Freeze framed


Wendy Lesser begins Room for Doubt, a book of three interconnected essays, by admitting her own inflexibility. “I expected to go a lifetime without ever setting foot in Germany,” she writes. “‘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 sky-diving.’ And never will, these sentences implied.” She does go to Berlin, of course, and the year she spends there, a place whose “primary allegiance is to change,” plunges her into a deep introspection. Something shifts.

If this sounds soapy or sentimental, it isn’t. Lesser, the aggressively intellectual editor of The Threepenny Review, doesn’t take pains to render herself a likable narrator. It can be hard to warm up to someone who says that “regret has never been much of a factor in my psychological make-up. . . . I make decisions quickly and easily, and I rarely
second-guess myself.” But that shell begins to crack open as she describes how life in Berlin enabled her to finally feel regret, and melancholy. She went there to work on a book about David Hume, but decided instead to write about a “difficult friend,” the writer Leonard Michaels, whose recent death she’d been “carrying around . . . in a locked, frozen package that I couldn’t get at but couldn’t throw away, either.”

The confrontation with that emotional “frozen package” comes in the intimate final essay. There, as she details how her friendship with Michaels survived bickering and periods of severed communication, Lesser seems most human. “Without the difficulties, there is no Lenny,” she concludes. “Maybe that is why I am trying so hard to hold onto them.” That she ends the book on a “maybe”—miles away from the rigidity of its opening—stems from something she learned in trying, and failing, to write about Hume: “the value of not arriving at a firm conclusion.”