Eru­dite mus­ings with philo­soph­i­cal bent

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

JAMES Wood’s bril­liant ca­reer — though still in his early 40s, the English- born lit­er­ary critic is a pro­fes­sor of crit­i­cal prac­tice at Har­vard and a staff writer at The New Yorker — reg­is­ters the ris­ing ca­chet of high cul­tural cap­i­tal in a pop cul­tural age.

It’s any­one’s guess whether, by the end of his ca­reer, Wood will have be­come a stronger critic than his il­lus­tri­ous mid 20th- cen­tury pre­de­ces­sors such as William Emp­son, F. R. Leavis and Ed­mund Wil­son. But he is al­ready an es­tab­lish­ment fig­ure en­joy­ing the sheen of mi­nor celebrity, be­strid­ing the pres­tige end of the academy and lit­er­ary jour­nal­ism.

Yet his new anal­y­sis of fiction’s in­te­rior work­ings, though bright and oc­ca­sion­ally bril­liant, is not en­tirely con­vinc­ing. An­i­mated by a rest­less spec­u­la­tive en­ergy and a bravura style, it aims to march lit­er­ary crit­i­cism into an en­gage­ment with moral phi­los­o­phy.

Wood ex­plains in the in­tro­duc­tion how his dis­cus­sion of free in­di­rect style will cascade into a con­sid­er­a­tion of point of view, and point of view into the per­cep­tion of de­tail, then de­tail into char­ac­ter, ‘‘ and when I am talk­ing about char­ac­ter I am talk­ing about the real, which is at the bot­tom of my in­quiries’’. Later in the es­say he jet­ti­sons re­al­ism in favour of truth: a prob­lem­atic con­cept given the uni­ver­sal ac­cep­tance of fiction’s re­la­tion­ship to truth and false­hood, and about as clearly de­fined in his ex­tended es­say as a Willem de Koon­ing por­trait.

How Fiction Works By James Wood Jonathan Cape, 192pp, $ 39.95 Book Self: The Reader as Writer and the Writer as Critic By C. K. Stead Auck­land Univer­sity Press, 329pp, $ 49.95

Wood seems to have writ­ten the book in part as an an­swer to the pseudo- philo­soph­i­cal turn of lit­er­ary stud­ies dur­ing the past decade or more, which has tended to bully the twin con­cepts of truth and re­al­ism as part of its project against West­ern epis­te­mol­ogy and in part as a nov­el­ist’s med­i­ta­tion on what works in fiction.

He con­cludes by en­dors­ing the ‘‘ de­sire to be truth­ful about life, the de­sire to pro­duce art that sees ‘ the way things are’, as a uni­ver­sal lit­er­ary mo­tive and project, the broad cen­tral lan­guage of the novel and drama: what ( Henry) James in What Maisie Knew calls ‘ the firm ground of fiction, through which in­deed there curled the blue river of truth’.’’ James’s metaphor puts the point nicely. But it’s not al­to­gether clear whether some of the great mo­ments in West­ern lit­er­a­ture — the ghost scene from Ham­let , Pip’s en­counter with Miss Haver­sham, Raskol­nikov’s dream — owe their en­dur­ing po­tency to the blue river of truth or the white­wa­ter of in­ven­tion.

Wood fur­ther in­sists that ‘‘ real lit­er­a­ture’’ in­volves a re­sis­tance to lit­er­ary con­ven­tion, so that it is not enough for a great work to ‘‘ strike us with its truth’’; it must also ‘‘ shake habit’s house to its foun­da­tions’’. Re­al­ism, hav­ing ear­lier been ejected in favour of truth, is now read­mit­ted and newly de­fined as ‘‘ life­ness’’, a dread­ful ne­ol­o­gism.

How Fiction Works de­serves a wide reader-

ship and a long life in print be­cause it touches on — rather than re­solves — im­por­tant ques­tions about the moral and psy­cho­log­i­cal value of lit­er­a­ture. Wood is a pas­sion­ate evan­ge­list for lit­er­ary fiction and a quite mas­ter­ful critic; a wor­thy foil for his touch­stone au­thors Tol­stoy, Chekhov, Dick­ens and James. As a long- time ad­mirer of his work, how­ever, I found this per­for­mance less as­sured than the sin­gle- fo­cus es­says and re­views where he seems, para­dox­i­cally, to have more time and more room to move.

