In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a young man who caught sight of his reflection in a pool of water and became enamored with it. Over time, he died of starvation and thirst because he was unable to leave off from gazing at his own beauty. Joseph Epstein's collection of essays Narcissus Leaves the Pool, while not as in love with itself as Narcissus, uses Epstein's own conceits, interests and anecdotes on which to base essays with topics as diverse as name-dropping, the quality of sports in America, the pleasure of reading and, most poignantly, the final essay, which acts as an homage to Epstein's friendship with Edward Shils.
Memory clings to these essays, memory and the satisfaction of a life lived well. It may come as a surprise that this collection of essays, while almost entirely devoted to different aspects of Epstein's life, both professional and personal, does not in fact fall prey to the problem of Narcissus' endless gaze. Learning about those things in the world which annoy Epstein, or as he calls it, make him feel 'ticked to the min,' learning of his love for the works of Henry James and Edward Gibbon, or reading about his uncomfortable triple bypass, comes as a pleasure thanks to his erudition and gently mocking style, the target of which is more often himself than any person, creed, institution or belief.
In these essays, Epstein hovers around his sixtieth birthday. He is seventy now, but it can be presumed safely that the relaxed looking-backwards nature of his thoughts will have continued rather than reversed. Epstein seems comfortable that he has attained 'old man' status, or as comfortable as a person can be. 'Emerging from the shower,' he says, 'I stand naked in front of my bathroom mirror. This, let the truth be told, is not an altogether enrapturing sight.' Later, Epstein admits that if he were to ogle at women (a pastime he says appeals less now than at any time since before puberty), he would be considered a dirty old man, rather than a vigorous male admiring an attractive woman. Sunrise, sunset.
If there is a theme beyond himself in this book, it would be reading. The essay 'A Real Page Turner' deals with the realization that all of the grand, masterly tomes that exist in the world may not be read, ever: 'if one is committed to the reading life, if one has decided to think of oneself as a cultivated person, then there are certain lengthy books that one ought to have read.' He lists his own notable achievements - Proust, Gibbon, Tolstoy's War and Peace, Musil's The Man Without Quality, and then he discusses the massive works he has not and will unlikely ever, read. A later essay, 'The Pleasures of Reading,' is about just that. He admits to reading at least four or five hours each day, which to all fellow readers must sound heavenly.
Comparing this collection of essays to another of Epstein's, Friendship: An Expose, it is difficult not to notice the anecdotes repeated, the stories told twice now. But is that such a bad thing? Friendship possessed a tight, coherent theme, whereas Narcissus is allowed to roam with more freedom. Personal preference awards the gong to Narcissus, but that is based purely on the loving devotion to reading and books. It would, however, be remiss of me to avoid mentioning that there is overlap.
Epstein's voice is clear, unfrilled with gaudy baubles of metaphor or long strings of similes stretched together in an ever increasing line of confusion. He comfortably quotes Montaigne, James, Cather, Auden, Eliot and Gibbon, sliding sentences and paragraphs into the text which enhance but do not overwhelm. There is a sense that the author is confident and sure about what he is doing with his references and comparisons. They are not there merely to add luster to his writing; rather, they add luster to his meaning. Epstein is also fond of his comedic skills. He mentions fairly often that he is a witty author, and the text proves this claim correct. While he is not laugh-out-loud funny - to parlay an Internet expression - Epstein is consistently clever, consistently witty, consistently entertaining on the page. These elements combine to relax the reader until they are in such a state that Epstein is able to do as he wishes with us, as it were.
The final essay, 'My Friend Edward,' closes the book with an examination - no, more a celebration - of the friendship he shared with Edward Shils, a well-known sociologist who died in 1995. They shared a friendship which spanned more than two decades. Epstein writes, 'In twenty-two years, we never ran out of things to say. My problem now is that I still have so many things to tell him.' Again, snippets of this essay will seem familiar to readers of Epstein's Friendship, but the purpose of the piece is different. Here he is calling up the memory of his friend in an effort to explain and examine just how much the older man meant to him. There is a tone of reverence and great respect attached to this essay, and the jokes are mostly gone. Coming to terms with the death of friends and loved ones is something, Epstein tells us, that a man in his sixties has to deal with greater regularity than a person in their twenties or thirties. Perhaps a cathartic exercise for the author, it is for the reader a beautiful snapshot of two intelligent literary men.
A collection of essays, then, that deal primarily with Epstein, but also with reading, loss, the decrease of health as one ages, the mystery of genius and talent, and napping on chairs. While the vast majority of topics and references, asides and jokes, may be directed toward the more literary or cultured audience, there is enough gentle humor, emotion and truth to appeal to any taste. Well recommended.