(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The Irresponsible Self was James Wood's third book in four years. His novel The Book Against God (2003) features a temporary lecturer on philosophy at University College, London. Tom Bunting disappoints his parents, wife, and students by his lying, irresponsible conduct, and inability to accept God's existence. Wood's book The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief (1999) is, like The Irresponsible Self, a collection of previously published essays on prose writers as diverse as Don DeLillo and Anton Chekhov.

The Irresponsible Self begins with an introductory essay that purports to serve as an umbrella-like cover for the ensuing articles. It seeks to distinguish between “the comedy of forgiveness and the comedy of correction.” In the former, the presiding spirit is Momus, god of fault-finding and correction, as in works by Hesiod and Lucan. The other kind is tragicomedy, which Wood terms “the irresponsible self.” Momus is the god of satirists, from Aristophanes to Jonathan Swift and Gustave Flaubert. The comedy of forgiveness proceeds from William Shakespeare to Jane Austen to Philip Roth. Wood tries to trace fancy figures of distinction between “reliable unreliable narration” and “unreliably unreliable narration.”

Only occasionally does Wood clarify and reliably apply these distinctions in the essays that follow. The virtues of his essays, all previously published in periodicals such as The New Republic andThe New Yorker, are that they exhibit a razor-sharp acumen, astounding knowledge, biting wit, and deep intelligence. Occasionally, however, Wood baffles the reader by his too-clever wit, as when he calls Shakespeare's Mistress Quickly's irrelevances “sad and funny because they have the aspect of remembered detail but the status of forgotten detail.”

Wood's reading of Cervantes's Don Quixote (1605) is secular, going against the weight of critical opinion, which considers the book a “profoundly Christian epic” (as did the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno); its hero a Christian saint (as did W. H. Auden); or a parallel to Scripture (as did Harold Bloom). Instead, Wood prefers to emphasize the novel's grossness, worldliness, violence, and, of course, its comedy. Wood regards the novel as the first secular comedy, which occasionally slips in blasphemous comments, with the “knight” arguing that the great tales of knight-errantry deserve the same acceptance as religious “relics” used to support the veracity of religion. Wood prefers the second, more ironic book to the far more famous first. In it, the don and Sancho must validate their “reality” by appealing to their experiences in the first volume. The second volume is dominated by Sancho, who becomes wiser and funnier in it. The reader is deeply shocked when Don Quixote, toward the end, decides to retire from adventuring, becomes depressed, announces himself cured of his madness, and dies. As Wood comments, “Don Quixote has become his own fiction of himself, and cannot live without it.”

One writer with whom Wood's thesis fails is Dostoevski. He considers Zapiski iz podpolya (1864;Letters from the Underworld, 1913; better known as Notes from the Underground), Vechny muzh(1870; The Permanent Husband, 1888; also known as The Eternal Husband), and Bratya Karamazovy (1879-1880; The Brothers Karamazov, 1912). He notes the typical Dostoevskian mixture of haughtiness and humility, as in the Undergroundling and Smerdyakov and Fyodor Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov. He mocks Dostoevski's conviction that without belief in God, everything is permitted, by noting that, historically, “with God everything already has been permitted.” Like many other Dostoevski readers, Wood is fascinated by the intricate characterization of Ivan Karamazov. He favors the notion that Ivan's anti-Christian arguments are never refuted and that Dostoevski has produced—contrary to his purpose—an unconsciously atheistic book. This is all quite persuasive, but Wood's notions of the comedy of forgiveness and the comedy of correction are nowhere to be found.

The same goes for the essay on the...

(The entire section is 1738 words.)