James Wood is a useful throwback. His literary criticism recalls an era before academia and imported theory dominated, when men and women of letters held sway. With its combination of seriousness and accessibility, his approach works well for a general reader – if occasional fogeyness is discounted.
So this latest collection, selected from contributions to The New Republic, The New Yorker and the London Review of Books, repays close reading. Indeed, scouring texts for insights is Wood's own key critical technique. It helps him to consistently pass the decisive test for critics, of being able to shift vague perceptions about an author from the back of a reader's mind into tight focus at the front.
Take his essay on George Orwell, which crystallises doubts over the genuine extent of Orwell's revolutionary commitment. While Orwell argued passionately against the status quo, his strategies for its overthrow were oddly freighted towards calls to end the privileges of the rich. The suspicion must be, Wood tells us, that Orwell was keener on social levelling down, rather than redistribution towards the working classes.
Wood airs the nasty little secret of Orwell's dismissal of the idea of extended education for the workers (of precisely the kind that delivered so much social mobility in the immediate post-war era). In The Road to Wigan Pier, Wood reminds us, Orwell stated that the working-class boy "wants to be doing real work, not wasting his time on ridiculous rubbish like history and geography".
Like Orwell, Wood is an Old Etonian, which helps him tease out the ways in which Orwell's politics were skewed by his abhorrence of toffs, despite harbouring some of their more unpleasant prejudices himself.
As befits an old-fashioned pedagogue, Wood is keen to instruct as well as opine. In his essay on W G Sebald's Austerlitz, Wood unpacks the ways in which Sebald achieves his ghostly, mesmerising narrative voice. First off, Sebald displaces and layers Austerlitz's story to enhance the enigma of his central character, in a markedly similar way to the celebrated Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. Digging deeper still, Wood goes on to elucidate Sebald's parallels with a less prominent Austrian, the 19th-century writer Adalbert Stifter, whose archaic romantic prose influences the unsettling Gothic register Sebald deploys so brilliantly.
In the main, Wood is sympathetic and engaged, but he does not shy from conflict. He disses Zadie Smith by explaining in detail why Joseph O'Neill's Netherland is not a liberal humanist post-9/11 novel as she posits, but rather a sophisticated interrogation of the groundless, shifting cultures of our post-colonial world. Smith must count herself fortunate. When it comes to Paul Auster, dreadful as his prose is, Wood's takedown would make a cage fighter blench.
The collection's 23 pieces range wide, with Wood discoursing on everyone from Leo Tolstoy to Geoff Dyer. Experimental writing is represented by Lydia Davis and the modish László Krasznahorkai. There is esoterica including Robert Alter's translations of the Bible, as well as a rumination on how little a library truly says about its owner, prompted by Wood's disposal of his father-in-law's collection of largely unread tomes.
The title essay does not concern literature at all – or at least, not directly. In part, it is an appealing exercise in self-deprecation. Wood enjoyed a traditional musical education in an English cathedral town, where he sang in the choir and learnt piano and trumpet. Apparently the least rebellious of little boys, what he really wanted to do, with every fibre of his cloistered being, was to play the drums in a rock band. And the drummer he admired most of all was that Dionysius of percussion, Keith Moon. Wood offers us a wonderful technical analysis of the "inspired vandalism" of a drummer who refused to limit himself to keeping time. Wood himself hops over disciplinary boundaries in his parsing of Moon's whaling of the skins, comparing Moon's anarchic running together of musical phrases in "his tremendous bubbling cascades" to poetic enjambment.
The collection is not faultless. At times, Wood resorts too readily to the same authors from his canon to illustrate his points, the aforementioned Bernhard among them. Elsewhere, he recycles observations about Tolstoy and Orwell in different essays. And yet, as he points out in his Moon piece, the writer's working life – not to say the critic's – is radically different from the riotous displays of rock musicians, anchored as it is in hermetic environments which carry the whiff of the examination room. That means that the perfect literary critic can only be a chimera, permanently sequestered in the study, unable to share our worldly concerns and therefore to communicate with us well at all. The minor flaws here, then, are reassurance that Wood is merely one of the finest critics around.