The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief by James Wood. Picador. 304 pp., $17.00.
“To censure and criticize,” says Rudin in Ivan Turgenev’s early novel of the same name, “is a right to be enjoyed only by the man who genuinely loves.”
James Wood loves. His reputation as a crabby eccentric hacking his way through the garrulous brush of contemporary literature is undeserved; his is a criticism that supplants his fellow critics in its deep appreciation for what literature can do. Like Virginia Woolf (in many ways the critic Wood resembles most), his passion and engagement often takes the form of a quarrelsome vivacity, a fierce and frequently ruthless impatience with what Woolf memorably called “the sight of trivial personalities decomposing in the eternity of print.” Last year, for instance, Wood penned a particularly disparaging review of new novel by Paul Auster for The New Yorker. Characteristic of his honesty and wit was a remark about the prolific nature of Auster’s work: “the pleasing, slightly facile books come out almost every year, as tidy and punctual as postage stamps, and the applauding reviewers line up like eager stamp collectors to get the latest issue.”
Wood can be harsh, yes, but he is seldom unfair. Wyatt Mason was wrong to accuse him of having suggested, by dint of a string of negative reviews, that no good contemporary literature exists. (He has written favorably of McEwan, Bolaño, Robinson, Ozick, Kirsch, Sebald, Roth, Saramago, Swift, Carey.) He never simply dismisses a writer (in the manor of, say, Dale Peck); on the contrary, his criticism, even at its most polemical and uncompromising, is inexplicably bound to larger concerns about the direction of contemporary fiction. Even in the Paul Auster review Wood takes serious fiction’s relationship to American postmodernism, and he pays deep attention to the artifice of its style. (“Auster is a compelling storyteller, but his stories are assertions rather than persuasions.”) Here, again, I think the comparison to Virginia Woolf is appropriate: like Wood, Woolf’s criticism was animated by, and has endured because of, large and serious concerns about literature, such as (in her case) the development of the English novel, the stuffy dominance of male writers, and the liberating possibilities of European modernism.
Two major concerns have dominated James Wood’s writing: realism and religion. In The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief, his first collection, newly available in paperback from Picador, these two concerns are beautifully imbricated, resulting in what is surely among the finest achievements in recent literary journalism.
In a new introduction (titled “The Freedom of Not Quite” as opposed to the original “The Limits of Not Quite”), Wood astutely invokes Samuel Beckett’s Endgame as an example of a work of literature that moves us despite it being the very antithesis of realism. “What is interesting,” Wood writes, “is that, with few or any of the elements of conventional ‘realism,’ Nell’s death moves us as much as, or more than, the death of another Nell, Dickens’ little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop.” Wood marvels—rightly—at the ability of Beckett’s absurd play to move us so completely, and muses on the relationship between our reality and fictional reality:
We instantly register the reality of Nell’s silence, and Nagg’s sudden loneliness, and it touches our own lives. But how? What is the point of impact? My own aging parents are not buried in bins, did not lose their legs in the Ardennes (if indeed this is what happened to Nell and Nagg), would not laugh about losing their legs in the Ardennes, are not neglected by an ungrateful son and a bitter servant. Their routines have perhaps shrunk into the slight tedium of old age, but my parents are not quite imprisoned by them. Not quite: and as soon as those words are voiced, a connection is apparent. This “not quite” is a big enough connection between my real world and Beckett’s imagined world. Our usual language about how we relate to fictional characters—we “sympathize” with them, “identify,” “empathize”—implies a large exchange, a sizable impact, a sharing of identities, but perhaps what this scene reveals is that representation needs only a very small point of connection; and the smaller the point of impact the more acute its effect, like a sharp pencil pressed down onto a whitening fingernail.
Endgame ultimately reminds us, Wood argues, that “how literature discloses the real has little to do with what is commonly called ‘realism.’” Indeed, Wood is highly critical of conventional realism, suggesting that a number of contemporary novelists are “realistic” almost out of laziness, employing “a certain level of well-selected detail” in order to keep “the balloon of verisimilitude afloat.” Thus Wood, who, oddly enough, has been lampooned as a staunch defender of conventional realist narrative, is an acute critic of its peremptory use. (From the essay on W.G. Sebald: “here was the first contemporary writer since Beckett to have found a way to protest the good government of the conventional novel form and to harass realism into a state of self-examination.”)
We can partly attribute this accomplishment to Wood’s awareness of the novel’s history. In “Half Against Flaubert,” one of the finest essays in The Broken Estate, Wood uncovers the seed of so much bad contemporary writing by finding in Flaubert the fetishizing of the visual; “Flaubert made the novel a painterly activity, and perhaps in doing so he destined the novel to the danger of irrelevance.” In other words, if the chief ambition of the novel is to convey in visually arresting prose the surface of things, then it becomes an essentially shallow, negligent art form. This prospect for the future of the novel was particularly dire in the case of Flaubert, who invariably thought of style as a kind of masochism. “What a devil of a style I have taken on!” he wrote to Louise Colet in November 1851, “if you knew how much I’m torturing myself with it, you’d be sorry for me.”
