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Partial Payments: Essays on Writers and Their Lives, by Joseph Epstein

A Micro-Review/Essay

“I am indebted to these writers.”

Paean. Nineteen of them. An essayist removes his hat, lowers his head, and says “thanks.” The essayist convinces us these subjects are great. We then understand that the essayist is great. Like recognizes like. Max Beerbohm’s prose is difficult to read 100 years later but you want to read him merely to get close to this beautiful man: equanimous temperament; close to his parents and siblings; never struggled with life; didn’t feel the need to dominate; alien to envy. Many today would refuse to believe such a man could exist. Unlike doesn’t recognize unlike. But he did. Meditate on the life of St. Max; WWMD; become Max. Such is Epstein’s convincing portrait. And George Santayana, a man who never missed an opportunity to insult the Jews. Epstein (guess his tribe) loves him and makes us want to love him and to read Persons and Places, one of “the really splendid autobiographies of the twentieth century.” Evelyn Waugh? Hardly St. Max, but Epstein admires his razor wit and tries to understand the amalgam of Catholicism and wretchedness that was Waugh, who refused to be in the same room with the small, portly, drunken, checkered suit, parody-producing, and fantastical Dylan Thomas because he saw in him a caricature of himself: “He’s exactly what I would’ve been if I had not become a Catholic.” The book is packed with great anecdotes . . . and great prose . . . and great respect, even affection.