The Fun Stuff and Other Essays
By James Wood (Jonathan Cape 344pp £18.99)
At one point in his untrustworthy recollections Kenneth Toomey, the narrator of Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers, cattily refers to T S Eliot's habit of collecting up old book reviews and calling them Selected Essays. It is a deliciously wrong-headed remark, as Burgess, a clever and funny critic who collected his own reviews assiduously enough, knew perfectly well. Burgess called his own diverting ragbag of gathered pieces Homage to QWERT YUIOP, which makes disarming reference to the top line of letters on the typewriter keyboard on which he had bashed out all those notices for money. But a judicious collection of such pieces can be much more than the sum of its parts. Eliot's Selected Essays, to take Toomey's example (or even better Eliot's earlier book The Sacred Wood), shows how the contingent productions of a jobbing life can be organised into a coherent and satisfying order, the essays connecting to one another by preoccupation, echo and contradiction, and creating new sorts of meaning through their well-pondered juxtapositions. Publishers won't normally touch a collection of articles these days, no doubt with good reason, but it is striking to reflect how different the history of modern literature would have been had they always taken that line. Anyway, some of my own favourite books of criticism have had their origin this way: W W Robson's marvellous Critical Essays, say, or Barbara Everett's perpetually suggestive Poets in Their Time.
So the very fact that James Wood should be publishing a book that is made up entirely of pieces that have already appeared in the London Review of Books, the New Yorker, and the New Republic is itself a mark of his eminence. There are few critical collections that can confidently be allocated to the Robson or Everett class, of course, and Wood is not embarrassed in such company. He is a very fine reader of fiction indeed (the pieces here are mostly about novels with a few on non-fictional prose), a writer of conceptual dexterity, information and wit, and, above all, a wonderfully vivid communicator of literary pleasure.
What provokes his pleasure? Wood's criticism is consistently underwritten by an enthusiasm for authors who write conscious of their duty as stylists. But style here is a matter less of artful flamboyance or nicety for nicety's sake, and more a dedication to realism, which Wood understands as an unending imaginative effort to keep words and sentences alive to the world that they at once describe and inhabit. He can be unsparing about those authors, Paul Auster being the most prominent example here, who let their English go flabby; and he is equally sharp about prose, such as Ian McEwan's, that gathers its energies from literary tricks rather than a more immediate engagement with the real. He admires no one more than he does Tolstoy, who appears several times in these pages. From Tolstoy's prose you catch the 'contagion of vitality': he offers you individuals who at once handsomely fulfil and yet abundantly overflow their literary types. ('We cannot resist these people, and they cannot resist themselves,' he says nicely.)
There is an implicit morality at work in all this, under the sway of which 'the vital, solipsistic ego is affronted by the otherness of the world'. That otherness can be other people; it can be just things. Readers of Hardy 'thrill to the precision with which he captures the world', for instance, in his descriptions of stuff; and such an imaginative power is still alive and well in the best of Alan Hollinghurst, which 'has the power of re-description, whereby we are made to notice something hitherto neglected'. The enemies of good writing are, by contrast, didacticism (which mars Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go), the pressure to be philosophical (which spoils Cormac McCarthy's The Road), a penchant for sermonising (as in Tolstoy) or over-clarification (the weakness of Edmund Wilson as a critic), or even the 'painful obviousness' of bare allegory (Ismail Kadare).
All this shows that, while the interests here lie mostly in contemporary fiction, in his deepest critical temperament James Wood is really a late Romantic. The origins of his impressively consistent set of aesthetic preferences can be found in Coleridge and Keats and their 19th-century disciples; and not the least interesting aspect of his book is the ample evidence it provides of Romanticism's extraordinary capacity to reinvent itself from generation to generation. When Coleridge sought to praise Wordsworth he singled out his amazing capacity to reinvest the world with all the freshness that habituation kills; and when Keats sought to dispraise him, it was his tendentious habit of moralising to which he objected: 'We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us - and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket.' Wood hates novels that do that, and his countering criterion of excellence is that quintessentially Romantic ideal, freedom - what he calls the 'freedom necessary to successful narrative'. It is a deeply paradoxical position, as he is aware, for no character is ever really free in a novel. But the paradoxes at work can prove bracing rather than disabling, as they do in the work of John Bayley, say, a critic whom Wood resembles in a number of respects, and who happily professed his own Romanticism. 'The author cannot show us what love is like,' Bayley once wrote, 'but his characters ... can create it for us in the reality of their separate and unique existence.' I think Wood would agree. In these accomplished essays, reader and author combine efforts in a spirit of what he strikingly calls at one point the 'right literary love'.
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Seamus Perry is a fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, where he is tutor in English and Fellow Librarian.