I would like to see the condition of a book after James Wood has finished reading it: the actual book, the spine we readers splay and cradle, the jacket where we leave our fingerprints, the pages we turn instinctively and crease at the upper corner when a paragraph catches the eye, or when the hour we have stolen for reading—and only reading—has passed. No matter what the oracles of information technology say, there is nothing more interactive than our descendent of the codex. And as Wood demonstrates in his artfully crafted volume The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief, there is no critic writing today who interacts more fervently with his library. Many of the essays here are based on what the mere reviewer either cannot see or takes for granted: the power of fictive language to obscure what it seems to describe, the implicit beliefs that undermine a novel’s integrity, no matter how breathtaking its sentences. Pity the mortal novelist (John Updike, Toni Morrison, Martin Amis) whose work is subjected to Wood’s fierce and loving gaze. Central to Wood’s reading of literature is his notion of the “broken estate,” as elaborated in the final essay, a four-part examination of the nature of Christian belief. Too simply put, Wood argues that the novel, like Christianity, has been “coaxed into sleep by nurses who mistakenly believed that they were healing it.” The authority scripture lost at the hands of Protestant theologians like Ernest Renan and Matthew Arnold the novelist later claimed for secular narrative—beginning with Flaubert. “Style became religious,” Wood writes in a characteristic essay entitled “Half-Against Flaubert,” “at the same time that religion became a kind of literary style, a poetry.” Under the “old estate” there was a clear distinction between the Word of God and the word of man. And then the Heavens broke and His authority fell from the sky like rain. In the way of all inheritances, this windfall for the novelist quickly became a burden. Under Flaubert’s stewardship, the novel resisted the dictates of reality for the comfort of aesthetics. Realism, reduced to the gathering of visual imagery and mundane detail, became a “kind of penance” for Flaubert—the novel as an extended form of bourgeois complaint. According to Wood, Madame Bovary is saved from middle-class “irrelevance” only by its main character, Emma, who almost miraculously “begins to live” in the novel’s last hundred pages. The supreme paradox of fiction: by fully animating something that is unreal, the real regains the day.
Wood is a remarkably fluid essayist and shares with Virginia Woolf (one of his favorite subjects) an unusual facility with the language of metaphor. His essays often begin with a sweeping proposition that, at first reading, may sound a little willful: “When it comes to language, all writers want to be billionaires.” Patently refutable, Wood is already one step ahead, explaining that our century’s “deliberate paupers of style” (Hemingway, later Beckett, Pavese) produce a minimalism that “seem[s] like bankruptcy after wealth rather than fraud before it.” He closes the paragraph—and any remaining objections we might have—by floating the transcendent question, “What writer does not dream of touching every word in the lexicon once?” It is rare to be in the company of such bracing ideas about literature, and rarer still to see these ideas expressed with a style and complexity usually reserved for fiction.
The Broken Estate was published by Random House.