Books: Religion of a novel kind

Can literature replace faith in a secular age? Michael Schmidt dissents from a critic's sermon; The Broken Estate: essays on literature and belief by James Wood Jonathan Cape, pounds 16.99, 384pp
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The Independent Culture
Critics are never disinterested. Most have an agenda but, as with other writers, that agenda evolves over time. James Wood, who was born in the mid-1960s, enjoyed an evangelical upbringing but sang in the choir of Durham Cathedral. So he experienced faith in two very different forms, which in a sense propose distinct political and aesthetic as well as spiritual models. As a critic, he remains torn between the reticent and subtle on the one hand, the abundant and demonstrative on the other: the High and Low church.

Wood arranges his essays on writers in The Broken Estate according to a rough chronology of subject, from Thomas More to W G Sebald. The book concludes with four essays which explore "The Broken Estate" in an almost vulnerable spirit. What Wood does not tell us, and what we need to know, is when and on what occasion each essay was written.

In his essay on Virginia Woolf, he remarks that she was less interested in the fact of impressions, more in their nature. And Wood himself has a marked preference for writers who do not find the depths only on the surface but manifest what he is pleased to call a "theology". In his sweet-and-sour demonology, Flaubert the supreme stylist has a lot to answer for.

The first two literary essays, on Jane Austen and Herman Melville, embody a contradiction that runs through the book. Is the essay on Austen early, along with that on Virginia Woolf? They have a tiggerish, undergraduate air, triumphantly inventing the almost-round wheel. "It is this innovation, the discovery of how to represent the brokenness of the mind's communication with itself, that constitutes [Austen's] radicalism," Wood writes. This and nothing else. "It is through inwardness that we get to know a character." There is no other way. Not even through action?

The elaborate rhetoric of the Melville essay feels different in kind; it is certainly different in rhetorical strategy. Is Wood, who subtitles this book "essays on literature and belief", emerging from belief towards literature? Or is he torn between kinds of manifest belief? Wood, who received "a musical and religious education", can ask a book the wrong question, or else the right questions in the wrong way.

For instance, he is singularly uninterested in sex, yet the sexuality of a writer - as in Melville, Mann or Lawrence - has a lot do with how that writer manifests "belief". I wish he was more alive to the libidos of writers. In Mann, Lawrence and others the "theology" (if the term must be applied) is genitally coloured, or genitally bleached. And how much more so with his contemporary Americans!

Wood's Melville essay begins: "When it come to language, all writers want to be billionaires. All long to possess so many words that using them is a fat charity. To be utterly free in language, to be absolute commander of what you do not own - this is the greatest desire of any writer." He has only just disposed of Jane Austen, who is not alone in refuting his enormous claim. "What writer does not dream of touching every word in the lexicon once?" Almost any writer of the 18th century, for starters.

Wood discloses how Melville succumbs to the logic of a chosen metaphor. It can take him, and his metaphysics, in curious directions. Language has its own dynamic, and a writer who gives it its head can be galloped off in unexpected directions. "The love of a metaphor literally leads Melville astray theologically." And a love of theology - broadly construed - can lead James Wood astray.

Wood is at his best when engaging a writer like Gogol, whose life and work propose vertiginous paradoxes. He is at his most predictable with "one of the century's greatest religious writers", D H Lawrence, "one of those greatest mystical texts" turns out to be the awful The Woman Who Rode Away. He is at his worst when riled, trying to be even-handed. Reading Anthony Julius's book on T S Eliot's anti-Semitism "is like watching a maniac trying to calm a hysteric". This is wrong on both counts, and silly.

Am I the only reader troubled by the juxtaposition of Wood's exoneration of Eliot, and his wilful assault on George Steiner's Real Presences and Steiner's oeuvre as a whole? It is facile to parody Steiner's style, or to patronise him. The substance of Steiner's argument eludes Wood, but it shouldn't. Real Presences and The Broken Estate hoe the same stony field.

But Steiner's title is a red rag to a (once-Christian) bull. Steiner, he complains, has appropriated and applied a term with specific, sacramental meanings. By the same token, Wood consistently misuses the term "allegory", a specific mode in Christian writing that depends on a spiritual commonality.

The Broken Estate is a miscellany; and the introduction attempts to yoke the pieces together. Wood discovers a congruence between the religious and the novelistic impulse. "The real, in fiction, is always a matter of belief, and is therefore a kind of discretionary magic: it is a magic whose existence it is up to us, as readers, to validate and confirm." "The real" here is less philosophically complex than Steiner's idea of the "real". If Wood's rhetoric is less emphatic than Steiner's, it is no subtler. Note the pompous commas around "as readers", underlining a tautology. And "discretionary magic" - is there room for magic in this kind of criticism?

"Chekhov thinks of detail, even visual detail, as a story," Wood writes, and this is wonderful; but he adds "and thinks of a story as an enigma." He pushes too far. "From the various memoirs by relatives and friends, we can imagine [Chekhov as] a man who always seemed a little older than himself." This is vivid; but then Chekhov is seen as "older than anyone he met, as if he were living more than one life". Wood is carried away from sense into nonsense.

As for the notion that "the real" exists outside the language that constructs it, so that language can confidently refer to it, this begs a question or two. Wood's is manifestly impatient with writers who reify their medium, such as Georges Perec and Vladimir Nabokov (what would he make of Christine Brooke-Rose, B S Johnson or Michael Westlake?). He is decidedly mainstream, impatient of experiment, but dissatisfied that the mainstream - in the Britain of the writers he discusses - should flow so shallowly today.

Wood evinces time and again the caustic intelligence that reminds us of F R Leavis and his Scrutiny disciples. He is a critic hungry for something. He knows when he hasn't found it. When he does find it in adequate measure, he will be a formidable advocate.

Michael Schmidt's book "The Lives of the Poets" is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson; he is Director of the Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University