“Curiouser and Curiouser” is a compilation of five essays written by Nicholas Delbanco that explore a range of unpredictably delightful topics. Delbanco doesn’t hold back, deeply analyzing peculiar subjects with honest and almost youthful inquisitiveness. All of Delbanco’s explorations reveal his profound passion for consuming and creating many types of art, whether it be music, visual arts or writing.
Each essay holds true to the title of the book. Delbanco takes his readers through a maze of thoughts in a charming manner, maturely reflecting on youth with a keen self-awareness. His essay, “Curious George and the pair who Conceived Him: H.A. & Margret Rey,” includes letters written by children to the authors H.A. and Margret Rey. Retaining spelling and grammatical errors, these letters add the perspective of children and their innocent curiosity. Yet Delbanco also brings his scholarly eye to the beloved children’s books, ultimately interpreting the core theme of “Curious George” to be “We Shall Overcome,” coming to this conclusion through the Reys’s background, refugees of Hitler’s Germany and supporters of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Both Delbanco’s essays “The Countess of Stanlein Restored” and “A Visit to the Gallery” provide insight on his expertise of non-literary arts. We learn about the restoration of his father-in-law’s famous Stradivarius cello, and it immediately becomes clear that Delbanco has a thorough knowledge of music.
In “A Visit to the Gallery,” Delbanco discusses museums and the visual arts in a relatable manner, connecting it back to his father and uncle with personal anecdotes that are fresh and human. Delbanco humanizes himself by admitting his lack of focus at the museum and his wandering thoughts about what might have been if he put more effort into the visual arts.
His essay “My Old Books” analyzes his works in the Sherbrookes trilogy (published 1977 to 1980). When Delbanco is offered the chance for his trilogy to be brought back to print-life, Delbanco revisits his old works, making edits beyond adding a footnote or fixing a comma. Delbanco thus walks us through his thorough analysis of his prose, providing a rare look at his precise revision process and at his reflections of his young writing. Even more intriguing, Delbanco discusses having a cameo in his friend John Gardner’s book, and his own decision to mock Gardner’s protagonist in his novel, a delightful literary back-and-forth.
Delbanco’s final essay, “Towards an Autobiography,” is the culmination of his self-awareness. The essay begins with no indication of when it was written, and after a significant portion do we find there are two addendums, dated in August 2000 and March 2016. These addendums reflect on his previous writing of the autobiography, commenting on how relationships, people and himself have changed.
At times, these changes are startling. We learn about influential characters in Delbanco’s life story, only to learn in the next addendum that they have passed away. We learn about Delbanco’s young daughters, only to find in the next page that they are all grown up and that Delbanco is a grandfather. We learn that Delbanco has just taken a job at the University of Michigan, and in the next few pages time fast forwards, and Delbanco has already retired after working at the University of Michigan for 30 years.
At other times, these changes are somber. We learn about Delbanco’s heart problems and surgery, and remember that Delbanco can reflect on so many parts of his life because he has grown old and seen so much. We remember how in “My Old Books” Delbanco himself called his earlier books “historical” after rereading them, and we are hit with the exact sensation of time waxing and waning as Delbanco experiences it.
Honest, introspective and of course curious, Delbanco’s work is a stimulating read that takes the time to stop to think about life with precision and imagination.