879238070, Paperback)

A celebration in text and art of the many facets of English country life, from bee-keeping to cider-making. With thirty-three wood engravings of exquisite detail.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:51 -0400)

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