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Essays on Literature and Belief

by James Wood

Pub Date: June 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-375-50217-3
Publisher: Random House

Provocative, sometimes sermonizing literary criticism, from a writer ready to take on Sir Thomas More, Philip Roth, George Steiner, Iris Murdoch, and others. In these essays and book reviews, some written for the New Republic and the New Yorker, Wood charts an aesthetic and philosophical path—with many theological detours—across literature from Jane Austen’s quiet narrative innovations and Flaubert’s stylistic legacy through Chekhov’s sense of reality, Thomas Pynchon’s allegorical set pieces in Mason & Dixon, and Don DeLillo’s paranoid history in Underworld. His “What Chekhov Meant by Life,” by far the collection’s best piece, adeptly shows how Chekhov learned to build stories out of nearly arbitrary human details that other writers, aspiring to godlike omniscience, still miss. His interest in realism notwithstanding, Wood fixes his critical lodestar in the 19th century, when “the Gospels began to be read, by both writers and theologians, as a set of fictional tales [and] fiction became an almost religious activity.” His thesis that “the novel . . . having found the religion of itself, relaxed too gently into aestheticism,” however, frequently muddies the religious and aesthetic impulses. In going after the White Whale of Melville’s prose in Moby-Dick, for instance, Wood converts Melville’s tortuous religious rejection into an obscure “atheism of metaphor” in which Melville pursued the Godhead in a richly, obsessively metaphorical language. Wood’s muddled discussion of the extent of T.S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism in the face of Anthony Julius’s polemical T.S. Eliot: Anti-Semitism and Literary Form gets lost between the poet’s reactionary cultural agenda and his High Church theology, without addressing his deep prejudice’s personal side. The last piece in the volume clarifies Wood’s perspective, ironically, in a sermon about his own Low Church childhood, present atheism, and Matthew Arnold’s melioratively reasonable Christianity. Near-evangelical about narrative, Wood’s literary appraisals have the thoroughness of biblical exegesis, whether on the novels of Knut Hamsun or Thomas Mann.