It is a commonplace to begin an essay about essays with etymology. Essay: noun, from the French essayer , verb, to try. Next is the requisite hat-tip to Michel de Montaigne , Renaissance philosopher and one-time mayor Bordeaux, who is considered to have been the first great essayist; his Essais , published in 1580, includes disquisitions on, among other things, idleness, liars, , pedantry, the custom of wearing clothes, sleep, names, drunkenness and smells. “I know well how that particular essay on essays gets written,” Brian Dillon in his new book, Essayism , refusing to rehearse these familiar ideas, even as he mentions them. Over the course of meditation on that elegant and slippery of forms, he identifies some “combination of exactitude and evasion” at the heart of it, an inner “conflict”, whereby it “aspires to express the quintessence or crux of its matter … to a sort of polish and integrity”, while also insisting “that its purview is partial, that incomplete is a value in itself for it better reflects the brave and curious but faltering nature of the writing mind”. The essay has to convey mastery while admitting partiality. This […]