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The Prime of James Wood

What is fiction for? This is one of those questions—How does a compassionate God permit cruelty? What do women want? Why is there dandruff?—which are probably not susceptible of an answer but which yet continue to niggle. At the simplest, we may observe that inside every adult there lives on a child who must have stories that thrill or soothe, and that even novels of the grandest seriousness are no more than elaborated fairy tales. But is this a sufficient accounting for, say, Middlemarch—which Virginia Woolf described as one of the very few novels written for grown-ups—or The Golden Bowl, or Samuel Beckett’s Molloy? In his essay collection The Broken Estate, James Wood observes that “fiction moves in the shadow of doubt, knows itself to be a true lie, knows that at any moment it might fail to makes its case. Belief in fiction is always belief ‘as if.’” Wood follows this with an apposite and characteristically subversive quote from Thomas Mann:

To the artist new experiences of “truth” are new incentives to the game, new possibilities of expression, no more. He believes in them, he takes them seriously, just so far as he needs to in order to give them the fullest and profoundest expression. In all that he is very serious, serious even to tears—but yet not quite—and by consequence, not at all. His artistic seriousness is of an absolute nature, it is “dead-earnest playing.”

Of course, the umbrage that Wood casts, and Mann’s deft flicking of the rug from under fiction’s feet, are not quite the daring pieces of prestidigitation they would once have seemed; shadowy doubt is the condition of all our lives in the postmodernist age, when even the most ringing affirmation of truth is horned willy-nilly in vestigial quotation marks. James Wood, one of the subtlest and most serious of the present generation of critics—if “generation” is not too large a word for such a small band—is uneasy with the current laxities, not only in literature but in what passes generally under the name of religion.

He was born in 1965 in Durham in the north of England, a region that more than others has sought to cling stubbornly to the eternal verities, and was brought up in the evangelical tradition—“Sometimes it seems that my childhood was the noise around a hush, the hush of God.” As the biographical note on the jacket of The Broken Estate quaintly puts it, it was in Durham that “he first received a musical and religious education, as a chorister in that city’s cathedral.” That same note describes him, with due modesty, as a “literary journalist,” previously with the London Guardian and presently with The New Yorker.

In the great tradition of Johnson, Coleridge, and Hazlitt, of Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, and Erich Heller, Wood takes literary criticism to be an overview of the humanities in general. More than any of those great predecessors, Wood situates himself firmly at the twilit crossroads where literature and religion meet. For Wood, however, literature seems to be now the high road. In The Broken Estate, as if in defiance of the church elders of his childhood and echoing Thomas Mann, he writes:

Once religion has revealed itself to you, you are never free. In fiction, by contrast, one is always free to choose not to believe, and this very freedom, this shadow of doubt, is what helps to constitute fiction’s reality. Furthermore, even when one is believing fiction, one is “not quite” believing, one is believing “as if.” (One can always close the book, go outside, and kick a stone.) Fiction asks us to judge its reality; religion asserts its reality. And this is all a way of saying that fiction is a special realm of freedom.

Yet immediately after this Dedalian attempt to fly by the nets of the faith of his fathers,1 Wood goes on to write of the importance he attaches to the distinctions between literary belief and religious belief, and of his attraction to writers who “struggle with those distinctions,” distinctions which he sees as having been, if not breached, then certainly blurred around the middle of the nineteenth century. “This was when,” he writes, “the old estate broke,” hence the title of The Broken Estate, the subtitle of which is Essays on Literature and Belief— not “Faith,” mark, but “Belief.” The two pivotal figures whom he sets revolving each on his own wheel are Flaubert, who at the midcentury “began to turn literary style into a religion,” and Ernest Renan, who in his Vie de Jésus “began to turn religion into a kind of style, a poetry.” Wood gently deplores these twin dissolvings:

Ultimately, this “break” was good neither for religion nor perhaps for the novel, although it was perhaps a beneficial moment in our progress from superstition. For Christianity, instead of disappearing, merely surrendered its truth-claims, and turned itself into a comforting poetry on the one hand, or an empty moralism on the other. Truth slipped away. (The heirs of Renan and [Matthew] Arnold are everywhere in contemporary Christianity.) And the novel,…having founded the religion of itself, relaxed too gently into aestheticism.

