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The broken estate: essays on literature and…

The broken estate: essays on literature and belief (1999)

by James Wood

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The scholarly rigor of the first essay, "Sir Thomas More: A Man for One Season," surprises. The essay is a review of Peter Ackroyd's biography of Sir Thomas. By way of a heady recapitulation of More's life and times, Wood suggests that Ackroyd's book is little more than hagiography, though he's careful never to use that word. The second essay "Shakespeare in Bloom" is no less kind. (But then kindness is not really what we are looking for here; that can always be got from one of my many books on compassion.) It looks at the Shakespearean criticism of eminence grise Harold Bloom. Calling his approach essentially a recapitulation of the dated "character criticism" of Dr Samuel Johnson, Wm. Hazlitt and A.C. Bradley. (Apparently, Bloom is vociferously disliked by the trendier Shakespeare critics of today; something I did not know, not being an academic.) Wood puts Bloom's work in context with a brief discussion of how other schools of criticism, such as New Criticism and New Historicism, view Shakespeare. Very interesting. Will continue my comments here as I sporadically read on.

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1 vote William345 | Jun 11, 2014 |
You can’t accuse James Wood of lacking range. These essays run the gamut from Harold Bloom’s influence on Shakespeare studies to the “theology” of George Steiner to the lasting (though indirect) impact of Ernst Renan. Unfortunately, had I not taken notes as I read these two dozen or so essays, I would have quickly forgotten most of the arguments presented herein. At their worst, they are uncontroversial and too subtle perhaps to make an impression. There are a few, though, that are fascinating and thought-provoking enough to make you reconsider the topic at hand – but they are the exception in an otherwise relatively pedestrian set of essays.

Wood has the odd habit of writing something vaguely resembling a book review which in reality is just an opportunity for him to get on a soapbox concerning the subject at hand. This is precisely what he does what the aforementioned essay, titled “Shakespeare in Bloom.” It purports to be a review of Bloom’s “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.” In a sixteen-page-long review, he mentions the book perhaps two or three times, choosing to spend most of his time wrapped up in discussion of the place of ontology in artistic creativity: namely, did we invent Shakespeare (that is, his place in the literary canon), or did he invent us? His answers to these questions draw much more from Hazlitt, Coleridge, and other twentieth century critics than they do from the book being considered, and therefore Bloom’s book, no matter your opinion of it, seems to come off as a cipher, an empty vessel upon which Wood can expatiate as he sees fit. His review of Peter Ackroyd’s “The Life of Thomas More” and the Melville essay, “The All and The If: God and Metaphor in Melville” (mostly a review of Hershel Parker’s biography of Melville), are similar in that they are really more polemical in nature, but still operate under the conceit of a book review.

First the lame and the bland. Do we really need another piece on how Jane Austen created successively female characters with more actively interior lives, and therefore was at least in part responsible for bringing the fore the private, internal lives and thoughts of these characters? And what use is it to have Virginia Woolf described for the 72nd time as “mystical”? Or another retelling of how DeLillo’s conspiracy-laden fiction weakens his writing instead of strengthens it? As for the first two observations, they have been fully fleshed out elsewhere and now seem droll and unimaginative. I even happen to agree with the last point, but I certainly don’t want to read another essay about it; it seems to stand on its own merits for anyone who has read almost anything he has written.

There are some pieces of moderate interest, including one on T. S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism (another cipher of a book review, this time of Anthony Julius’ “Anti-Semitism and Literary Form”). I haven’t read Julius’ book, but it sounds like he goes hopping from poem to poem in Eliot’s oeuvre anxious to kind anti-Jewish sentiment wherever he can find it. Wood rightly take the effort to point out that being a bad person (or having prejudices that today seem less-than-fashionable) doesn’t make you a bad poet.

