(Essays and Reviews)

(Selected Comments on Recent Essays)

“There’s been a lot of foofaraw lately about who’s the worst critic of his generation. But the best critic of her generation, until further notice, is Terry Castle. Her article in the London Review of Books on lesbian seductress Mercedes de Acosta made me laugh more in twenty minutes than I have in the past month. The only thing in recent memory that compares to it is her essay on Patricia Highsmith in The New Republic, which I pressed on friends until they tired of me. How can you resist someone who writes like this:

The great thing about vampires, after all, was that they really cared about you. They were interested in you personally! So much so in fact that they would rise up out of their coffins, wamble over long distances (all the way from Transylvania) and sneak into your very own bedroom just to suck the blood out of you. It was weird but peculiarly gratifying.

It’s in the choice of the word wamble that you know you are looking at genius.”

—Caleb Crain, New Yorker contributor and blogger (Steamboats Are Ruining Everything)

“For pure chewy reading enjoyment, Terry Castle’s latest slapstick confidential is impossible to top. She and the London Review of Books are a strange fit, yet it works. Here, in the latest issue, rubbing its corduroy sleeves against reviews of The Blair Years, Mrs Woolf and the Servants, Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary under Stalin, and a consideration of the complete works of Elizabeth Gaskell, is Castle’s hilarious, art-besotted, kitsch-friendly, self-deprecating, mock-touristy account of shlepping around Santa Fe with her wheelchaired mother, Mavis: [...] I hope Castle’s first-personals–this, her memoir about her stepfather, and the now-classic account of her fraught semi-friendship with Susan Sontag–are going to be gathered someday under one roof in book form. I’d blurb that baby in a sec!

—James Wolcott, Contributing Editor, Vanity Fair

“While nobody was looking, at least in the US, Terry Castle has stealthily become one of the funniest contemporary American essayists. Yes, Terry Castle, the Stanford English professor and author of such rib-ticklers as The Female Thermometer: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny and Clarissa’s Ciphers: Meaning and Disruption in Richardson’s Clarissa. Fortunately, while The New Yorker continues to host the tired likes of Bruce McCall, Steve Martin and David Sedaris, Castle has found a home away from home at the London Review of Books, which regularly publish her long essays and reviews.

“My belated introduction to Castle’s humor (I had read her academic book The Apparitional Lesbian eons ago) came with ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’, about her friendship with Susan Sontag. Of course part of the point was Castle boasting about her acquaintance with Sontag, but this was shellacked by such a glossy coat of self-deprecation (“Sontag was the Supremo and I the obsequious gofer”) that the piece became a goofy take on being a star intellectual’s pet academic. And what set pieces! Sontag showing Castle how to evade sniper fire in the streets of Palo Alto. Sontag dragging Castle to a hilariously snotty dinner party hosted by Marina Abramovic (“As a non-artist and noncelebrity, I was so ‘not there’, it seemed – so cognitively unassimilable – I wasn’t even registered enough to be ignored. I sat at one end of the table like a piece of anti-matter.”).

”Castle’s latest piece, ‘Travels with My Mom’, takes a hoary, well-trod subject (Castle,her girlfriend Blakey and Castle’s 81-year-old mother’s New Mexico vacation) and turns it into a dissection of how a middle-aged professor comes to terms with her own aesthetic choices (the Agnes Martin vs Georgia O’Keeffe frame is inspired). Castle is brilliant at suggesting how taste is formed and informed, and the scope of her references is deliciously wide. Droll lines pop up with a rather scary frequency, and Castle is a master of set-up. For instance at one point “Blakey rolls her eyes, sits down, pulls Richard Rorty out of her bag and prepares to wait for several hours.” This is funny enough in itself (Rorty as light vacation reading) but it’s made funnier by the fact that the sentence is the punchline to a set-up in which the mother-daughter team enters a rubber-stamp store called Stampa Fe. [...]

“Why this woman doesn’t have a regular column in an American publication is beyond me. Oh sorry: American editors prefer their female essayists to write about things like dating or motherhood —or politics, as long as they are foaming-at-the-mouth conservative ranters or give the guys in charge nicknames like “Rummy.”

—Elisabeth Vincentelli, Time Out New York and the New York Post

“Of all of the reactions to Sontag’s death, the most candid and canny was a remembrance of her by Terry Castle, a fan, a sometime friend, and a fellow critic. She too starts with the famous photographs: her favorite is the Peter Hujar image from the 1970s, of Sontag austere in a grey turtleneck and slightly disheveled hair, lying on her back. “There’s a slightly pedantic quality to the whole thing which I like: very true to life.” Castle tells the truth and brings Sontag to life in her essay “Desperately Seeking Susan,” exposing her pettiness, her vanity, her most loathsome qualities. This is the Sontag who wants to be reassured she is more beautiful than Joan Baez, who quizzes Castle on what she had read and heard to make sure she was up to the proper standards of cultivation, who delighted in the fruits of the lesbian grapevine and the more explicit novels of Patricia Highsmith. Castle gets in some zingers. “The famous Sontag ‘look’ always put me in mind of the stage direction in Blithe Spirit: ‘Enter Madame Arcati, wearing barbaric jewellery.’” Sontag drags Castle to a dinner party with downtown New York luminaries like Lou Reed only to dismiss and denigrate her, reenacts the bombing of Sarajevo on a Palo Alto street to the bewilderment of well-heeled onlookers, and casually says things like, “‘Of course, Terry, mine is the greatest library in private hands in the world.’” Infuriating, insulting, and horrifying. Yet Castle forgives her all her trespasses in the end. Why? “She was our very own Great Man. If there was ever going to be a Smart Woman Team then Sontag would have to be both Captain and Most Valuable Player. She was the one already out there doing the job, even as we were labouring painfully to get up off the floor and match wits with her.”

“Castle has ultimately written the obituary people want to read, even if it defies the norm in both form and content. No newspaper writer can ever summarize a character like this: “The carefully cultivated moral seriousness—strenuousness might be a better word—co-existed with a fantastical, Mrs. Jellyby-like absurdity. Sontag’s complicated and charismatic sexuality was part of this comic side of her life. The high-mindedness, the high-handedness, commingled with a love of gossip, drollery and seductive acting-out —and, when she was in a benign and unthreatened mood, a fair amount of ironic self-knowledge.”