Review: Recapitulations by Vincent Crapanzano

Review by Hannah Straton

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recapitulations-coverVincent Crapanzano grew up in the 1940s on the grounds of a psychiatric institution where his father worked as a resident physician. The family gardener, handyman, and even the children’s nanny were patients. In Recapitulations, (Other Press, March 2015) Crapanzano remembers these people fondly, never having been scared of them. After his father died, Crapanzano and his family moved to Europe where he attended an international school, and Recapitulations moves as well, as Crapanzano recounts his meetings with various exciting characters at this school. These brief vignettes of the people he encounters continue throughout the book: when he studied philosophy at Harvard in the 1960s, when he met his wife Jane, as well as his adventures being an anthropologist.

Crapanzano is an amazing scholar. He is a world-renowned anthropologist who studied philosophy extensively, author of six books, and published in major periodicals and journals such as American Anthropologist, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Times Literary Supplement…which makes his memoir read very much like it is by an anthropologist who studied philosophy wrote a memoir. Recapitulations is very much to the point, in that it presents facts in an up-front, no-nonsense manner. There are, however, also sections that ponder pointedly abstract concepts; for example, one such chapter is titled “When Did I First Ask Who I Am.” Unfortunately, the contrast between the fact and theoretical is somewhat jarring and although the wonderings are intriguing ideas that require thinking, the philosophical questions seem out of place at times.

When Crapanzano does go on tangents and recounts anecdotes about his school days, a lost love, or his family relations, he slips into an almost conversational voice and the book becomes relatable and captivating. However, even during these times, it can be somewhat difficult to connect with the characters because dialogue is used so sparingly. Another cause for confusion is the broken timeline. Although a nonlinear construction can be useful for connecting events that are seemingly unconnected, Crapanzano’s vignettes jump so quickly and so far that sometimes it is difficult to discern what is happening or where this event is in relation to rest of the story.

In Recapitulations, the anthropological and sometimes philosophical components manifest in a way that assumes knowledge that the average reader may not have. There are numerous references to concepts and individuals that, while perhaps well known within the fields of anthropology and philosophy, are often listed off without any explanation or elaboration. For example, one such passage goes: “The Adamis’ dinners are famous. Camilla will suddenly throw together a pasta, a bollito miso, or a veal tonnato and invite le tout Paris. There I’ve met Umerto Eco, Carlos Fuentes, Jimmy Baldwin, Pierre Boulex, Matta, Derrida, Andrei Voznesensky, Inge Feltrinelli, an Indian silk magnate, and curators from everywhere.”

Crapanzano goes on to write little bits about these people such as “Vozenesky is full of himself” or “I am surprised at how timid Derrida can be.” (For reference, Andrei Vozenesky was a Russian writer and poet who was considered “one of the most daring writers of the Soviet Era,” and Jacques Derrida who wrote over forty books and is best known for developing the sociological concept of “Deconstruction”). Unless you are an anthropologist or a philosopher, it would be difficult to read this book without some source of reference readily available.

Crapanzano has had many amazing life experiences and Recapitulations is a traditional memoir in the sense that it celebrates his life and accomplishments (rather than creating a unique form or different take on the memoir genre, as is so common today). However, the scholarly tone and lack of cohesiveness and creativity leads this book to read more like a scholarly article, which is more educational and less entertaining.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Who would enjoy this book: philosophers and anthropologists, academics who already follow Crapanzano’s work, and those looking to get into the fields of philosophy or anthropology.

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