In his regular pieces for The New Yorker, the literary critic James Wood gives you hope for the ailing arts of reading and writing. Wood is a master of both things. He uses words as scrupulously as he listens to them; his prose hears nuance and has it. His stuff is like a reviver tent by the side of the information highway. When the traffic starts to dull your brain, Wood can always be relied on to remind you what real thinking sounds like.
In his new book, The Nearest Thing to Life, Wood unshackles himself from the obligations of the critical review, and unfurls a sustained, free-ranging meditation about life, art, and the relationship between them. The project originated as a series of lectures, and Wood has risen elegantly to the challenges of that form, packing each hour to the brim with distilled intelligence. The result is a kind of verbal Tardis: the book looks small, but a lot goes on inside it. At one point Wood recalls his childhood love of Penguin classics, whose covers seemed to glow in his hands as if “irradiated by the energy of their compressed contents.” This is that kind of book.
Wood’s first essay begins with a death. The author is at the memorial service of a young friend, whose life has been suddenly and randomly lopped short. Naturally these circumstances give rise to the question that constitutes the essay’s title: “Why?” Why are we here? What’s the point?
Over the centuries, Wood says, the Why? question “has been answered – or shall we say, replied to – by theodicy.” This sly distinction is typical of Wood’s sensitivity to the weight of language – he handles words the way a serious shopper chooses fruit. In everyday speech, we tend to use the terms answer and reply interchangeably. Wood reminds us that they are, or can be, two very different things. Wood’s parents were devout Christians; when he asked them Why? as a youngster, they had ready replies. But the replies, he suspected even then, were inadequate. These days, when his own children ask him the same eternal question, he finds he has no simple comeback.
On the plus side, he does think he has a complex one. It will take him the whole of the book to elaborate it, but a sneak preview is available in the title, which comes from George Eliot’s suggestion that “Art is the nearest thing to life.” Wood, it will emerge, believes that the meaning of life, in so far as there is one, can be found in art – or more precisely in literature, or more precisely still in fiction, which after all is his area of expertise. He thinks that serious reading, far from being a luxury pursuit, or a turning away from life, will in fact take you right to the heart of the matter. It will tell you why.
Growing up in a pious environment, Wood found that literature provided a space for mental “escape.” Novels encouraged the kind of free thinking that the Bible explicitly sought to shut down. Although Wood admired the empathetic and “thoroughly novelistic” Christ who cautioned against casting the first stone, the Gospels contained a less humane Christ too – the Christ who declared that looking at a woman with lust was an act of adultery. That Christ seemed to be making the “thoroughly anti-novelistic” claim that “thought is action.” (Wood is too charitable to add that there are a few novels, including pre-eminently Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which we get to see what this principle looks like when enforced.) At any rate, the young critic came to prefer the “utterly free space” offered by the literary text. “To read fiction,” he says, “is to have non-actionable thoughts; we assert the humane, non-religious right to separate thinking from doing.”
If fiction is secular in that sense, though, in another sense it grants us “the power of religious monitoring.” When we “peer into the thinking” of a fictional character, we acquire “the power to turn inside out the pocket of someone else’s private thoughts and watch the loose change of error fall incriminatingly to the ground. (Isaac Babel said that he could write a story about a woman if shown the contents of her handbag.)”
A fine analyst of other writers’ metaphors, Wood is no slouch at imagery himself. The inside-out pocket is good, and “the loose change of error” is even better. Note, too, how useful Wood’s mention of Isaac Babel is. Wood can always casually throw in just the right illustration from anywhere on literature’s globe. Is there any writer he doesn’t know? When he fleetingly confesses that “I have still never really read” Wyndham Lewis or George Sand, the word “really” suggests he’s read them at least a bit, and the word “still” implies it’s only a matter of time till he tackles them properly.
Dispensing with the old idea that the pious possess powers of moral insight unavailable to free-thinkers, Wood is ready to suggest something like the opposite: secular texts, as well as being more fun to read than holy ones, can also provide us with a deeper and more nuanced moral education. Reading fiction, we’re permitted to observe the failings of others, but we’re not encouraged to condemn them. This is because the others are products of the imagination – our imagination, as well as the author’s. So instead of deploring their shortcomings we tend to experience “proximity, fellow-feeling, compassion, communion. We have the uncanny powers of the monitoring Jesus, but the humane insight of the forgiving Jesus.”
If Wood had less classy publishers, they might have marketed his book as a sort of highbrow self-help manual. On one level that’s what it is: a powerful argument for the real-world utility of serious reading. Fiction isn’t just good in itself, it’s good for you; it’s wholesome, it’s nutritious; it deepens your sensibilities in ways that will help you live. “Often, in life,” Wood writes, “I have felt that an essentially novelistic understanding of motive has helped me to begin to fathom what someone else really wants from me, or from another person. Sometimes, it is almost frightening to realise how poorly most people know themselves …”
Why are we here? Why do we read fiction? They may not be the same question, but they may turn out to have the same answer. To know ourselves, and to know others. Literature helps us do both: it can give us “an almost priestly advantage over other people’s souls.” The words “almost priestly” have an ironic ring, if you’ve followed Wood’s argument this far. By now we may suspect that the priest, armed with his lone dogmatic text, will know less about his fellow human beings than the seasoned fiction reader does.
Wood’s second essay, “Serious Noticing,” burrows deeper into the Why? question. Great writers, Wood argues, are in the business of seriously noticing things. With the force of their metaphors and the novelty of their phrasing, they refresh our picture of the world. When Aleksandar Hemon describes dollops of horse-shit as “dark, deflated, tennis balls,” he helps us see. When Saul Bellow has a middle-aged character grasp the “big but light elbow” of an elderly man, he evokes the boniness of old age in remarkably few words. Wood, having quoted Bellow’s phrase, throws out a killer line of his own: he says that Bellow’s character is “gradually disappearing into his own longevity.”
It is as if the excellence of Bellow’s prose has rubbed off on Wood’s, inspiring him to do some serious noticing of his own. We’re all in danger of vanishing into our longevity. Literature, Wood dramatically proposes, can arrest or even reverse that process; it can remedy “the slow death that we deal to the world by the sleep of our attention.” Great writing, by asking us “to look more closely,” helps us tighten our grip on “the fading reality that besets details as they recede from us.” It helps us grasp the present and remember the past. You might even say – and Wood says it – that literature can “rescue us from our death.”
This is stirring stuff. Either consciously or unconsciously, Wood seems to be channeling the spirit of that seminal aesthete Walter Pater, who advanced similar arguments way back in the 1870s, thereby scandalizing his fellow Victorians. “We are all under sentence of death,” Pater wrote in the ornate but mighty “Conclusion” to his book on the Renaissance. “We have an interval, and then our place knows us no more.” Pater electrified the likes of the young Oscar Wilde by preaching that this interval was best spent “in art and song … For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.”
Like Pater, Wood mounts a rousing argument for the centrality of art to life. Like Pater, he does so in prose that delivers the throb of art in its own right. At one point Wood makes mention of those artist-critics, like V. S. Pritchett and Virginia Woolf, who erase the distinction between creative writing and mere commentary – who speak “to literature in its own language.” If we didn’t know by now that Wood belongs in their ranks, this books confirms it.