For James Wood, great fiction is always a venture into danger--a journey to the farthest shores. By extension, great criticism too should demand and risk all. And his first collection, The Broken Estate, does so again and again. Since Wood graduated from Cambridge in the 1980s and began reviewing for The Guardian, his name has been preceded by phrases such as enfant terrible and followed by adjectives such as fierce, fearless, and occasionally far worse. Few critics have such an urgent relation to their reading, and it is this, combined with his all-encompassing intellect and verbal velvet, that makes Wood so terrifying--and so tender.
In his introduction to The Broken Estate he writes, "The gentle request to believe is what makes fiction so moving" (gentle, as both adjective and verb, and its adverbial form, seem key terms), and this is what Wood is drawn to explore in the Russian greats and the English, European, and American moderns, among others. Many of these essays originally appeared in the London Review of Books and The New Republic, where he is a senior editor, but his book is far from a bundle of accident. Wood''s contention is that in the mid-19th century, the "distinctions between literary belief and religious belief" began to blur (or, depending on the writer, shimmer), causing a crisis for the likes of Melville, Gogol, and Flaubert, and leading to "a skepticism toward the real as we encounter it in the narrative." I suspect, however, that some will head straight for the pieces on their literary loves and not be so concerned with Wood''s overarching thesis, at least initially. No matter. Each essay also stands on its own, whether the author is positing Jane Austen as "a ferocious innovator" more radical than Flaubert, Melville as the ultimate linguistic spendthrift, or Gogol as "a defensive fantasist."
In a brilliant take on Virginia Woolf--Wood makes even the much-discussed new--he declares (admits?) that "the writer-critic, wanting to be both faithful critic and original writer," is caught "in a flurry of trapped loyalties." But he himself almost always works his way out of such snares, one of the many joys of this book. In his analysis of the several sides of Thomas More, for example, Wood first reads Utopia as a comedy but then suggests we read it "more tragically--not as a Lucianic satire but as a darkly ironic vision of the impossible." The aphorisms and aperçus come thick and strong. (Keepers of commonplace books should start a separate volume just for Wood.) For example, "Leslie Stephen acted like a genius but he thought like a merely gifted man." Or, "Hemingway has a reputation as a cold master of repetition, an icicle formed from the drip of style, while Lawrence is most often seen as a hothead who fell over himself, verbally." And he also has a gift for the telling domestic detail: Gogol "irritated others by playing card games he had invented and then changing the rules during play. He became rather selfishly involved with undercooked macaroni cheese, a dish he made again and again for guests." But Wood will dislike being complimented on his sentences as much as he claims Woolf did. His art, too, must be measured in chapters.
Wood is a great lover, and this makes him if not a great hater then one who gets hot under the critical collar, his ardor turning to irritation and intemperance in pieces on Morrison, Pynchon, and Murdoch. But in his finest discussions--among them one on Chekhov and another on late-20th-century treasure W.G. Sebald--he instantly quickens writers, books, and readers into being. --Kerry Fried
Published when he was thirty-three, The Broken Estate is the first book of essays by the man who would become one of America''s most esteemed literary critics. Ranging in subject from Jane Austen to John Updike, this collection introduced American readers to a new kind of humanist criticism. Wood is committed to judging literature through its connection with the soul, its appeal to our appetites and identities, and he examines his subjects rigorously, without ever losing sight of the mysterious human impulse that has made these works valuable to generations of readers.
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