The chapel child’s disdain for wishy-washy “contemporary Christianity”2 beats clearly in this passage, yet Wood maintains an affirming faith in those writers “great enough to move between the religious impulse and the novelistic impulse.” As an example he adduces Virginia Woolf, one of his abiding enthusiams, for whom “there was no formal agony of religious withdrawal” and for whom “a kind of religious or mystical belief and a literary belief softly consorted.” For Woolf, as for the other great ones whom he cites—Melville, Flaubert, Joyce—realism is the mode by which the noumenon is manifest:

Everything flows from the real, including the beautiful deformations of the real; realism is not a law, but a lenient tutor, for it schools its own truants. It is realism that allows surrealism, magic realism, fantasy, dream, and so on.3

Yet it is the revered Flaubert, that high priest of realism, with whom Wood conducts some of his tetchiest dialogues. In The Broken Estate, in a chapter tellingly entitled “Half-Against Flaubert,” he opens thus: “It is hard not to resent Flaubert for making fictional prose stylish—for making style a problem for the first time in fiction.” This is, of course, the plaint of a lover who wishes the loved one might be perfect.4 And like a lover, Wood demands a rich inner life along with outward loveliness. Recalling Flaubert’s famous wish to write a book about nothing—a book, as Beckett said of Finnegans Wake, that would not be about something but would be the thing itself—he states his objection to the Flaubertian doctrine of l’art pour l’art:

Flaubert is able to achieve his two contradictory ambitions, to write on the one hand fiction that is densely detailed, densely involved with matter, and on the other hand fiction without matter, because his style refuses the pull of matter, asserts itself over matter. His prose will not register emotionally what it depicts visually.

At one level this is an expression of nostalgie de la boue on the part of a critic who loves the grand old swashbucklers of fiction, the “beasts of instinct,” as he calls them, such as Cervantes and Molière—incidentally, admired also by Flaubert precisely because they “had no technique” and thus were free as he was not to indulge their creative exuberance. For Wood these are writers who stride their narratives forward in seven-league boots, registering the things that Flaubert registers but not lingering over them to the exclusion of the commonly human; the ones who, as Wood writes of Balzac, notice a great deal, though “the emphasis is always on abundance rather than intense selectivity of detail.”

This is from a footnote in Wood’s new book, How Fiction Works. He opens his introduction by referring to John Ruskin’s The Elements of Drawing, published in 1857, “a patient primer,” Wood writes, “intended, by casting a critic’s eye over the business of creation, to help the practicing painter, the curious viewer, the ordinary art lover.” So How Fiction Works is, or is intended to be, a specialist’s guide for the nonspecialist, and with this aim in view it remains resolutely nontechnical and amply accommodating. Wood displays his usual genius for apt quotation, and as always his enthusiasm for those writers about whom he is enthusiastic is both convincing and endearing. If Roland Barthes had not already used the title, this book might well have been called A Lover’s Discourse.

Barthes’s name, along with that of the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky, appears early on in Wood’s introduction; these writers are, he tells us, his two favorite twentieth-century critics (even though he has reservations about them). He mentions also E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel and Milan Kundera’s three books on the art of fiction, but only in order delicately to dismiss them—of Kundera he remarks, with what is surely a tolerantly patrician smile, that “occasionally we want his hands to be a bit inkier with text.”

Barthes and Shklovsky, on the other hand, “thought like writers: they attended to style, to words, to form, to metaphor and imagery,” a trait which Wood shares in abundance. Yet in a profound way he disagrees with and even disapproves of them and, by implication, therefore, disagrees with all other critics who, like them, “thought like writers alienated from creative instinct, and were drawn, like larcenous bankers, to raid again and again the very source that sustained them—literary style.” This tendency to stylistic pilfering, of which, as has been implied above, Wood himself is not entirely free, led his two admired predecessors to conclusions about the novel that are “wrongheaded” and against which Wood’s book is, he tells us, a sustained argument.

