The Broken Estate

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

When it comes to contemporary literature, James Woods seems to know everything there is to know about it.

In THE BROKEN ESTATE--ESSAYS ON LITERATURE AND BELIEF (Picador), he also--as the title indicates--knows a lot about religious texts. "I think that the distinctions between literary belief and religious belief are important, and I am drawn to writers who struggle with them," he confides in the book's introduction.

"At the high point of the novel's rise--in the middle of the 19th century--the Gospels began to be read, by both writers and theologians, as a set of fictional tales, as a kind of novel," he further explains. "Simultaneously, fiction became an almost religious activity (though not of course with religion's former truth-value, for this was no longer quite believed in). Flaubert, a pivotal figure here, began to turn literary style into a religion, while the historian Ernest Renan, in his Vie de Jesus (1863), began to turn religion into a kind of style, a poetry. (Indeed, Renan also wrote novels). It became no longer possible to believe that Jesus was who he claimed to be, he was now a 'character,' almost the hero of a novel. In De Profundis (1897), Oscar Wilde praised Jesus as the greatest artist, and called the Gospels 'the four prose-poems about Christ.'

"For some of the writers discussed in this book--Melville, Gogol, Renan, Arnold, Flaubert--the difference between literary belief and religious belief was not always clear, and was often an excruciation. Is it any surprise that this anxiety was most acute at the high moment of the European novel? I think not. For it was not just the ascent of science but perhaps the ascent of the novel that helped to kill off Jesus' divinity, when the novel gave us a new sense of the real, a new sense of how the real disposes itself in a narrative and then in turn a new skepticism toward the real as we encounter it in narrative."

THE BROKEN ESTATE is a collection of book reviews (plus a sermon he delivered at Oxford) which Woods published in such disparate journals as The London Review of Books, Los Angeles Times and The New Yorker (where he is a staff writer). Woods is also a visiting professor of English and American Literature at Harvard. His previous books include How Fiction Works and a novel, The Book Against God.

The other writers examined in THE BROKEN ESTATE include Gogol, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Hamsun, Woolf, Steiner and Roth--to name just a few. Even when these writers don't have links to his main thesis about literature and belief, Woods brings them to life in new and refreshing ways. An erudite critic who sometimes uses obscure words like myope, scission and judder (the latter isn't even listed in the Oxford English Dictionary), Woods generally manages to write with verve and clarity--another reason why he deserves to be called our finest literary critic. He is to the 21st century what Edmund Wilson was to the 20th.

Woods was born and educated in England and thus is inherently reticent when writing about sex ("I have had little time obsession in American fiction," he confesses), but he overcomes that prejudice in his review of Philip Roth's bawdy Sabbath's Theater, a novel in which, he acknowledges, sex exists "as the most tangible index of the rage for disorder. And what disorder, what mischief."

Woods calls Sabbath's Theater an extraordinary book and backs up this statement in convincing fashion. In fact, his essay about the novel, titled The Monk of Fornication: Philip Roth's Nihilism, is worth the price of admission alone.