A personal and critical work that celebrates the pleasure of books and reading.
Largely unknown to readers today, Sir Philip Sidney’s sixteenth-century pastoral romance Arcadia was long considered one of the finest works of prose fiction in the English language. Shakespeare borrowed an episode from it for King Lear; Virginia Woolf saw it as “some luminous globe” wherein “all the seeds of English fiction lie latent.” In Gallery of Clouds, the Renaissance scholar Rachel Eisendrath has written an extraordinary homage to Arcadia in the form of a book-length essay divided into passing clouds: “The clouds in my Arcadia, the one I found and the one I made, hold light and color. They take on the forms of other things: a cat, the sea, my grandmother, the gesture of a teacher I loved, a friend, a girlfriend, a ship at sail, my mother. These clouds stay still only as long as I look at them, and then they change.”
Gallery of Clouds opens in New York City with a dream, or a vision, of meeting Virginia Woolf in the afterlife. Eisendrath holds out her manuscript—an infinite moment passes—and Woolf takes it and begins to read. From here, in this act of magical reading, the book scrolls out in a series of reflective pieces linked through metaphors and ideas. Golden threadlines tie each part to the next: a rupture of time in a Pisanello painting; Montaigne’s practice of revision in his essays; a segue through Vivian Gordon Harsh, the first African American head librarian in the Chicago public library system; a brief history of prose style; a meditation on the active versus the contemplative life; the story of Sarapion, a fifth-century monk; the persistence of the pastoral; image-making and thought; reading Willa Cather to her grandmother in her Chicago apartment; the deviations of Walter Benjamin’s “scholarly romance,” The Arcades Project. Eisendrath’s wondrously woven hybrid work extols the materiality of reading, its pleasures and delights, with wild leaps and abounding grace.
Eisendrath (Poetry in a World of Things), a scholar of English Renaissance poetry, combines criticism and memoir in these immersive meditations on Philip Sidney's 16th-century pastoral romance, Arcadia. Eisendrath notes that the realm of romance is one of "long days; of wonder; of unfilled space and time; of wandering passages" and is the antithesis of modern life. Still, she writes, the genre offers valuable lessons, among them "that the real is what is to be wondered at." Eisendrath provides snapshot portraits of other artists: the introduction sees Eisendrath presenting her manuscript to Virginia Woolf, who knew Sidney's descendent; Nicolas Poussin's 17th-century paintings depict "the idyllic landscape of Arcadia"; Sidney's younger sister Mary revised Arcadia. Eisendrath embraces the wandering style of the narrative as she leaps around in time and subject matter, describing Sidney's "glittering" Elizabethan funeral, her own childhood neighborhood at sunset, the history of prose styles, and how reading in public was "a covert operation" in her impoverished youth. A love of language suffuses the volume: Woolf's writing on Sidney is, for example, a "lavish garden." This indulgent and singular exercise in lit crit offers much food for thought. Photos.