The Nearest Thing To Life

Art is the nearest thing to life: it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow men beyond the bounds of our personal lot. George Eliot

I marvel at the depth and erudition of James Wood’s literary reviews in the New Yorker. His new book, The Nearest Thing to Life impresses me in the same way. The book is a blend of analysis and memoir drawn from some of his previous commentaries.

Wood retraces his youth in an intellectual and religious household in Durham, England. He describes how his discovery of literature liberated him from the hold of his churchgoing upbringing.

Literature, specifically fiction, allowed an escape from these habits of concealment… I still remember that adolescent thrill, that sublime discovery of the novel and the short story as an utterly free space, where anything might be thought, anything uttered.”

Throughout the book, Wood illustrates the way great literary writers are skilled in the art of noticing. What he calls the “life surplus of a story” consists in its details. The details are the instances that illustrate the more general form. He writes of Chekhov’s short story “The Kiss:”

Chekhov appears to notice everything. He sees that the story we tell in our heads is the most important one…for Ryabovich, his story has grown bigger and bigger and joined in real time the rhythm of life.”

For Wood, fiction allows us to see a life in all its “performance and pretense.” By noticing individuals carefully, we can begin to understand them. A reader would be wise to follow this practice in general.

In the last two chapters Wood recalls some of the books that meant most to him during his childhood. He also writes about the significance of leaving England for this country. He says he has made a home in this country, but not quite a Home. And he writes movingly about Edward Said’s essay “Reflections on Exile:”

Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever.

It is clear Wood also feels displaced and disconnected between two places, at home in neither, and now finds it difficult to return to the land of his youth. Many years ago he made a large choice,

… that did not resemble a large choice at the time; that it has taken years for me to see this; and that this process of retrospective comprehension in fact constitutes a life—is indeed how life is lived. Freud has a wonderful word, “afterwardness,” which I need to borrow, even at the cost of kidnapping it form a very different context. To think about home and the departure from home, about not going home and no longer feeling able to go home, is to be filled with a remarkable sense of “afterwardness:: it is too late to do anything about it now, and too late to know what should have been done. And that may be all right.”

Wood’s The Nearest Thing to Life is a beautiful book, filled with eloquent noticing, abundant literary references, a book to keep nearby, to turn to now and then.


Linda said...

What a lovely book this sounds like - I think I must have it. I am not familiar with James Wood's work, but I am always searching for reviewers with "depth and erudition," as you noted, whom I can count on - there are so few out there. I just googled him and apparently he writes only for The New Yorker - maybe that is why I have not heard of him.

The Google search pointed to his list of favorite books of 2014, which I am saving - I've only heard of one of them: http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/favorite-books-2014

Maybe he is worth a subscription to The New Yorker.

Wait! Stop me. I have Marks in the Margin!

Thank you for the excellent review, recommendation, and introduction.

Richard Katzev said...

Wood teaches at Harvard, has written a couple of other books, and reviews books for the New Yorker from time to time, not weekly. When it comes to Marks in the Margin or the New Yorker, I go for the New Yorker any old day. At least they have cartoons.

Thanks Linda. I think you'll find Wood's The Nearest Thing to Life worth reading, reading carefully. It's a short book too. And as I said, you'll want to read it again, as I did.

Stefanie said...

I like Woods. He is a very good reviewer, really knows his stuff even if I don't always agree with him. The publisher gave the book a really nice cover too by the looks of it.

Richard Katzev said...

Yes, he sure does know his stuff. I often read a book that he has reviewed and he's usually on target, but not always as you suggest. I've heard him lecture on various Web sites and he's great to listen to, as well. Did you know his wife is Clare Messud, a fine writer too. Of course, this doesn't matter, just a little gossip. Go Bernie.

elysianfield said...

My copy was delivered yesterday - Amazon delivers on Sunday! I love it.

I'm glad I ordered the hard-cover version - it is a beautiful book. I started reading it last night - I can tell already, it will be one of those books I keep close to hand.

Go Bernie (he was great in the debate - I loved it when a reporter asked him why he didn't take the "e-mail" opportunity to attack Hillary. His response was so simple, so elegant, so Bernie: "because it was the right think to do."

Richard Katzev said...

I, too, love the Amazon Sunday delivery, had it two or three times already.

And I'm glad you have the print version, as I do. I've read it once and am going through it slowly once again.

We are in full agreement on Bernie Sanders. How I wish he could become President, along with a progressive Congress. It's a dream unfortunately. But he is being heard and perhaps one day in the distant future his message will be more widely appreciated.

elysianfield said...

Unfortunately, I do not think Bernie is electable as President. But he is courageously and eloquently engaging in the "Voice" response that you wrote about in the Planck post, and people are listening. Whatever happens, he is doing a great service to our country right now.

Richard Katzev said...

You are right, Bernie can never to elected. Is he laying the groundwork for a future progressive candidate, establishing the background for a significant shift in this country? I hope so and I believe you do, as well. I take some degree of hope in the election of Justin Trudeau in Canada, young, informed, intelligent plans for a turn-around in Canada. Where is the Trudeau in the US? Regrettably Bernie is too old. We also need to get adopt a parliamentary system to guarantee support for whoever leads the progressive party. But that is unlikely to ever happen is these sad times.