But I wouldn’t want to leave someone with the impression that the whole book is like this; it has its moments. In the essay on George Steiner’s idea of literature and meaning (mostly as presented in Steiner’s “Real Presences”), Wood accuses Steiner of being “theological.” He suggests Steiner says anything can be said about anything and therefore runs the risk – one could liken it to Pascal’s Wager – that meaning even really exists. He also attacks Steiner’s suggestion that American lacks great art because of its liberal, democratic government. I read one of the essays in “Real Presences” for my undergraduate thesis which is why I was particularly interested in Wood’s assessment, but I don’t remember the anti-Americanism in it.

This is my first collection by Wood, supposedly one of the better literary critics writing today, but didn’t really see what much of the ado was about. I would suggest that, instead of sitting down to read these all at once, you read them topically as you make your way through the authors themselves. That might provide you with a reading that’s more lasting and memorable than most of the ones I walked away with. Despite my experience here, I’m sure the soi-disant literary critic in me will have me coming back for more James Wood in the future. ( )
  kant1066 | Feb 3, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375752633, Paperback)

For James Wood, great fiction is always a venture into danger--a journey to the farthest shores. By extension, great criticism too should demand and risk all. And his first collection, The Broken Estate, does so again and again. Since Wood graduated from Cambridge in the 1980s and began reviewing for The Guardian, his name has been preceded by phrases such as enfant terrible and followed by adjectives such as fierce, fearless, and occasionally far worse. Few critics have such an urgent relation to their reading, and it is this, combined with his all-encompassing intellect and verbal velvet, that makes Wood so terrifying--and so tender.

In his introduction to The Broken Estate he writes, "The gentle request to believe is what makes fiction so moving" (gentle, as both adjective and verb, and its adverbial form, seem key terms), and this is what Wood is drawn to explore in the Russian greats and the English, European, and American moderns, among others. Many of these essays originally appeared in the London Review of Books and The New Republic, where he is a senior editor, but his book is far from a bundle of accident. Wood's contention is that in the mid-19th century, the "distinctions between literary belief and religious belief" began to blur (or, depending on the writer, shimmer), causing a crisis for the likes of Melville, Gogol, and Flaubert, and leading to "a skepticism toward the real as we encounter it in the narrative." I suspect, however, that some will head straight for the pieces on their literary loves and not be so concerned with Wood's overarching thesis, at least initially. No matter. Each essay also stands on its own, whether the author is positing Jane Austen as "a ferocious innovator" more radical than Flaubert, Melville as the ultimate linguistic spendthrift, or Gogol as "a defensive fantasist."

In a brilliant take on Virginia Woolf--Wood makes even the much-discussed new--he declares (admits?) that "the writer-critic, wanting to be both faithful critic and original writer," is caught "in a flurry of trapped loyalties." But he himself almost always works his way out of such snares, one of the many joys of this book. In his analysis of the several sides of Thomas More, for example, Wood first reads Utopia as a comedy but then suggests we read it "more tragically--not as a Lucianic satire but as a darkly ironic vision of the impossible." The aphorisms and aperçus come thick and strong. (Keepers of commonplace books should start a separate volume just for Wood.) For example, "Leslie Stephen acted like a genius but he thought like a merely gifted man." Or, "Hemingway has a reputation as a cold master of repetition, an icicle formed from the drip of style, while Lawrence is most often seen as a hothead who fell over himself, verbally." And he also has a gift for the telling domestic detail: Gogol "irritated others by playing card games he had invented and then changing the rules during play. He became rather selfishly involved with undercooked macaroni cheese, a dish he made again and again for guests." But Wood will dislike being complimented on his sentences as much as he claims Woolf did. His art, too, must be measured in chapters.

Wood is a great lover, and this makes him if not a great hater then one who gets hot under the critical collar, his ardor turning to irritation and intemperance in pieces on Morrison, Pynchon, and Murdoch. But in his finest discussions--among them one on Chekhov and another on late-20th-century treasure W.G. Sebald--he instantly quickens writers, books, and readers into being. --Kerry Fried

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:49 -0400)

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