(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

For several years, James Wood has been attracting the attention of literature-oriented readers with provocative reviews and essays that have appeared in such publications as The New Republic and The London Review of Books. Now he has gathered twenty-one of them into a book that establishes him, at thirty-four, as one of the most cogent and erudite critics of modern fiction. In an examination of the work of such nineteenth century figures as Gustave Flaubert, Nikolai Gogol, Herman Melville, and Anton Chekhov, as well as currently working novelists, including Philip Roth, John Updike, Thomas Pynchon, and Don DeLillo, Wood relates their fiction to problems of religious and philosophical belief. In a packed title essay concluding the book, he charts his own intellectual and spiritual journey. He gives readers rich material for reflection.

Wood notes that the high moment of the novel’s progress in the middle of the nineteenth century (George Eliot, Melville, Flaubert, Fyodor Dostoevski, Leo Tolstoy) coincides with the beginning of religious decline for many thinking people. Ernest Rénan’s Vie de Jésus (1863; The Life of Jesus, 1904) secularized Jesus Christ as a utopian poet whose disciples pushed him toward a messianic fanaticism alien to his nature. Matthew Arnold argued for a religion of rationality compatible with the new advances in science. Both denied Christ’s divinity, regarding him as the hero of a novel, little different from Socrates on one hand and George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda on the other. As a consequence Christ was reduced to being a great moral teacher, and God became a noble pulse, beating inside one but not outside. Religion became morality and literature but no longer a revelation of providential truth. Rénan, Wood notes with typical acerbity, “makes Jesus sound like Dostoyevsky’s idiot, Prince Myshkin, a holy fool dribbling fine phrases.”

Wood spent his childhood in an atmosphere of evangelical Christianity. With his family he attended a charismatic church, where he witnessed “people shivering with ecstasies” as they clutched at their notion of God. At the age of fifteen he tore himself away from theism, having compiled several objections to belief and finding no satisfactory refutations of them. He considered Dostoevski’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor “an unanswerable attack on the cruelty of God’s hiddenness.” He can find no solution in religion to the existence of enormous pain and suffering in the world.

In his introduction Wood stresses that he regards distinctions between literary belief and religious faith as important, and that he finds himself attracted to writers who struggle with these categories. He speculates that religion’s claims to truth were slain not only by science but also by the novel, with a writer like Flaubert striving to turn literary style into scripture. His essay on Flaubert deplores his religion of style, his ambition to write books “about nothing,” his imprisonment in aesthetic scruples. For Wood, Flaubert makes a monkish fetish of details, seeking to establish fiction as a painterly activity of finely wrought descriptions, a necklace of nuggets of observation. As for his characters, he dislikes and dooms them. Wood titles his essay “Half Against Flaubert,” but the reader is puzzled as to which aspects of Flaubert’s art constitutes the half that Wood is for.

Wood is strongly drawn to Melville’s metaphysical struggles. Wood’s style is vividly metaphorical, as when he declares, “No other nineteenth-century novelist writing in English lived in the city of words that Melville lived in; they were suburbanites by comparison.” He stresses that Melville’s difficult relationship to his inherited Calvinism “is the absent, sunless center of all his greatest fiction, poetry and letters.” Melville moves tidally between belief and unbelief, aware that the world he experiences does not look like God’s and that His standards are cruelly impossible.

In his essay on the currently neglected Norwegian master, Knut Hamsun, Wood lauds him for having founded the kind of modernist novel that leads to Samuel Beckett—of crepuscular states, alienation, and surrealism. His characters are epistemological brawlers who “are always challenging meaning to a fight.” Wood interprets Hamsun’s novels, particularly Sult (1890;Hunger, 1899), as perversions of the Christian system of reward and punishment, confession and absolution, pride and humility, with the protagonist of Hunger a grotesque parody of the traditional Christian posture of martyrdom. Regarding Hamsun’s notorious pro-German sympathies during World War II, which led him to idealize Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, Wood’s explanation is that Hamsun’s veneration of the Nazis was due partly to his solitariness by this time and partly to his senseless hatred of England. His novels that matter were written long before, in the 1890’s and early 1900’s.

Although Wood deplores Flaubert’s religion of art, he admires Virginia Woolf’s. The difference? Woolf reaches beyond art, beyond an aesthetic vision. She is a Platonic mystic who, even though irreligious, intuits a real world beyond the apparent one. How to reach it? The way is not through philosophical logic but through lunges of the imagination. What Wood appreciates about her fictive art is that her characters are allowed to drift...

(The entire section is 2216 words.)