Harrison opens his study with a highly labored and decidedly leaden opening chapter, drawing on Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and the German idealists, to define "essayism" as at once a provisional and flexible perspective of deliberate uncertainty and an approach to individual ethical determinations in the absence of any validating priority. He then proceeds to offer six elegantly crafted and frequently illuminating essays, each independent from the other, on his three selected authors. The study's basic thrust is philosophical with the first part exploring the ontology and epistemology of essayism and the second focusing on its aesthetic and ethical consequences.
As a result of his emphases, Harrison declines to pose formalist questions relating to the narrative, stylistic, and rhetorical strategies Conrad and Musil employ or, in Pirandello's case, the dramaturgy invented, to frame and support the essayism of a given text. As a consequence, his larger arguments are not always as thoroughly convincing as he might wish them to be even though he usefully marshals to his assistance the various writer's theoretical statements and artistic manifestos and calls upon wide and even impressive reading in Conrad, Musil, and Pirandello scholarship and in aesthetics and philosophy generally to support his observations. The precise "how" of Conrad's and Musil's stories and novels or of Pirandello's plays is—one would assume it to have been definitively established by this point-inextricably connected to the "why" of their variously defeated heroes. While posited as a specifically modernist condition, greater attention to essayism's literary precursors, particularly in the nineteenth century, might also have bolstered the case made here.
The main value of this work lies, however, less in its stylish theorizing than in its nuanced and sophisticated exegesis of concerns and cruxes in individual texts, some of which, like Conrad's Lord Jim and Musil's The Man without Qualities, have by now received considerable critical scrutiny. In short, the practical critic happily wins out over the potentially useful but at times self-limiting theoretical superstructure elaborated to contain and illuminate central aspects of the three writers discussed. Aside from Musil's writing, which specifically formulates the essayistic and provides Harrison the model and occasion for his own exploratory discussions, the choice of these writers is nowhere fully justified. Since very few connections are made between them, this choice finally appears, despite some belated fancy footwork in the Conclusion, simply eccentric or arbitrary, an impression that a considerably more developed and sustained discussion of modernism might have largely mitigated. [End Page 421]
Despite some of its methodological shortcomings this is a stimulating and highly informed work. Harrison's not entirely felicitous title coinage seems unlikely to become standard critical terminology, but, more importantly, he succeeds in asking, whatever the occasional awkwardness of their formulation, pertinent and often original questions and in providing enlightening perspectives on how to deal with them.