Magazine article The Spectator

Taking Matters Seriously

Magazine article The Spectator

Taking Matters Seriously

Article excerpt

Taking matters seriously THE IRRESPONSIBLE SELF: ON LAUGHTER AND THE NOVEL by James Wood Cape, £16.99, pp. 312, ISBN 0224064509

For a critic as seriously intelligent as James Wood, a discussion about the nature of comedy is, inevitably, no laughing matter. And this is appropriate enough: modern comedy, in his opinion, appears to contain few actual laughs. The historical shift from an essentially religious, theatrical 'comedy of correction' to a secular, novelistic 'comedy of forgiveness' - the move from piety to pity - has instead brought with it a much fuller range of emotional intricacies. As a result, all comic novels are problem comedies, of 'hilarious pathos' or 'mingled amusement and pity'; Wood is talking un-laughter and the novel.

Wood's view of comedy is closely related to his view of literature itself. He is immensely, and convincingly, sympathetic to an ideal of writing embodied by what Keats called 'negative capability': 'when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason'. What Wood considers vital is an author's fidelity to the irreducible difficulties of existence, a 'deliberate opacity, the drawing of a veil, a willingness to let obscurity go free'. It is the standard requirement for a Wood-approved novelist, like Chekhov or Tolstoy, or the Norwegian Knut Hamsun who aims for 'characters in which their very lack of consistency is their basic characteristic', or the other predominantly European authors so definitively praised in The Irresponsible Self.

Indeed, one comes to reflect over the course of this collection that the great close readers are, in an important sense, closed readers. It is Wood's own theoretical consistency - his 'tying his ear only to his own tongue', as it were - that allows him profitably to trace similar qualities in otherwise dissimilar writers. So he is repeatedly drawn to, say, a definite type of honestly realistic writing, what might be called the non-epic simile ('poetic, but also the kinds of observations the characters themselves might have used'): 'overstuffed furniture rising like bread beneath the slip-covers' (J. F. Powers); 'he gripped the table and rose on his toes like a cock about to crow' (Saul Bellow); 'trees and kiosks stood on the kerbs, almost as if the trees were selling newspapers' (Joseph Roth); or 'a leather coat, with white creases in it like the striations of fat in a piece of meat'. The last example is actually from Wood's own novel The Book Against God, but it is a line you imagine he would have welcomed had he read it elsewhere. …

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