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.