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The critic keeps his faith in books


Essays on Literature and Belief

By James Wood

RAndom House, $24

Reviewed by ADAM BEGLEY

In the United States, where he now makes his home, consensus is building that James Wood, a 34-year-old Englishman, is the best literary critic of his generation.

But what does it mean today to be the best literary critic of one's generation? Same as yesterday, in Wood's case, same as in the good old days, when the novel was a dominant form of cultural expression, a crowning artistic achievement. He seems not to have noticed that literary study has been squeezed closer to the margins, that the written word has ceded space to images flashed on screens big and small. His world is a library _ before the advent of online searches and digitalized catalogs.

Wood writes about the living and the dead, the great and the would-be great with equal passion, with the same intent, hopeful interrogation. Anton Chekhov and Julian Barnes, Virginia Woolf and Don DeLillo, Herman Melville and Philip Roth, Gustave Flaubert and Martin Amis _ Wood does not kowtow to the classics or lower the bar for "contemporary classics." His unspoken, untroubled conviction that literature matters (and therefore literary judgments matter, too) liberates him from nostalgia and anxiety. A dead writer's genius doesn't cue an ubi sunt lament; a living writer's failure doesn't set bells tolling for the death of the novel.

He has faith in books. As for the other kind of faith, he lost it at age 15. (The Broken Estate is subtitled "Essays on Literature and Belief"; it includes, toward the end, a brief autobiographical passage.) The child of evangelical Christians, Wood remains an evangelist of sorts, always ready to trumpet his enthusiasms. A born persuader, he is drawn to strong convictions and boldly stated truths. Facts leave him cold. He is the enemy of the middling, the mild. He wants his truth not just raw but reeking, hot from mystery's core. He is an atheist who mistrusts the irreligious, the pettiness of the safely secular, the tidiness of the merely rational.

You will not be surprised to hear that he likes Herman Melville ("messy with metaphysics"), and D.H. Lawrence, too. Wood defends Lawrence against readers who find him "clothy, heavy, perhaps a bit Germanic" (precisely how I feel), praises his "unbuttonedness, his free eccentricities." But Wood also admires Jane Austen, whom he rightly calls "a ferocious innovator." And, somewhere between prim Austen and wild, wooly Lawrence, there's Virginia Woolf, whose criticism, especially, sends Wood into raptures of delight. It is a great pleasure to see him savor a great writer's words, to feel the ecstasy with which he quotes, for example, a tiny snippet of Woolf: "Colour returns. The day waves yellow with all its crops." The second sentence, says Wood, "simply needs to be repeated again and again."

But it seems to me that he can only relax into the enjoyment of a writer's sentences if the writer's enduring greatness has been securely established. Which means that brilliant stylists like Martin Amis and John Updike are rudely dismissed. They lack genuine profundity and true, life-and-death daring, and so their gorgeously intricate, perfectly balanced sentences are spurned; according to Wood, their stitching and unstitching has been naught. This seems wasteful to me. Fine writing is too rare to toss aside because it lacks moral scope and transcendent meaning. A sentence that merely startles does some good, too; it reinvigorates, it opens the eyes.

Wood demands more than elegant amusement. In his essay on Julian Barnes, he decries the "certain tone _ literary, a little fussy, meddlingly foreclosing _ that has sounded again and again in English writing" in the 20th century. Barnes, he writes, "is brisk with mystery, gently pedantic, undeniably clever, and certainly cosy." And then Wood swats him again, harder: "Barnes is rather celebrated for the fat and waxy health of his "ideas.' " A ripe, vegetable intellect! But Barnes could never have hoped to please Wood. If you're "brisk with mystery," forget about election to Wood's pantheon. "Fiction," he declares, "must not stroke the known but distress the undiscovered."

If Wood were willing to skate along without worrying so much about the depths beneath the ice, he would learn to love a few of the authors who now disappoint him. I'm thinking especially of Don DeLillo, whom he labels a paranoid, a tag I thought DeLillo had shaken. More time spent admiring the surface shimmer of DeLillo's prose would show Wood that he and DeLillo share an utterly un-paranoid belief in the vital importance of literature and a similarly urgent dedication to the art of fitting words together.

Wood is not just a keen critic, our best, but a superb writer. He's the kind of writer James Wood admires most: daring, meaty, boldly metaphoric, unequivocally committed.

Adam Begley is books editor of the New York Observer.