Introduction

What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Ben McGrath is not like a piece by Jill Lepore, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Goodyear, or Filkins for Khatchadourian, or Bilger for Paumgarten. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

James Ley On James Wood


James Ley, in his absorbing The Critic in the Modern World (2014), says of James Wood’s criticism, “His characteristic approach is to interpret a fictional work via an assessment of the author’s stylistic proclivities: his point of entry, the basis of his understanding, is the weave and texture of a writer’s prose.” This is well said. It gets at the quality that most draws me to Wood’s writing – his detailed analysis of what makes great writing great. It reminds me of what Helen Vendler said about Seamus Heaney’s critical writing: “The art of Heaney’s criticism is never to lose touch with the writing act” (“A Wounded Man Falling Toward Me,” The New Yorker, March 13, 1989). It’s Wood’s art, too. For example, in his superb "Late and Soon" (The New Yorker, December 12, 2012), a review of Per Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time, he quotes a couple of excerpts from the novel and says,

In the first passage, what is strange is not just the way the function of that linking “and” changes (sometimes “and” is used to connect sequential details; sometimes it is used to shift from one temporality to another) but also the way that information expands and contracts. We go from the precision and banality of the uncle with his 8-mm. camera to the almost placeless, blurred lyricism about the grey grandparents from an unnamed but “more puritanical town . . . standing windswept and grey on the quay.” There is something wonderful about the passionate reality with which, in the second excerpt, the narrator invests a liquid that is at first fictional but which becomes absolutely alive, a golden nectar flowing “in multiple streams.” Notice, too, that, in a spirit of free association, the narrator’s thoughts about the book are bound up with taste: golden Calvados to begin with, and then the bitter taste of the novel, which leads to the “bitter gift of pain” mentioned in the old hymn, and on to the “bitter gift” of the funeral.

I relish this kind of stylistic analysis. Wood provides it in almost every piece he writes. I wish Ley had devoted more of his study to consideration of Wood’s aesthetics. But, unlike Wood, Ley isn’t an aesthetic critic. His approach is metaphysical. He’s interested in Wood’s ideas – hysterical realism, fictionality, lifeness, etc. There’s nothing wrong with this approach. It illuminates Wood’s thinking. But it neglects an essential point: Wood’s strongest thought is in his style, the way he expresses himself. Ley knows this. At one point, he says, “The metaphysics of each critic is reflected in the texture of his writing.” Exactly. Ley’s study would’ve been much richer if he'd focused on examining “the weave and texture” of Wood’s splendid prose.

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