This sumptuous, insightful, epiphany-riddled overview of life’s narratives as seen in the works of such writers as Blake and Balzac, Dickens and Dostoevsky, Faulkner and Roth, Shakespeare and Joyce, is the incisive and lavish result of a course, “Rites of Passage,” that Arnold Weinstein has taught at Brown for years.

Weinstein, Edna and Richard Salomon distinguished professor and professor of comparative literature, who craftily mingles his own experiences with erudition, has written a kind of grand summary of how literature speaks to us as we stagger from childhood to old age, innocence to experience, life to death.

There is an undertow of darkness here, the result of the conflicts that great literature presents to us. “Art makes life visible,” Weinstein insists, and is as necessary as a blood transfusion: “Language itself is the price we pay for leaving childhood, the conversion of wonder into grammar.” It offers us several scripts and possibilities, all of which broaden and deepen our own search for a soul and possible, though never apparent, deliverance.

I don’t want this tome to sound weighty and grim, for its style is bright, evocative, and bristling with apt one-liners and aphorisms, as if Weinstein in his wisdom has distilled the best of literature to its essence in all of its contradictions, paradoxes and polarities. No one gets out of life alive, but literature enriches the journey, accompanying us along the often painfully absurd encounters and episodes that engulf us. Literature fills us in.

Open to any page and find such nuggets as: “One does not grow up in Kafka; one goes under.” Or: “We are fated to be undone . . . you lose your power no matter what.” And: “Young love comes across as the core riddle of our lives.”

This review cannot do justice to such a wise, perceptive book, which will cause you to stop and pause, consider yourself and Weinstein’s own life, immerse yourself in splendid critiques, asides and ideas. It positively bounces along, pausing to ponder yet driving forward through the whole spectrum of youth and age, generational antagonisms, sexual urgencies, and the shadow of certain death.

“You cannot change the givens,” Weinstein knows all too well, “but you can season them, you can ironize them, you can replay in your head; and all this gives you a kind of agency you don’t have in any other way.”

This is splendid stuff all the way through.

As a professor of literature at Wheaton, Sam Coale (samcoale@cox.net) is a card-carrying member of the choir to which Prof. Weinstein preaches.

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