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The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief Hardcover – June 1, 1999


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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

From Publishers Weekly

At a mere 33 years old, Wood has produced an unlikely and brilliant first book collecting his reviews (from the New Republic, where he is the full-time book critic, the London Review of Books and elsewhere). Neither a programmatic study nor a grab bag of occasional work, these 21 pieces give a compelling account of modern fiction that is as conscientious as it is idiosyncratic, adducing a gallery of personal heroes (Herman Melville, Nikolay Gogol, Anton Chekhov, Virginia Woolf, W.G. Sebald), of more-or-less villains (Ernest Renan, George Steiner, Toni Morrison, John Updike, Julian Barnes) and of great in-betweeners (Thomas More, T.S. Eliot, Gustave Flaubert, Philip Roth). Like Woolf's reviews, which he praises eloquently, Wood's really are essays, the incisive, beautifully turned workings of a literary mind. Even before the final, title piece, which links Wood's childhood in an evangelical Anglican family to his religious preoccupations, the book reveals a reader whose prejudices are as interesting as his conclusions, and whose radical Protestant upbringing seems to have given him an acute outsider's feel for American fiction. (Wood's ornery critiques of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo do them more honor than most critics' praise.) Wood is least convincing when he codifies his tasteApretty much anything he likes he calls "realistic," whether it's Gogol's "Nose" or Woolf's interior monologuesAbut this is rare. One often wonders what Wood's take would be on writers absent from these pages, Anthony Trollope, say, or Leo Tolstoy, William Gaddis or David Foster Wallace, who seem temperamentally matched to his concerns. In other words, one wants Wood reading over one's shoulderAand for a reviewer, that may be the highest possible praise.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1 edition (June 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375502173
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375502170
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 6.5 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,134,035 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

The only essay here which does that is a fine one on the great Norwegian author Knut Hamsun.
pnotley@hotmail.com
He is more critical of Flaubert than usual, drawing out what he perceives to be some of the problems of realism in a great work like 'A Sentimental Education.'
Steiner
I don't think these lapses damage his arguments, but they distract the reader's attention, however briefly, from the main thrust of the essay.
E. Hawkins

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

25 of 26 people found the following review helpful By E. Hawkins on February 14, 2000
Format: Hardcover
'The Broken Estate' is one of the best volumes of literary criticism to have been published in the last ten years. It's plain that James Wood has immersed himself in comparative literature. That he is so young is further cause for excitement (and jealousy). I happen to disagree with Wood's assessments of some of the writers dealt with here, but I can't help admiring how seriously and enthusiastically he makes his case in each essay. The one fault I find -- and it's a localised one -- is in his writing. His prose is generally graceful, and all the essays are carefully structured, but he can lose himself in abstractions or flights of fancy. Wood demolishes the lofty pronouncements of George Steiner -- his 'imprecisions and melodramas'-- while occasionally indulging in the same sort of thing himself: the first two sentences of his introduction, for example, make no discernible sense. I don't think these lapses damage his arguments, but they distract the reader's attention, however briefly, from the main thrust of the essay. But this is a minor cavil. On the evidence of the work contained in 'The Broken Estate', we may have found the coming century's Edmund Wilson.
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33 of 36 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 11, 2000
Format: Hardcover
A lot of praise is being heaped upon Mr Wood, and much of it is deserved. The Broken Estate is a damn fine book of criticism in an age which produces, mostly, badly-written puffed-up nonsense by those who read books for money without loving them. Wood writes terribly well, loves books and thinks arguing about them matters. Indeed, Wood believes good books matter too much for their own sake to be used merely as hostages in the latest battle of the critical theory wars. God bless him for that.
But let us not rush to praise James Wood too much, too soon. As of yet, there is a kind of laziness, an unwillingness to read too closely, to spend too long examining deeply in detail the particular interchanges among the complex webs of meaning great writers create. Wood is now painting with a critical brush too broad for refined contemplation of particular literary moments. Here again one is tempted to bemoan the modern moment. Like so many editors, reviewers, and academics, one imagines he has too much to read too quickly to consistently manage the extended and leisured living-with which our greatest works require. Thus Wood appears to read---not always, but too often--superficially. There are the marks of such a problem throughout this text; moments of missing the matter which matters most.
Most blaring is the essay on Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon. I do not criticise Mr Wood here for coming to a particular conclusion about the merits or otherwise of the work. Rather I suggest that many of the substantial claims he makes about the use of allegory and the employment of intellectual history are factually unsustainable. The confusion of allegorical multiplicity with ethical equivocation is the product of a too-shallow reading, of a reading-to-deadline.
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51 of 58 people found the following review helpful By pnotley@hotmail.com on July 19, 2001
Format: Paperback
Whatever happened to the tradition of morally serious criticism most famously exemplified by F.R. Leavis and Lionel Trilling? What happened to those critics whose essays exemplified what Joseph Epstein has called "gravity"? Well, in Epstein's case he succumbed to the malevolent ideological miasma of Norman Podhoretz's Commentary. Leavis' influence declined as a result of his parochialism, his narrow concentration on a few English writers, and his rather hostile and paranoid attitude towards criticism. As academics concentrated more and more on trying to define what literature, many of the forums for the public intellectual took an increasingly hysterical and demagogic attitude towards modern literary theory. Given the New York Review of Books' notorious reluctance to attract new talent, and the ideological prejudices of the American right, where is a new critic going to come from?
James Wood is one such critic, and to say he is one of the best contributors to the New Republic is not praise enough. Better to say that he reminds one of the New Republic when it was an honest magazine. Intelligent, thoughtful, morally serious, his collection does not show all his virtues. It does not include his witty evisceration of Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full, which demonstrates the difference between a flashy journalist and a real novelist. A great critic tries to remind us of the unaccountably neglected and the forgotten. The only essay here which does that is a fine one on the great Norwegian author Knut Hamsun. (Later essays on Giovanni Verga and Henry Green were written after this book was published.) Wood grew up in an English evangelical household and gradually lost his faith in God's existence. The nonconformist attitudes still remain though, with sometimes unhelpful results.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Darin on January 25, 2000
Format: Hardcover
In a disparaging essay on George Steiner laced with caustic asides (Steiner's obsessive "tic of the consumer's indefinite article") and penetrating insight (Steiner's "real presence," for Wood, tries to straddle the two chairs of Faith and Nihilism, collapsing between them in the process), Wood corrects Steiner's misappropriation of Pascal's wager. The reference to Pascal was not lost on this reader: James Wood is a tremendous critic who writes like a "machine infernale."
While polemos is a frequent pose for Wood, I never felt that it was a pose taken serendipitously, arguing for the sake of arguing. One can plainly see the struggle in his lines, the wrestling with both preferred authors (Woolf, Sebald, Mann) and roguish ones (Updike, Pynchon, Morrison, DeLillo, Steiner). In that sense, he remains the heir to the Johnsonian legacy of encomiastic criticism. Though I may disagree at times, I am grateful for Wood's brave and necessary polemics. In fact, so impressed am I with Wood's essays that I will often secretly read The New Republic (which I in general find distateful) solely for his contributions. The New Republic is lucky to have him; we are lucky to be living at a time when he is writing.
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