25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on February 15, 2000
'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.
33 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on March 11, 2000
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.
Still, I sympathise. Wood could neither professionally avoid publishing something on Mason & Dixon nor muster enough time to consider this monumental tome with sufficient seriousness. It is a position the late, great novelist William Gaddis understood all too well. The result is a little embarrassing. And yet---here is the gem---within this weakest essay of the collection are half a dozen indispensable gut-level insights, powerfully stated. That alone is most of what we can ask of a critic. Through sheer talent, Wood makes himself worth remembering, even when he is sloppy and wrong.
Mostly, he is neither sloppy nor wrong. Buy this book now, and hope for a better, soon.
52 of 59 people found the following review helpful
on July 19, 2001
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. An essay on Thomas More comes close to blaming him for not being a Protestant, and it is based on a dated Protestant historiography of the Reformation that has come under severe challenge from Eamon Duffy, Alexander Walsham and Christopher Haigh. This moralism leaks into his review of Morrison's Paradise, where he criticizes for being insufficiently judgmental.
But the one essay that is truly unforgivably flawed is "Half Against Flaubert." Wood castigates Flaubert for being heartless, unsympathetic, morally empty. That he could make these judgements without reference to Flaubert's "Three Tales" is absurd. It would be like discussing Tolstoy without reference to "The Death of Ivan Illych." Aside from insinuating that Flaubert is metaphorically guilty of the Catholic and monastic heresy of flagellation, Wood's criticisms of A Sentimental Education is singularly obtuse. He cites Henry James criticism, as if it were obvious that James was Flaubert's superior. "The only burning question of Sentimental Education is whether Frederic is going to have sex with his various lovers." No, the burning question is whether there is Frederic Moreau's life and anything in Orleanist and Second Empire France that can preserve him from being suffocated by a heartless conservative mediocrity. Reading this essay in the New Republic I was struck by the fact that this journal was one that looked like it has been edited by A Sentimental Education's cast. It certainaly has more of its share of Naive Moreaus, ruthlessly fashionably Roques, fanatical turncoat Seneschals and unsuccessful opportunistic Deslauriers. To say that Moreau is "bland" misses the point. Many people are, and many more are made that way by the world. At one point Wood praises the moral intelligence of Jane Austen and praises' James' creation of Gilbert Osmond as a truly evil character. In contrast to Flaubert, cannot one say that James and Austen rig the sentiments slightly? Would we feel that Osmond was so evil is he had not married someone as unusually beautiful and sensitive as Isabel Archer?
Otherwise, what we do have here are a collection of interesting and thoughtful essays. D.H. Lawrence is given a sympathetic hearing which helps counter the view that he drowned his gifts in a lunatic, misogynistic quasi-fascism. Gogol, Chekhov and Roth's Sabbath's Theatre are all intelligently appreciated. George Steiner, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and Toni Morrison are all intelligently criticized, a virtue to be appreciated when many of Wood's colleagues at the New Republic and the New Criterion would simply castigate them for having opinions more liberal than Madeline Albright. For those who think John Updike can never be castigated enough, they will find witty confirmation from Wood. ("Sex exists for Updike as grass does, or the metallic sheen of an air-conditioning unit. This is not philosophical at all, but a rather boring paganism, which finds the same degree of sensuality in everything.")
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on January 25, 2000
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.
11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on August 13, 1999
This is that most magical of books, the one that seems to be told by your most easily brilliant friend in the wit and intimacy of late night talks about life, love, God, art, V. Woolf's feminism, Matthew Arnold's condescending secularism, Chekhov's godlessness -- everything, in other words -- that feels suddenly VITALLY important. Wonderful. Beautifully written. Necessary.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on April 29, 1999
James Wood is a critic of the highest order, whose passionate engagement with literature is evident in every single essay in this magnificent collection. His sentences are gorgeous, his readings of an inspiring astuteness, and his metaphors scintillating. He is opinionated, to be sure; but even if you disagree with some of his judgments, you will feel only inspired and invigorated by these essays. If you care deeply about literature, you can't afford not to read this book.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
James Wood takes up the question of the novel and faith in this excellent collection of essays. Perhaps more philosophical here than usual, Wood still demonstrates why he is the most insightful and eloquent commentator of fiction. His criticisms of Morrison, Pynchon, and Dellilo encapsulate what is so often wrong with contemporary American fiction. The American novel has unfortunately descended into a lumping amalgam of ostentatious allegories and social commentaries. Our most esteemed writers seem to have lost touch with the basic elements that make great fiction tick: character, description, mystery. On the other hand, Wood reserves kind words for truly fine novelists like Henry Green and Iris Murdoch; he also makes decidedly uncontroversial appraisals of Gogol, Hamsun, Melville, and Austin. 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.' James Wood is always interesting and erudite. 'The Broken Estate' is an enormously accomplished collection of criticism.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on July 19, 1999
Wood weilds words with rapier accuracy. This is criticism at its most entirely satisfying. The essays in this volume reignite the reader's fire; reintroducing authors who are old but perhaps long-neglected friends, forcing reconsideration of writers one has never admired. Full of fresh insight and delicious pleasures.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on February 4, 2013
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.
5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on August 1, 1999
Good sense of humor on serious subjects. The author describes what fiction does and why we should care about it. Maybe he's a critic, but he's really just someone who thinks and writes clearly about literature. Really articulate. Lots of verbal flourish. The Woolf and Sebald essays are keepers, sort of like Fiction 101.