Im­pe­ri­ous critic is per­versely bril­liant

The Fun Stuff and Other Es­says

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - John Suther­land The Spec­ta­tor

By James Wood Jonathan Cape, 344pp, $49.95 (HB)

ONE of the reprinted re­views that make up the bulk of James Wood’s The Fun Stuff opens: ‘‘ I vividly re­mem­ber when I first read Ge­orge Or­well. It was at Eton.’’ How would it sound, I mused, if I be­gan a re­view: ‘‘ I vividly re­mem­ber when I first read Ge­orge Or­well. It was at Colch­ester Gram­mar School.’’

It would lack, I feel, that en­vi­able tone of Eto­nian ‘‘ as­sur­ance’’. True, a less self-as­sured per­son than Wood might have slipped his ed­u­ca­tional cre­den­tials in par­en­thet­i­cally — in the style of Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron’s ca­sual re­mark that he is ‘‘ rea­son­ably well off’’. And Eton, one notes in pass­ing, has pro­duced many more prime min­is­ters than great lit­er­ary crit­ics. Cyril Con­nolly, Or­well (at a stretch), and who else?

Well, of course, James Wood. The English-born, Bos­ton-based chief book critic for The New Yorker is, as the puff­ball en­dorse­ments clus­tered on ev­ery spare cen­time­tre in the front and back cov­ers of this book tes­tify, ‘‘ the most ur­gent and morally de­mand­ing critic around’’, a ‘‘ su­perb critic’’, the ‘‘ most in­flu­en­tial critic of his gen­er­a­tion’’.

The en­comi­ums grate a lit­tle on those thereby con­signed to Lil­liputian stature. It’s in­ten­si­fied by a re­cur­rent phari­saic note in Wood’s own writ­ing. His (as­tute) es­say on Alan Hollinghurst opens: ‘‘ Most of the prose writ­ers ac­claimed for writ­ing beau­ti­fully do no such thing.’’ It throws back an echo, heard through­out this col­lec­tion, of ‘‘ Lord, I thank thee that I am not as other re­view­ers are with their thought­less ac­cla­ma­tions.’’

Wood’s high-hand­ed­ness typ­i­cally takes the form of talk­ing miles over the head of the reader and yards to the side of whomever he’s writ­ing about. Con­sider the fol­low­ing sen­tence. Who, do you guess, is the sub­ject of the piece in which it fig­ures? ‘‘ Ge­orges Bataille has some haunt­ing words (in Ero­tism) about how the work­place is the scene of our do­mes­ti­ca­tion and re­pres­sion: it is where we are forced to put away our Dionysian­ism.’’

Proust? Italo Calvino? No. It’s the Who’s epi­cally de­praved drum­mer, Keith Moon. This is not the crit­i­cal cross-ref­er­enc­ing one would ex­pect to find in the New Mu­si­cal Ex­press. But Wood has never been ter­ri­fied by the Pseuds Cor­ner sin bin.

Carp­ing aside, Wood is the most en­gag­ing of to­day’s com­men­ta­tors on lit­er­a­ture. Once a wun­derkind he is now, at 47 (time flies), mid­dle-aged. There are only three pre­vi­ous book-length works of crit­i­cism to his name (be­fore he could lay claim to any supreme ti­tles, Frank Ker­mode had a shelf-full). Two of them, like this one, re­print re­views and oc­ca­sional pieces. The other, How Fic­tion Works (2008), is — one as­sumes — his tool­kit as a ‘‘ pro­fes­sor of the prac­tice of lit­er­ary crit­i­cism’’ (La­putan ti­tle) at Har­vard. Ev­ery pro­fes­sor has one in­side him, as ev­ery Vic­to­rian governess had a novel (mine is called How to Read a Novel).

Wood has taken the ‘‘ re­view es­say’’, 3000-to-5000 words in length, and used it as what Dr John­son called ‘‘ a loose sally of the mind’’. His ra­tio­nale for his cho­sen form is laid out in an es­say here on Ed­mund Wil­son. Most gen­u­flect re­flex­ively to the ‘‘ met­ro­pol­i­tan critic’’. Wood doesn’t be­cause Wil­son was a self-de­clared jour­nal­ist. Wood has a Leav­is­ite dis­trust of that low craft and Wil­son is sternly de­moted: VS Pritch­ett seems to me to have a more lit­er­ary sen­si­bil­ity and a more nat­u­ral un­der­stand­ing of how fic­tion works its ef­fects. Wil­liam Emp­son ex­plains po­etry with a far richer re­spect for am­bi­gu­ity; Lionel Trilling im­bri­cates ideas and aes­thet­ics with greater skill. This, to bor­row a ti­tle from Wil­son’s erst­while wife, Mary McCarthy, is ‘‘ the com­pany James Wood keeps’’.

Fun (apart from the pre­lu­dic homage to loony Moon) is not the key­note of The Fun Stuff. High se­ri­ous­ness is Wood’s ‘‘ stuff’’. The strong chap­ters here are on au­thors who are canon­i­cal (Tol­stoy, Se­bald), or ought to be if only more peo­ple had read them (Alek­san­dar He­mon, Las­zlo Krasz­na­horkai). There’s a slap on the kisser for Paul Auster (‘‘shal­low’’) and a pat on the back for Auster’s first wife, Ly­dia Davis (‘‘not shal­low’’). King James’s au­tho­rial team, which came up with the 1611 Bi­ble, gets un­stinted praise.

Wood’s ex­tra­or­di­nary qual­ity, and ve­nial short­com­ings, are ev­i­dent in his es­say on Mikhail Ler­mon­tov’s A Hero of Our Time. He seems un­aware of, or un­in­ter­ested in, the pref­ace to the sec­ond edi­tion in which the au­thor de­clared: ‘‘ A Hero of Our Time, dear read­ers, is in fact a por­trait, but not of an in­di­vid­ual; it is the ag­gre­gate of the vices of our whole gen­er­a­tion in their fullest ex­pres­sion.’’ It’s usu­ally re­garded as a re­veal­ing state­ment. And it’s per­verse to de­vote 5000 words to this novel with­out a para­graph or so on Ler­mon­tov’s (and the hero, Pe­chorin’s) god, By­ron. But there is a com­pen­sat­ing fresh­ness of crit­i­cal at­tack, a rel­ish in Wood’s ex­e­ge­sis (sug­ges­tive of some­one very bril­liant coming to the novel for the first time) that is in­fec­tious. It makes you want to go back and read the text again. Prop­erly, this time.

OK, I ad­mit it. He’s a great critic. Quote me.

is emer­i­tus Lord North­cliffe pro­fes­sor of mod­ern English lit­er­a­ture at Univer­sity Col­lege Lon­don. His books in­clude Lives of the Nov­el­ists: A His­tory of Fic­tion in 294 Lives and How to Read a Novel: A User’s Guide.

James Wood is an en­gag­ing com­men­ta­tor

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