After this bit of spirited internecine sparring Wood adopts a brisk and practical tone, listing some of the “essential questions” about fiction that he will address: on the nature of realism, on the definition of metaphor, on the reality or otherwise of fictional character, on the importance of detail, on point of view, on imaginative sympathy; he sets out his hope that “this book might be one which asks theoretical questions but answers them practically—or to say it differently, asks a critic’s questions and offers a writer’s answers.” All this is admirable, and admirably stated. He then goes on, as if by an afterthought, to venture the possibility of a larger argument, that

fiction is both artifice and verisimilitude, and that there is nothing difficult in holding together these two possibilities. That is why I have tried to give the most detailed accounts of the technique of that artifice—of how fiction works—in order to reconnect that technique to the world….

In other words, and once again, “I am really talking about the real, which is at the bottom of my inquiries.”

As we see, then, Wood’s aim is an admirably old-fashioned, humanistic affirmation not only of the aesthetic but of the educational value inherent in art, and specifically in the art of fiction. He is far too sophisticated a critic, and too closely penetrating a reader, to dream of suggesting that literature is good for us or, more fatuously still, that it might make us good; yet behind these pages, as behind every page that he has written, we clearly discern the hand of the unstern moralist. Morality here is a matter of stylistic good faith, of a cleaving always to the real, to the actual world in all its humble grandeur.

In another footnote—in this book some of the liveliest arguments are carried on in the footnotes—Wood remarks how Nabokov’s “extravagant metaphors” perform the task which the Russian formalists designated as that of “estranging” or defamiliarizing the world in order to make us look at it afresh. He has been commenting on a description in Nabokov’s novel Pnin of an annoyingly elusive nutcracker as “the leggy thing,” so that “we can instantly see the long legs of the wayward nutcracker, as if it were falling off the roof and walking away. But ‘thing’ is even better, precisely because it is vague.” Down in the footnote he remarks, pace the Russian Formalists—who rear their heads repeatedly over Wood’s elaborately decorative parapet like figures in a Stravinsky ballet—that he prefers the way such metaphors “refer deeply to reality: because they emanate from the characters themselves….”

In the matter of fictional character—and his chapter on this subject is at the heart, and is the heart, of the book—Wood is at once persuasively passionate and reprovingly sensible. On the one hand he is scathing of those readers who demand that a character should be entirely knowable, should have depth, should “grow” and “develop,” should be, above all, “nice.”5 On the other hand, he is equally dismissive of those critics, mainly theoretical, Frenchified ones, who insist that there is no such thing as “character” in fiction. He quotes William H. Gass’s lofty deprecation of a figure in Henry James’s The Awkward Age as nothing more than

(1) a noise, (2) a proper name, (3) a complex system of ideas, (4) a controlling perception, (5) an instrument of verbal organization, (6) a pretended mode of referring, and (7) a source of verbal energy.6

Wood responds:

I find this deeply, incorrigibly wrong. Of course characters are assemblages of words, because literature is such an assemblage of words: this tells us absolutely nothing, and is like elaborately informing us that a novel cannot really create an imagined “world,” because it is just a bound codex of paper pages…. Gass’s words pose as scepticism but in fact simply represent a dandyish flippancy, a refusal to be taught by literature about other people. To my mind, to deny character with such extremity is essentially to deny the novel.7

In defense and illustration of his conception of what a fictional character is, Wood offers shrewd and at times peculiarly moving readings of what are obviously some of his favorite novels, such as the aforementioned Pnin, Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,8 and José Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. The last-named is particularly telling in this context, since Saramago’s eponymous central character is in fact—in fact!—not a character at all, at least not in the conventional sense—if in this context there is a conventional sense, though Wood’s thesis is a resounding insistence that there is—since “Ricardo Reis” is one of the multiple pen-names of the Portuguese writer and eccentric Fernando Pessoa. “The special flicker of this book,” Wood writes, “the tint and the delicacy that make it seem hallucinatory, derive from the solidity with which Saramago invests a character who is fictional twice over: first Pessoa’s, then Saramago’s.”

