One of the reprinted reviews which make up the bulk of this book opens: ‘I vividly remember when I first read George Orwell. It was at Eton.’ How would it sound, I mused, if I began a review: ‘I vividly remember when I first read George Orwell. It was at Colchester Grammar School.’
It would lack, I feel, that enviable tone of Etonian ‘assurance’. True, a less self-assured person than James Wood might have slipped his educational credentials in parenthetically — in the style of David Cameron’s casual remark that he is ‘reasonably well off’. And Eton, one notes in passing, has produced many more prime ministers than great literary critics. Connolly, Orwell (at a stretch), and who else?
Well, of course, James Wood. He is, as the puffball endorsements clustered on every spare centimetre in the front and back covers of this book testify, ‘the most urgent and morally demanding critic around’, ‘a superb critic’, ‘the most influential critic of his generation’.
The encomia grate a little on those thereby consigned to Lilliputian stature. It’s intensified by a recurrent pharisaical note in Wood’s own writing. His (astute) essay on Alan Hollinghurst opens: ‘Most of the prose writers acclaimed for writing beautifully do no such thing.’ It throws back an echo, heard throughout the volume, of ‘Lord, I thank thee that I am not as other reviewers are with their thoughtless acclamations.’
Wood’s high-handedness typically takes the form of talking miles over the head of the reader and yards to the side of whomever he’s writing about. Consider the following sentence. Who, do you guess, is the subject of the piece in which it figures? ‘Georges Bataille has some haunting words (in Erotism) about how the workplace is the scene of our domestication and repression: it is where we are forced to put away our Dionysianism.’
Proust? Italo Calvino? No. It’s the Who’s epically depraved drummer, Keith Moon. This is not the critical cross-referencing one would expect to find in the New Musical Express. But James Wood has never been terrified by the Pseud’s Corner sin bin.
Carping aside, Wood is the most engaging of current commentators on literature. Once a wunderkind he is now, at 47 (time flies), middle-aged. There are only three previous book-length works of criticism to his name (before he could lay claim to any supreme titles, Frank Kermode had a shelf-full). Two of them, like this, reprint reviews and occasional pieces. The other, How Fiction Works, is — one assumes — his toolkit as a ‘Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism’ (Laputan title) at Harvard. Every professor has one inside him, as every Victorian governess had a novel (mine is called How to Read a Novel).
Wood has taken the ‘review essay’, 3,000-5,000 words in length, and used it as what Doctor Johnson called ‘a loose sally of the mind’. His rationale for his chosen form is laid out in an essay here on Edmund Wilson. Most genuflect reflexively to the ‘metropolitan critic’. Wood doesn’t because Wilson was a self-declared ‘journalist’. Wood has a Leavisite distrust of that low craft and Wilson is sternly demoted:
V.S. Pritchett seems to me to have a more literary sensibility and a more natural understanding of how fiction works its effects. William Empson explains poetry with a far richer respect for ambiguity; Lionel Trilling imbricates ideas and aesthetics with greater skill.
This, to borrow a title from Wilson’s erstwhile wife, Mary McCarthy, is ‘the company James Wood keeps’.
Fun (apart from the preludic homage to loony Moon) is not the keynote of this volume. High seriousness is James Wood’s ‘stuff’. The strong chapters here are on authors who are canonical (Tolstoy, Sebald), or ought to be if only more people had read them (Aleksander Hemon, László Krasznahorkai). There’s a slap on the kisser for Paul Auster (‘shallow’) and a pat on the back for Auster’s first wife, Lydia Davis (‘not shallow’). King James’s authorial team, which came up with the 1611 Bible, gets unstinted praise.
Wood’s extraordinary quality, and venial shortcomings, are evident in his essay on Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. He seems unaware of, or uninterested in, the preface to the second edition in which the author declared: ‘A Hero of Our Time, dear readers, is in fact a portrait, but not of an individual; it is the aggregate of the vices of our whole generation in their fullest expression.’ It’s usually regarded as a revealing statement. And it’s perverse to devote 5,000 words to this novel without a paragraph or so on Lermontov’s (and the hero, Pechorin’s) god, Byron. But there is a compensating freshness of critical attack, a relish in Wood’s exegesis (suggestive of someone very brilliant coming to the novel for the first time) which is infectious. It makes you want to go back and read the text again. Properly, this time.
OK, I admit it. He’s a great critic. Quote me.