THE BROKEN ESTATE: Essays on Literature and Belief

THE BROKEN ESTATE: Essays on Literature and Belief

James Morris

By James Wood. Random House. 272pp. $24

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3m 58sec

THE BROKEN ESTATE: Essays on Literature and Belief. By James Wood. Random House. 272 pp. $24

Wood, a young, Cambridge-educated Englishman who is now a senior editor at the New Republic, belongs to a critical tradition that has largely expired in the thin air of current academic practice. Learned, passionate, and judgmental, he recalls Lionel Trilling and Edmund Wilson, critics who believed that literature matters to the way we live and that its quality can be established through exegesis and argument. Wood’s grave and rather pretentious title sets the tone for this collection of 21 essays on 19th- and 20th-century writers of fiction and poetry, a span stretching from Austen and Melville to Pynchon and Updike, with a swipe at Thomas More and a wicked reduction of the critic George Steiner thrown in for good measure.

Wood is especially attracted to such writers as Melville, Gogol, Arnold, and Flaubert, who seem to him to struggle with the distinctions between literary belief—the assent fiction wins from us to credit its reality—and formal religious belief. Those distinctions became harder to maintain after the ascendancy of the novel in the mid-19th century, when, in Wood’s view, the old estate—"the supposition that religion was a set of divine truth-claims, and that the Gospel narratives were supernatural reports"— no longer held. Novels caused the Gospels to be read as a collection of fictional narratives, even as fiction acquired the status of religion under the influence of writers (Flaubert preeminently) who made literary style an object of worship. "For it was not just science," writes Wood, "but perhaps the novel itself which helped to kill Jesus’s divinity, when it gave us a new sense of the real, a new sense of how the real disposes itself in a narrative—and then in turn a new skepticism toward the real as we encounter it in narrative."

Novels have been credited with a lot in the past: they have ended innocence and toyed with readers’ affections and shredded the social fabric. But did they really bring down God? (Yes, there is that escape-hatch "perhaps.") Wood was raised in an evangelical nook of the Church of England, he tells us, but has since become an atheist. Yet he cannot quite let go of the faith he has tried to replace with the lesser consolations of art; in this book, at least, the loss informs his vocation.

Wood is a fearless and astute critic, who has not only read everything but come to terms with it—come to his terms with it, that is. Fiction for him is about narrative and character, and the best fiction creates characters who get away from their authors and move in a reality beyond the confines of the page, so that we can imagine their spillover lives. Among the writers he thinks great are Austen, Melville, Gogol, Flaubert, Proust, Lawrence, Woolf, Joyce, and Mann; no argument there (well, Lawrence perhaps). Wood’s notions of what makes for great fiction—"fiction as it should be: a free scatter through time, unpressed, incontinent, unhostaged, surprised by the shock of its unhindered passage through frontiers it, and not history, has invented"—appear to champion a wild expansiveness. But they are actually rather stern criteria, disqualifying those who play by different rules (Updike, Pynchon, DeLillo); allegorists are at special risk of being sent early to the showers.

"The writer-critic," Wood says, "is always showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion." He shows a lot of plumage, and his attraction to simile and metaphor seems irresistible. He notices air conditioners "dripping their sap, their backsides thrust out of the window like Alisoun, who does the same in Chaucer" (though presumably without chilling the room). Then again, he can be graceful and apt: "Fiction should seem to offer itself to the reader’s completion, not to the writer’s. This whisper of conspiracy is one of fiction’s necessary beauties."

The last of these essays originated in part as a sermon at an Oxford college, and that’s appropriate, because Wood writes as if he would be right at home in a pulpit. He is immensely serious about locating the abiding achievement of literature and honoring its importance as an alternative to faith. But when the furrow in his brow threatens to suck in the rest of him, he can provoke even an admiring reader to blasphemy: "Lighten up: they’re only books." As indeed they may be, to those whose estate is still whole.

—James Morris


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