As against Saramago’s triumph, and as an example of the shallowness of fictional characterization in the avant-garde mode in general, Wood fixes on B.S. Johnson’s novel Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry. Johnson is an unfairly neglected British writer who died young in 1973, the author of a series of highly experimental and wonderfully funny novels, including the sadly well-titled The Unfortunates, which consisted of a box of loose chapters to be shuffled at random, and which was a critical and, unsurprisingly, a commercial disaster.9

Johnson was of the Gass camp, considering characters to be no more than verbal organizations, and his books are constantly delivering knowing nudges to the reader, with such violence at times that the reader loses balance and falls off the edge of the page. Wood points out that in contrast with Muriel Spark or Nabokov or Saramago, Johnson does not inhabit—the italics are Wood’s—the ontological questions he thinks he is confronting us with:

Johnson is content to ask, again and again—and very entertainingly—the metafictional question “How does Christie exist?” but not the metaphysical question “How does Christie exist?”—which is really the question “How do we exist?”

This, surely, is the heart of Wood’s argument, that we go to fiction for many reasons—to be entertained, instructed, diverted, enlightened, entranced—but that what we are really in search of is not fiction, but life itself. Like the figures in our dreams, the characters we encounter in fiction are really us, and the story we are told is the story of ourselves. And therein rests the delightful paradox that the novelist’s transcendent lies are eminently more truthful than all the facts in the world, that they are, in Wood’s formulation, “true lies.” This is what Wood means when, dealing with fiction, he speaks of the real. It is an unfashionable view, and not the only possible and surely not the only valid one, but in the hands of this fiercely committed critic, and consummate stylist, it compels us to look that way with him.

  1. 1

    It is startling, in a writer as devout, if not in an entirely religious sense, as Wood is, to come upon this fierce assertion of the supremacy of fiction: “Despite its being a kind of magic, [fiction] is actually the enemy of superstition, the slayer of religions, the scrutineer of falsity.” Perhaps the softener here is the pluralization of “religions.”

  2. 2

    The child of evangelicalism, if he does not believe, inherits nevertheless a suspicion of indifference. He is always evangelical. He rejects the religion he grew up with, but he rejects it religiously. He has buried evangelical belief but he has not buried the evangelical choice, which seems to him the only important dilemma. He respects the logical claustrophobia of Christian commitment, the little cell of belief. This is the only kind of belief that makes sense, the revolutionary kind. Nominal belief is insufficiently serious; nominal unbelief seems almost a blasphemy against atheism” (The Broken Estate). A blasphemy against atheism—what a wonderful conceit!

  3. 3

    As will be plain even from the few passages so far quoted, Wood is a superb stylist, a fact which, odd as it may seem, makes him a difficult writer to review, because of his overabundance; one wishes one could follow Walter Benjamin’s famous impulse to assemble a text consisting entirely of quotations. “When it comes to language,” Wood notes, “all writers want to be billionaires,” and certainly he is very rich indeed.

    Yet as a critic who also writes fiction —one novel so far, the weightily titled but surprisingly tentative The Book Against God —he is keenly aware of the temptation to swagger and preen: “The writer-critic is always showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion.” Yet surely even D.H. Lawrence himself would not resent the iridescent flash of “Lawrence savours the way in which language at its densest becomes its own medium, like night.”

  4. 4

    …And so once again, as if unable to stop rereading the old letters of a former lover, I return to him” (How Fiction Works).

  5. 5

    A glance at the thousands of foolish ‘reader reviews’ on Amazon.com, with their complaints about dislikeable characters, confirms a contagion of moralizing niceness.” There speaks not only the indignant professional but the clearheaded reader.

  6. 6

    Contra both Gass and Wood, does this not seem a pretty accurate summation of what a “character,” or even a person, is? There are those of us who in our precarious state of selfhood would be glad to be able to claim such a fixed and intricate presence in the world.

  7. 7

    Oddly, in the American edition of the book this passage is altered to omit the sentence “Gass’s words pose…about other people.” One wonders why.

  8. 8

    Nearly all of Muriel Spark’s novels are fiercely composed and devoutly starved. Her brilliantly reduced style, of ‘never apologize, never explain,’ seems a deliberate provocation: we feel compelled to turn the mere crescents of her characters into solid discs.” Yes, yes, one simply cannot stop quoting.

  9. 9

    The mockery and invective with which reviewers, especially the London ones, greeted this unfortunate experiment were in sharp contrast with Wood’s tender deprecations.

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