The other major concern of The Broken Estate is religion, particularly the ways it intersects with literary belief. Religious belief, Wood argues, is almost antithetical to literary belief because it requires you to accept its reality without question. “If religion is true, one must believe. And if one chooses not to believe, one’s choice is marked under the category of a refusal, and is thus never really free: it has the duress of a recoil.” With literary belief, however, “one is always free to choose not to believe.” This, Wood argues, is the freedom of literature; it is what constitutes its “reality.” Yet in some writers (notably Melville, Coleridge, and Gogol), the line that separates fiction and religion is blurred or combated; these were writers in whom religious belief fought with literature’s negative capability. In Melville’s case, Wood writes, the novelist sees a “world stripped of God’s presence” and begins to theologize literature. Exit God, enter Shakespeare. The old estate begins to rot, and eventually divinity is evicted altogether. This struggle peaked around the end of the 19th century, before the poeticization of religion and the ascent of the novel challenged and “helped kill off Jesus’ divinity.”
Because of his deep theological learning, James Wood occupies a place as a serious and thoughtful atheist alternative to the rather shallow polemics of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, atheists to whom non-belief is a kind of liberating deliverance from superstition. Clearly, Wood’s literary belief is a replacement of religious belief, an alternative that allows for greater freedom and skepticism. In the collection’s final essay, “The Broken Estate: The Legacy of Ernest Renan and Mathew Arnold,” Wood praises Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus for being “a tract aimed at evacuating God, and a promise to live by the moral rigor of that evacuation.” (Similarly, Niels Lyhne, in J.P. Jacobsen’s great novel of the same name, knows that atheism is a process, and that it will make enormous demands on people, requiring a replacement of some kind.) “At the age of fifteen,” Wood writes, “I sat down with a notebook and tore myself away from belief in God. It is a process that brings great unhappiness to others, but not to oneself. It is like undressing. You are so quickly, so easily free.”
Jams Wood has unfailingly enacted this freedom in his criticism, and he rightly pursues its fictional equivalents in the novelists he writes about. He values Jane Austen, for instance, for her “discovery of how to represent the brokenness of the mind’s communication with itself,” and, in one of The Broken Estate’s most complex and rewarding essays he pursues with characteristic intellectual rigorousness Thomas Mann’s theory of the “not quite,” truly the centerpiece of Wood’s essay collection. The idea is a profound one, and Wood explicates it intelligently—he considers it, transforms it, and beautifully makes it his own. Art is serious, Thomas Mann writes, and yet not quite. Wood delights in the contradiction: art is “guilty innocence, innocent guilt,” he writes. Literature can “enrich our powers of sympathy” in ways that life does not permit. This is why we are able to offer our sympathy to characters that we would condemn in real life (Humbert Humbert, say, or the pompous Monsieur Homais in Madame Bovary). In this sense, Mann and Wood argue, literature is not quite serious—it becomes a kind of game: it is “true, and a game—a true game, but still not life. Which is why we can allow our ideas of things to remain unresolved in fiction as we rarely do in life.” For the same reasons, Wood is deeply critical of writers in whose work he feels constrained, whether by Don DeLillo’s paranoia (“Underworld proves, once and for all . . . the incompatibility of the political paranoid vision with great fiction”) or Julian Barnes’ “addiction to fact.”
Wood’s awareness of the freedom and limits of the “not quite” allows him greater dexterity and freedom as a critic in that he speaks to novelists in their own language. In “Virginia Woolf’s Mysticism” he celebrates the great novelist for also being “a great critic,” and places in her in the tradition of Coleridge, Arnold, and Henry James. Her essays, Wood argues, are “a writer’s criticism, written in the language of art, which is the language of metaphor.” Woolf herself wrote, in “The Modern Essay,” that the essayist “must know – that is the first essential – how to write.” And Wood, like his great predecessor, undoubtedly knows how to write; these essays, too, are written in “the language of art”: Harold Bloom has “kidnapped the whole of English literature and has been releasing his hostages, one by one, over a lifetime, on his own spirited terms”; Herman Melville, “in his relation to belief, was like the last guest who cannot leave the party; he was always returning to see if he had left his hat and gloves”; Broadway traffic sounds like “an army that is getting closer but never arrives.” James Wood, with The Broken Estate, entered the ranks of Coleridge, Arnold, James, and Woolf. These essays are not simply brilliant writer’s criticism; they are an apologia for its existence and endurance. Rereading them reminds us (or, more accurately: reminding those who need reminding) that no one reads with the intellectual daring and elegance of mind that James Wood does.
Morten Høi Jensen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark. His writing has appeared in Words Without Borders. He maintains a blog, The Critical Muse.
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