- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 24, 2007


By Wendy Lesser

Pantheon, $23.95, 205 pages

In 2005, Wendy Lesser’s first novel, “The Pagoda in the Garden,” appeared. Praised for its elegant writing and wit, the novel reflected the literary savvy of its its author, the founding editor of the arts journal The Threepenny Review.

Constructed in three parts, the novel’s action covered three time periods between 1901 and 1975. It also introduced three sets of characters including 1) an accomplished novelist, his protege and her lover 2) a divorced novelist and the Canadian who flirts with her and 3) a graduate student at King’s college and her English lover.

Although their lives intersected with two of the 20th century’s fateful moments (the death of Queen Victoria and the end of the Vietnam War), it is a literary giant from an earlier century — Henry James — who presides and is honored. The title of the novel is taken from a passage in “The Golden Bowl.”

Now comes “Room for Doubt,” a book also formed in three parts but emphatically not a novel. Readers are returned to the rarified world the prolific Ms. Lesser has traversed in six previous nonfiction books and in numerous essays and memoirs. It is a world in which art and philosophy are the bread and water of everyday life.

When applied to the circumstances she recounts the blend is, for the most part, invigorating. For those wishing to follow along on Ms. Lesser’s heady ride it starts improbably — for the writer that is — in Berlin.

She writes: “I expected to go a lifetime without ever setting foot in Germany. When I first began traveling to Europe as a college student it was Ireland, Britain, Holland, France, and Italy that I ended up visiting — neither wholly by chance nor wholly by choice … ‘I have never been to Germany’ became one of the totemic sentences of my identity, like ‘I have never been to a professional ball game’ or ‘I have never been skydiving.’ And never will, these sentences implied.”

The author uses “Out of Berlin,” the first part of this book, to examine what kept her from visiting Germany, a country she grows to love. While her earlier resistance “stemmed from a notion that Jews do not visit Germany and broadened out to include all morally upright people in its scope,” it is not long before she introduces the subject of her own religious beliefs.

“I am a devout atheist who acknowledges her Jewish ancestry mainly because it would seem to be caving into Hitler not to do so.”

Religious skepticism will appear again and again in the book, not surprising in a volume called “Room for Doubt.” Nevertheless, in the first section, it is her growing love of Berlin that she shares. And that love is mingled with regard for how that city’s sophisticated in habitants appreciate the arts.

Recalling her first visit to the Berlin Philharmonic she writes, “These Berliners knew their stuff, and they weren’t shy about expressing their response to the performances. You could learn a lot about musical performance standards just by sitting among them. They know how to be silent, too, which is at least as important an attribute in an audience… . Sitting there waiting for the Brahms Requiem to begin, I realized that I had never heard precisely that quality of silence before — a silence that was a combination of audience attentiveness and acoustical perfection.

Readers learn that during her stay, Ms. Lesser became smitten with the Philharmonker (the concert building), the performances of Simon Rattle, Rem Koolhaas architecture. Readers also learn that the challenge of learning the language and living there changed her forever, much in the way she was changed at an earlier time in her life by England.

Which raises a question. What is the raison d’etre of this book? The writing is felicitous enough that forward we march to the second section, “On Not Writing About David Hume.” In short order we learn that “I barely read a word of Hume after 1975, but somehow I retained a sense that he was my philosopher rather in the way the Pacific Ocean was my ocean, a vast reserve on whom I could draw for sustenance as needed.”

Trouble is, after leading readers through lively discussions of Hume’s philosophy, digressing to discuss the music of Richard Wagner and contemplating the early death of a good friend, Ms. Lesser reaches what may be the deal-killer for her in her original aspirations to write about the philosopher: his belief in monotheism.

Nevertheless, this is probably the most reader-friendly part of the book because by the third section, “Difficult Friends,” a weariness sets in. Yes, Ms. Lesser can write. Yes, she is to be admired for sharing the painful feelings surrounding yet another friend’s death, in this case of the writer (and apparently very difficult person) Leonard Michaels. But at a certain point another question arises: What do Ms. Lesser’s intellectual gymnastics amount to?

Maybe Henry James has the answer. The passage which inspired the title of her only novel is this:

“She had knocked, in short — though she could scarce have said whether for admission or for what; she had applied her hand to a cool smooth spot and had waited to see what would happen. Something had happened; it was as if a sound, at her touch, after a little, had come back to her from within; a sound sufficiently suggesting that her approach had been noted.”

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