How Fiction Works aims for a kind of Pla­tonic as­cent from the con­crete to the meta­phys­i­cal; from con­sid­er­a­tions of lit­er­ary style to moral phi­los­o­phy. And Wood is less con­vinc­ing as a philoso­pher than as a lit­er­ary critic. He cites bril­liant moral philoso­pher Bernard Wil­liams in sup­port of his view that the novel does the work of phi­los­o­phy by ac­count­ing for our ‘‘ moral fab­ric’’. True of the re­al­ist novel, per­haps, and of non­fic­tion nar­ra­tive gen­res, but not of all fiction.

In his read­ing of Gus­tave Flaubert’s Sen­ti­men­tal Ed­u­ca­tion , Wood labours a pretty con­ven­tional point about the ar­ti­fi­cial­ity of re­al­ism. As in a film, he ar­gues, ‘‘ we no longer no­tice what Flaubert chooses not to no­tice. And we no longer no­tice that what he has se­lected is not of course ca­su­ally scanned but quite sav­agely cho­sen.’’ This is just chat­ter. Flaubert cer­tainly aimed in this ground­break­ing work to dis­sect the 1848 revo­lu­tion. But the ad­verb ‘‘ sav­agely’’ is all wrong for Flaubert, a painstak­ingly con­trolled stylist. It’s not the only point in the book where the style guru’s prose shows signs of haste.

The sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship be­tween philo­soph­i­cal re­al­ism and lit­er­ary re­al­ism was ex­plored 50 years ago by scholar Ian Watt, who noted how ‘‘ the adap­ta­tion of prose style to give an air of com­plete au­then­tic­ity is closely re­lated to one of the dis­tinc­tive method­olog­i­cal em­phases of philo­soph­i­cal re­al­ism’’. Watt’s clas­sic ac­count of re­al­ism’s con­nec­tion to so­cial and in­tel­lec­tual his­tory, The Rise of the Novel , makes an in­ter­est­ing com­pan­ion piece to Wood’s more per­for­ma­tive in­quiry into ‘‘ the real’’ and its ren­der­ing through fiction. On the whole, though, Wood’s pas­tiche lacks the ar­chi­tec­tural so­lid­ity needed to sup­port his weighty am­bi­tions.

New Zealand au­thor, poet and critic C. K. Stead con­fesses in his new col­lec­tion Book Self , that when the writ­ing ‘‘ seems to slow up and be­come slug­gish’’ he turns at once to Dick­ens or Shake­speare for an in­fu­sion of creative en­ergy. The ef­fect can be like a shot in the arm.

Stead’s in­sight into the creative process re­minds us that even the most so­phis­ti­cated read­ers turn to lit­er­a­ture for rea­sons that are not eas­ily dis­tilled into an ethic or an aes­thetic. It’s the same for the com­mon reader. From the lan­guage of As You Like It , Pride and Prej­u­dice , or The Old Cu­rios­ity Shop , we hope to find not so much life­ness — Wood’s term — as live­li­ness.

Stead is an­other fine critic whose work is bet­ter rep­re­sented else­where. The fo­cus of this se­lec­tion is unashamedly parochial and the tone res­o­lutely ego­tis­ti­cal. The abid­ing im­pres­sion of Book Self is that of a critic who rarely seems to know when to get out of the way. A beau­ti­ful obit­u­ary for Janet Frame, psy­cho­log­i­cally il­lu­mi­nat­ing and sen­si­tive to her work and its mi­lieu, be­gins with four in­stances of the first- per­son sin­gu­lar in the first sen­tence. In an obit­u­ary!

But with all crit­ics, as with all nov­el­ists, there is some­thing to en­dure, and read­ers who can put up with, or skirt around, the in­tru­sive au­tho­rial self will find a fine stylist with a poet’s ear who is just as good in a re­flec­tive and ex­pos­i­tory, as in a crit­i­cal, mode.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Sturt Krygs­man

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