Serious Noticing: Selected Essays by James Wood review – something to behold

Whether interrogating Chekhov or Jane Austen, the New Yorker literary critic has the eye of a great novelist

James Wood begins this selection of essays, mostly about writers, with a homage to the drumming of Keith Moon of the Who. Long before he became the New Yorker’s resident literary critic, and in advance of those audacious and ardent studenty book reviews with which he made his name in the Guardian in the late 1980s, Wood was a precocious musician: pianist and trumpet player and scholar at Durham’s Chorister school and at Eton. He listened to little or no rock music until he was in his teens. But when he did he was enthralled by the manic genius of Moon.

In Wood’s becassocked adolescence of scales and grades, Moon represented rule-breaking freedoms. That internal dichotomy has, the critic suggests, never left him. Wood still dreams of having the confidence to write a sentence that captures the spirit of Moon’s playing: “a long passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self-interrupted, attired but dishevelled, careful and lawless, right and wrong”. Saul Bellow, his touchstone, could write those sentences, and DH Lawrence, he suggests, and David Foster Wallace on form, but he fears he won’t ever find the animal courage himself.

There is, characteristically, both false modesty and self-conscious truth in that judgment. In the unspooling sentences and paragraphs of the many fine and often seriously dandy essays that follow in this collection – on What Chekhov Meant by Life and Virginia Woolf’s Mysticism and Jane Austen’s Heroic Consciousness and Dostoevsky’s God – Wood shows himself a maestro of tone and inflection. His sustained close attention as he interrogates the writers he loves is genuinely something to behold. There is playfulness in this attention – Wood is drawn to droll comedy as the most reliable form of wisdom – but you would rarely conclude that he has let his instincts off the leash of his intellect, gone full Moon.

Later in that same opening essay, Wood contrasts the two famous recordings of the Goldberg Variations made by Glenn Gould, one aged 22, the other three decades later; the first is “cocky, exuberant, optimistic”, the second “reflective, seasoned, wintry”. Wood’s mature ear prefers the latter, but part of him always “wants to be the first!” He doesn’t make the connection with his own work, but reading these essays, written over more than two decades, the comparison seems apt in some ways.

Wood’s earlier essays are more sure of themselves, more eager to please, packed with the kind of aphoristic insights that might have undergraduates reaching for their highlighter pens. “Austen maintains a hierarchy of consciousness: the people who matter think inwardly and everyone else speaks,” he will write; or, of Moby-Dick, “The entity that Melville most loved, language, separated him from the entity he most desired, God.” Or “In Anna Karenina, the characters are heirs to universal emotions, as Hamlet is.” Wood’s intent in these readings was often to elucidate those moments when fiction captures the mysteries of consciousness, when it performs that magic of escaping its creator’s bounds, and to revel in his ability to detect the wonderful illusion.

In later essays, mostly those written for the New Yorker, there is a more grounded and relaxed voice; a bit less desire to display fizzing erudition, a bit more concern for the messiness of emotional truth. There is a beautiful trio of pieces at the heart of this book, loosely concerned with ageing and exile. In the first, “On not going home”, he examines the sense of loss that he feels in midlife of having uprooted himself from the Durham of his childhood to live in America; this leads inevitably to an examination of the greatest contemporary writer of displacement, WG Sebald, and the “appointments we [all] have to keep with the past”; and then to a poignant little fragment about the mortality of parents, and the insomniac question, “How shall I mourn them?”

There is, as a thread through these pieces, and beyond them, a kind of spiritual quest in Wood’s writing – he was raised in an evangelical Christian household, of which he observes that “once religion has revealed itself to you, you are never free”. His first, and best, novel, The Book Against God, read as a doomed effort to dismantle that fate.

His later writing more often finds strategies to disarm and humanise it. Wood set off writing in that high canonical tradition that sought to replace Bible study with practical criticism and preachers with English teachers. He has never abandoned that sense of vocation, but has distilled it to a particular faith in what he describes in the title essay here as “serious noticing” – the kind of looking that great novelists do, the attention to revelatory detail that “rescues the life of things”. Over the years, as this volume demonstrates, Wood has learned not only to dissect that habit of mind, but also to practise it.

• Serious Noticing: Selected Essays by James Wood is published by Vintage (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Contributor

Tim Adams

The GuardianTramp

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