Good literary criticism is rare. While more is being written now than ever before, less is of any real or lasting interest to the general reader. Mainly by and for the academic specialist, most of it is dull, ephemeral and driven by successive intellectual fashions.
An invigorating wariness about such fashion is among James Wood's finest gifts. These essays were written for periodicals, mainly the London Review of Books and the New Republic. Wood was often able to choose his own topics, and his assertion that they share a common thread is more than rhetoric. He wants to explore the comic impulse and to find out how and why, in the greatest writers, comedy finds in pathos its true bedfellow. He is not ashamed of being moved. It interests him that fashion has declared war on feeling.
One of his best essays concerns what he wonderfully terms the cult of "hysterical realism", in Zadie Smith, Don de Lillo, Salman Rushdie. Such writers seek a "glamorous congestion", pursuing a largely mechanical vitality to the limit, dedicated to story-telling at deliberate cost to depth of characterisation or any sense of the tragic.
Fashion has inflated Rushdie's reputation. In two essays, Wood shows precisely how Rushdie's raucousness and cartoonishness can render his work problematic in ways he has not designed. Rushdie's inability to write realistically oddly confirms the "prestige of realism", its true rigour and challenge.
At the same time, Wood's demolition of Tom Wolfe's shallow documentary style and bumptious simplicity is equally persuasive. Wood is fond of those writers whom fashion neglects. His celebrations of the shy talents of Henry Green, VS Pritchett and (very differently) the Russian satirical writer Saltykov-Shchedrin are memorable and moving.
Fashion for a while declared the author dead, and "character" redundant. Those parroting this were often fools in English departments, professionally willing to believe anything. Wood is a dazzling controversialist who can also pay generous homage. He seems to have read everything: he venerates those who can create "character", and writes marvellously on Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Dostoyesvky.
Contemporary America's greatest writer, Saul Bellow, extended the life of the traditional novel, and earns Wood's loving admiration. So does post-colonial fiction: not because of voguish multi-culturalism, but because it recalls 19th-century gravity.
All of this might make Wood sound fogeyish or backward-looking. Yet he has yet to see 40, and belongs to our time. He appreciates Zadie Smith, and shows why her youth is cause for celebration: her great talents should have time to ripen.
His conclusion suggests he thinks this collection more "secular" than his last, The Broken Estate. Yet religion still engages him imaginatively. Proust's madeleine is compared (brilliantly) to a secularised communion wafer, a Host by means of which the worshipper starts to examine himself. Flaubert is "an essentially religious writer", albeit aesthetically devoted, retaining the religious urge to "scourge and correct" his characters. Dostoyevsky shows the feebleness of psychological explanation in the face of the oddity and extremism of religious motives.
Wood gets uncannily close to his subjects and shows most eloquently how to read the selves of writers and their creations. The Irresponsible Self is a great feast abounding in small surprises, felicities, wonders and delights.
Peter J Conradi's life of Iris Murdoch is published by HarperCollins
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