Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Merry Recluse

The Merry Recluse: A Life in Essays
Caroline Knapp (Counterpoint, 2004)

Gail Caldwell’s book about her friend Caroline Knapp, which I reviewed last month, has led me The Merry Recluse, a collection of Knapp’s columns and articles put together by her friends after her untimely death in 2002. I was curious to meet Knapp in her own words. Not surprisingly, I found her much as Caldwell describes her: bright, and a great writer; fragile, and a loner; self-absorbed, and deeply wise about the world.

Still, this doesn’t sound promising, does it? Like trying to read Anna Quindlen’s or Ellen Goodman’s old books; hasn’t the world moved on? Perhaps. But on the public side, her concerns are as real as ever. There’s a sexual harassment piece from the second anniversary of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearing, and an early reaction to 9/11: “The people I talk to feel an odd, almost adolescent yearning for leadership, craving and mistrusting it in the same breath. Some of us feel compelled to reach out–give blood, light candles, sign petitions, anything!–and simultaneously compelled to retreat, edges of paranoia leaking in, talk of terrorists in the backyard.”

And on the private side, there are fascinating paradoxes, like the public nature of her privacy itself. Of her own sexual harassment experiences as a recent college graduate: “I went out to lunch with him and got drunk with him and let him kiss and paw me. It’s disgusting to me in retrospect, and shameful, but I honestly didn’t know what else to do.” It takes considerable charm to complain about feeling unsophisticated without sounding phony; it takes plenty of courage to confess to fear.

Knapp’s resolute honesty is what saves all this from preciousness, for me. She quit drinking in February of 1994, in her early thirties, so she had, she says, a lot of growing up to do. There’s a lifetime of emotional work in the seven years covered by this collection: her parents’ death, her history of anorexia, her affair with alcohol, and her acceptance of her solitary state as a way of life, which grew to include friends, a boyfriend, and a dog.

Fortunately, Knapp is also funny, mining the rich lode of her own insecurities: “Last week, I had an I-suddenly-sense-my-lips-are-too-thin day. I also had a since-when-have-my-pores-been-so-cavernous? day, but not at exactly the same time as the bad-lip day. Whew! Can you imagine what that would have been like? It would have turned into an I-have-to-stay-home-and-hide-under-the-bed day, no question.”

I’m struck by how lucky it is that Gail Caldwell and Caroline Knapp became friends when they did. Here’s Knapp, shortly after they began taking their dogs for walks together: “I’ve tended to be the sort of person who believes that walking doesn’t really ‘count’ as a form of exercise, that you’re not really working out unless you hurt. But it occurs to me now, perhaps for the first time, that the heart is a muscle in many respects, and needs attending to beyond the gym.” This is hard-won wisdom, and I’m grateful for it.

Email, October 2011

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