A few years ago i bought the box set of ‘The West Wing’ as a goodly number of my friends had told me I would love it. Thus bought, i proceeded to watch it in huge epic length gulps. Episode after episode were watched and I laughed and gasped and marvelled at the brilliance of the dialogue and plotting, though I regularly had to rewind cos witty and busy politicos in the West Wing talk really, really fast. This is presumably something to do with getting all the lines in before the commercials but
Well James Wood was my over-indulgnce of this season. This book is, I would now say, written to be gradually eaten and digested, to allow the wisdom and insight to slowly enrich my literary outlook. It should not, and I cannot emphasize this too much, it should not be feasted upon like someone being let loose in a well stocked larder having just come off an enormous detox. Regurgitation or certainly indigestion is the only result.
I began the book a couple of weeks ago and Wood has a fabulous style of writing. He is witty and insightful and allows his own personal history to intrude only in a very gentle and, it seemed to me, perfectly appropriate way. He looks at an enormous number of writers chapter by chapter ranging from Thomas More in the 16th Century right the way up to modern day novelists such as Philip Roth and Julin Barnes. The vast majority of his subjects are from the 20th Century and he looks at the way in which the drift of religious belief has had a knock on effect in terms of literary expression. Most of the modern novelists with whom he deals are atheists or certainly agnostic in their world view but it is an interesting way of approaching the deep questions of purpose and future and hope with which we all have to deal.
Had I read him gradually over months i think this would be unadulteratedly glowing but the over-indulgnce serves to sicken a little. Here is my difficulty. Is that in me, because of excess and gluttony or is it in Wood because of his being a little in love with his own imagination and articulacy? He is, to use a phrase, a word-smith of wondrous proportions but sometimes less is more. Page after page is graced with images and phrases and incisive rapier points but as the chapters go on that word changes from graced to bestrewned and then on to scattered and finishes up as littered. He began to be in love with the sound of his own voice i felt; this may be a severe injustice to him and that is why i am saddened that I read it in gulps rather than nibbles as i may have begun to allow my reading to obscure his nourishment.
Having said all that he makes you think brilliantly. He is an incredibly well-read man and in fairness to him he carries this lightly. His quotations and examples and cross-references arise naturally from his normally well-reasoned argument and they do not seem imposed or inserted artificially so as to show off his knowledge or expertize as can sometimes be the case.
Though he is himself an atheist and quite clearly a arch defender of this outlook he does not belittle those who think differently although he cannot stop himself from inserting little digs when the opportunity arises, as when he will declare on a number of occasions phrases such as , ” Most people of any sensitivity find this idea unacceptable”. Now isn’t this really the Emperor’s new clothes concept in reverse where you make people embarrassed to raise their head above parapets because they will be declared insensitive by the magisterial sweep of Wood’s unproven argument. Argue the case but do it by argument not falsely applied ‘peer pressure’ otherwise it just seems small minded.
He argues for the importance of looking at the works of a writer as a whole and not focusing on microscopic words and phrases if this prevents you from seeing the whole, Approach a writer, seeing their development and growth and don’t exaggeratedly hone in on one detail which ‘proves ‘ your argument but can actually falsify the reality.
He speaks at one point of a chronicler being
‘absolutely superstitious about facts and throws them about like salt, apparently hoping that they will drive out the devil of interpretation’.
i love this image; writers create works which demand our doing our utmost to understand what he or she was intending but they also therefore create experiences for us where we are taken on our own journeys to places of which the author never even dreamed. This is the interface of faith and literature for me. Excellent works of literature speak to us in different ways. One reader reads and sees in an idea laid before them an opening door, the hidden glimpse of something enticing and enthralling and yet in the same work another reader might see only a locked and barred door, a bleak hopelessness. This is the wonder and joy of imagination and though Wood captures this he does, to an extent, lay down in a quite end-of-the-discusssion type way his interpretation as the right way of looking.
This is perhaps the role of a critic and he is certainly far more intelligent, articulate and insightful then i am but his holding forth does grate after a while, though perhaps again that is the fault of my having been locked in an extended conversation with him where he was actually the only one doing the talking. I should have gone away more oftn and thought rather than launching too quickly into the next ‘topic’ upon which he wished to hold forth.
Sometimes Wood seems so caught up in his own understanding or even, dare I say, prejudice, that he doesn’t give credit to the writer’s thinking. For example, at one point he criticizes Martin Amis for the poetic image ‘the grey mesh of traffic fumes’ sitting alongside the earthy and vulgar ‘yeasty burp’ issuing from the local pub. If I may be so bold I think this was to miss the point. Surely Amis was seeking to create the very dissonance that Wood criticizes.
He speaks of the importance of lightness of touch and of hints and nudges rather than sledgehammer blows as far as writing is concerned and although I wholly agree with the sentiment he doesn’t always carry out his own advice. To read this book is definitely to enter into discussions with a really insightful mind but discussion is definitely what is needed. Quaffing and gently imbibing like one of those gradual re-hydratory drips in a hospital rather than the downing of the contents of a Norse drinking horn in one sitting.
‘Fiction is most effective when its themes are unspoken. An ideal fiction has a kind of thematic ghostliness, whereby the novel marks its meanings most strongly as it passes, as it disappears, rather as on a street snow gets dirtier, more marked, as it disappears.
This was brilliant and i shall revisit it, as i shall be so many of the other passages I marked and pencilled and maybe my review will change over the weeks but this, at the end of the monologue, is where i am at the moment.