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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2216

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.

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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 into an absentminded randomness which may be at odds with the structure of the novel as a whole. This permissiveness is contrary to Flaubert’s stern regimentation of his aesthetic elements. In discussing Woolf’s critical essays, Wood calls them “the most substantial body of criticism in English this century.” Such a judgment is open to skepticism by admirers of T. S. Eliot, Edmund Wilson, and V. S. Pritchett.

T. S. Eliot is the subject of one of Wood’s most vehement essays. He attacks Anthony Julius’s study, T. S. Eliot: Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form (1995), for arguing that anti-Semitism occurs at the heart of much of Eliot’s greatest poetry. Not so, insists Wood. It is central in only three of Eliot’s poems, “Gerontion,” “Burbank with a Baedecker: Bleistein with a Cigar,” and “Sweeney Among the Nightingales.” Untainted by bigotry is Eliot’s best work, including The Waste Land(1922), Four Quartets (1943), and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” He scorches Julius as having written a “tendentious, misleading and unremittingly hostile” book. The portrait that Wood draws of Eliot’s Christian anti- Semitism is, nonetheless, appalling. Eliot’s rigidly intolerant Christianity regarded whatever was outside his church as not only heretical but deadly. In The Idea of a Christian Society (1939) he wrote, “If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes.” InAfter Strange Gods (1934), “reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.”

Wood celebrates D. H. Lawrence as a religious writer who unites poetry and preaching, “the greatest mystical novelist in English.” As Wood reads him, Lawrence felt that since the Renaissance, modern men and women had oscillated between an overassertion of the self, by venerating the flesh, and a loss of the self, by dissolving it into the greater self of Christ. His goal was to harmonize this discord by blending self-assertion with self-abnegation, the tiger and the lamb. His fiction strives to make the invisible visible. Wood finds Lawrence a better stylist than Ernest Hemingway, less mannered, more natural, with a better ear, a quick, vital writer of physical descriptions, capable of gorgeous evocations of moods and scenes.

A number of Wood’s judgments are sharply adverse, with no essay more savage than his reflections on the comparative critic George Steiner. He grants Steiner two virtues: He is philosophically more literate than most critics and has written a fine book on Martin Heidegger, and he is far more open to new work, in various languages, than is the usual case among English-language critics. Then Wood discharges his heavy artillery: Steiner’s prose is “the sweat of a monument.” He is pretentious, imprecise, melodramatic, opaque, and prone to an “air of excited gravity.” His religiosity is consistently evasive, as he keeps invoking his doctrine of a so-called Real Presence without ever defining it. Steiner, Wood concludes, is simply “a metaphorical critic who imagines himself to be a theological one.” Wood chooses to ignore Steiner’s impressive contributions in his texts on language, tragedy, translation, Tolstoy, and Dostoevski.

Wood begins his essay on Iris Murdoch’s philosophy of fiction by regretting the weakness of English fiction in the past four decades. It has produced few characters of depth or life, has been too explicit with symbol and allegory (William Golding), and has intruded bossily into the freedom of its characters (Muriel Spark, Margaret Drabble, A. S. Byatt). Furthermore, its comedy is too shallow and too narrowly social (Spark again, Angus Wilson, and Martin Amis), and it lacks a tragic sense. As for Iris Murdoch, she

has written repeatedly that the very definition of the great novel is the free and realized life it gives its characters, while making her own fictional characters as unfree as pampered convicts.

Wood regrets her failures because, of all the postwar English novelists, Murdoch has the greatest intellectual range, the best mind.

In a separate essay, Wood gives low marks to the English fictionist Julian Barnes. He interprets Barnes’s work as directly descended from E. M. Forster in being briskly mysterious, neat, clever, and “certainly cozy.” However, Barnes lacks Forster’s grand liberalism and moving uncertainties. Instead, he offers readers an intellectual cuddle in cleansing daylight; his metaphors neither deepen nor complicate his world. He trivializes important themes. Wood cannot forgive Barnes for what he deems his shallow tidiness.

Five of Wood’s essays focus on contemporary American authors; only one, on Philip Roth, is laudatory. Wood’s sharpest knives attack John Updike, contrasting him unfavorably with Melville as a God-involved novelist. Melville was metaphysical, while Updike is only theological, writing complacent books that neither agitate nor console the reader, exuding a shallow serenity. Wood grants Updike skill as a writer of fine prose, but his stylistic beauty is insufficient, often descending to “lyric kitsch.” His lack of spiritual fervor disconcerts Wood, who neglects to mention the Rabbit Angstrom tetralogy, which many critics regard as Updike’s finest work.

Wood also treats Toni Morrison’s fiction unkindly. He rejects her magic realism by stating, “Since fiction is itself a kind of magic, the novel should not be magical.” He rejects her novel Paradise(1998) as sentimental, evasive, cloudy, and politically schematic. In it controlling men, unable to tolerate female differences, murder good feminists. Moreover, Morrison is indiscriminately lyrical, her prose too lush, her rapture too intense. She loves her own language more than she loves her characters, so that they appear as “mere spokes of style” as she curtails their freedom and individuality.

Wood’s essay on Thomas Pynchon is more balanced. His novel Mason and Dixon (1997) has many delights and wonders, particularly Pynchon’s prose, which takes in both early eighteenth century styles and late twentieth century idioms. However, this novel’s limitations are those of allegory: It is inflexible and curtails its characters. They largely fail to exist as people, instead existing to dispense ideological or philosophical lessons; they do not move the reader, because allegory enslaves them to ideas and cultural episodes. Again, Melville serves as the model against whom Pynchon falls short. Where Melville used allegory to hunt down truth, Pynchon uses it to hide truth.

Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997) is an ambitious failure. It offers a few themes: the secret power of the United States government, the paranoid state in which the nuclear bomb put people, and “the ambushing power of the postmodern image culture.” Wood regrets that the neurotic, paranoid vision of Underworld disqualifies it from consideration as great fiction. He finds the novel webbed with examples of obsessive mistrust, such as J. Edgar Hoover’s unfounded suspicions, the convictions of fictive characters that the census is a government plot against black people, that contaminated waste is being unloaded on poor countries, that the Central Intelligence Agency is shipping heroin, and so on. Unfortunately, DeLillo never establishes a clear distance between his views and those of his crazies.

After so many volleys, the reader is surprised to discover Wood’s admiration for Philip Roth’sSabbath’s Theater (1995), which has been disparaged as obsessively obscene by many critics. Wood finds the novel extraordinary in its delineation of Mickey Sabbath, a satyr who is also a great hater, a misanthrope and nihilist, a monk of fornication. Wood is impressed by Roth’s success in linking sex to nihilism in a disciplined aesthetic manner. Sabbath is a self-hater whose anguish and self-disgust move the reader. Roth has written a profound novel ending in the basement of the soul.

As a critic, James Wood has clear limitations. He has no sympathy for novels that are ironic or comic, that accept the world, that lack intensity and anguish. He takes what may be undue delight in scorching his targets. He is also prone to flat and categorical statements that may not always be valid. Yet his positive qualities outweigh his defects: His learning is broad and deep, his mind is bold and lucid, his prose is often eloquent, and his rigorous standards demand respect.

Sources for Further Study

American Scholar 68 (Summer, 1999): 139.

Booklist 95 (June 1, 1999): 1774.

Library Journal 124 (May 1, 1999): 80.

The New York Times, July 26, 1999, p. B6.

The New York Times Book Review 104 (July 25, 1999): 11.

Publishers Weekly 246 (April 19, 1999): 47.

The Times Literary Supplement, January 22, 1999, p. 13.

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