26 May 2018

James Wood in the LRB: Greatest Hits

Posted by the Bookshop

On Tuesday 29 May, we’re delighted to welcome to the Bookshop the critic and novelist James Wood – you can book tickets online. Wood’s previous events at the shop have been terrific, and he’s been a contributor to the London Review of Books since 1990 – here are our highlights of just five of Wood’s (many) essays for the LRB.

On Not Going Home

In his Winter Lecture for the LRB in 2014, Wood considered the different kinds of dislocation from ‘home’ that occur in both life and literature, and what ‘home’ really means anyway.

What I have been describing, both in my own life and in the lives of others, is more like secular homelessness. It cannot claim the theological prestige of the transcendent. Perhaps it is not even homelessness; homelooseness (with an admixture of loss) might be the necessary (hideous) neologism: in which the ties that might bind one to Home have been loosened, perhaps happily, perhaps unhappily, perhaps permanently, perhaps only temporarily. Clearly, this secular homelessness overlaps, at times, with the more established categories of emigration, exile and postcolonial movement. Just as clearly, it diverges from them at times.

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Wood admires the development of Edward St Aubyn’s style in this 2006 review of Mother’s Milk:

There is a fortifying, rather old-fashioned pleasure to be had, as in Henry James, from such consciously worked dialogue, though the hazard of archness is never far away. The effect is sculptural, a solid but always shapely block of exquisite prose, in which the author’s savage, clean-limbed sentences are usually indistinguishable from his characters’. In particular, in St Aubyn’s trilogy of short novels, published under the title Some Hope, and in Mother’s Milk, which now makes a quartet, there is a clear alignment of the author’s way of writing about the world and the way Patrick Melrose explains it. Patrick is almost an authorial stand-in, and the writing, both as compressed thought and as sheer style, is especially powerful when Patrick is taking the burden of his creator’s observations.

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Things happen all the time

In a 1997 review of Alice Munro’s Selected Stories, Wood praises Munro’s fine-grained portrayal of small-town life.

Munro is a great realist, and her powers come from her sense of the way in which communities – especially small, socially anxious, limited ones – construct and guard their reality. She has lived for many years in a rural town in Ontario. I once visited it. It is near water (Lake Huron) but seems landlocked: swamped by land, by the flat lakes of corn that surround it for miles and miles. She knows this area as Faulkner knew Oxford, Mississippi, and is known: unwelcome visitors, foolish enough to ask the way to Munro’s house, are often given false directions by townspeople. As a writer, she knows what it is to want to escape a shared reality, yet she writes well about those who can only enforce this reality.

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Child of Evangelism

One of Wood’s great strengths as a critic is the manner in which he brings his personal experience and history into his work. This 1996 review of a selection of books on religion opens with his reminiscences about his evangelical Christian upbringing, and how his loss of faith in his teens and twenties has affected him.

At the age of 15, I sat down with a notebook and tore myself away from belief in God. It is a process that brings great unhappiness to others, but not to oneself. It is like undressing: you are so quickly, so easily, free. You write down four or five objections to belief. Before you have read any atheist or sceptical philosophy you find that you have apparently invented for yourself the old objections to God – the problem of evil and suffering in the world, the senseless difficulty of faith, the cruelty of heaven and hell, the paganism of Jesus’s ‘sacrifice’, your own lack of religious experience. It is probably because these objections are so obvious and so old that atheism, as a philosophical tradition, is generally underpowered. Literary and philosophical atheism moves between a rather charming serenity and a spirit of naughtiness.

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The Glamour of Glamour

Wood’s 1992 verdict on Donna Tartt’s debut novel The Secret History wasn’t unreservedly positive, yet he still found things in the book to admire.

What separates Tartt’s first novel from Fitzgerald’s, for example, is its slyness and strange maturity. This Side of Paradise is hopelessly in love with glamour, and never seeks to hide it: Tartt’s book has none of that uncalculated rapture and hapless sublimity. Tartt’s novel is clever, mature and utterly calculated, down to its references to Gatsby and to Philip Roth’s first novel Goodbye, Columbus. Her ambivalence is less easily fathomed than Fitzgerald’s and less likeable.

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James Wood’s new novel ‘Upstate’ is published by Jonathan Cape, priced £14.99. Wood is at the Bookshop to read from and discuss his work on Tuesday 29 May. Book tickets here.