REVIEW by Willard Manus
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 for...sex 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