The Nearest Thing to Life

The Nearest Thing to Life



The Pequod Review:

The four essays that comprise James Wood's The Nearest Thing to Life are drawn from lectures that Wood gave in 2013 at Brandeis University and the British Museum. His pieces are detailed and intelligent as he describes some of his favorite writers — Henry James, Penelope Fitzgerald, and Anton Chekhov, among many others — but his best sections are about fiction more generally:

Of course, the novel’s license seems easier to inhabit than the world’s, because novels are fictional worlds. Fiction is a ceaseless experiment with uncollectible data. What I loved, what I love, about fiction is its proximity to, and final difference from, religious texts. The real, in fiction, is always a matter of belief — it is up to us as readers to validate and confirm. It is a belief that is requested, and that we can refuse at any time. Fiction moves in the shadow of doubt, knows it is a true lie, knows that at any moment it might fail to make its case. Belief in fiction is always belief “as if.” Our belief is metaphorical and only resembles actual belief. In his essay “Sufferings and Greatness of Richard Wagner,” Thomas Mann writes that fiction is always a matter of “not quite.” “To the artist, new experiences of ‘truth’ are new incentives to the game, new possibilities of expression, no more. He believes in them, he takes them seriously, just so far as he needs to in order to give them the fullest and profoundest expression. In all that he is very serious, serious even to tears — but yet not quite — and by consequence, not at all.” Fiction, being the game of not quite, is the place of not-quite-belief. Precisely what is a danger in religion is the very fabric of fiction.


Lady Chatterley’s Lover was still officially a “naughty” book, but Lawrence’s earlier, beautiful novel, The Rainbow, had somehow escaped such censure. And yet, open the pages of that book and here were Will and Anna, in the first, gloriously erotic, swooning months of their marriage, and here was Will noticing that as his pregnant wife was nearing her due date, she was becoming rounder, “the breasts becoming important.” And here was Anna, dancing naked in her bedroom, as David once danced before the Lord; and Ursula and Skrebensky, kissing under the moon. And the marvelous scenes in which Skrebensky and Ursula run away to London and Paris — how simple and beautiful, the way Ursula, while always finding something spiritually lacking in Skrebensky, emphatically falls in love with sex and her lover’s shape. In a London hotel room she watches him bathing: “He was slender, and, to her, perfect, a clean, straight-cut youth, without a grain of superfluous body.” It might seem a relatively tame license, this notion that anything can be thought, anything written, that thought is utterly free. Aren’t most of us exercising that license every day, in our own minds? Why cherish fiction for merely replicating this exhausted liberty? But many of us don’t exercise that liberty; we nervously step up to the edge of allowable thought, and then trigger the scrutiny of the censuring superego. And fiction adds the doubleness of all fictional life: to witness that freedom in someone else is to have a companion, is to be taken into the confidence of otherness. We share and scrutinize at the same time; we are and are not Raskolnikov and Mrs. Ramsay and Miss Brodie and the narrator of Hamsun’s Hunger, and Italo Calvino’s Mr. Palomar. This should feel exciting and also a little unseemly. Reading fiction feels radically private because so often we seem to be stealing the failed privacies of fictional characters. For sure, Shakespeare anticipates and contains all of the unruly life to be found in the modern novel. But Shakespearean soliloquy is uttered privacy (which has its roots in prayer, and ultimately in the psalms), while fictional stream of consciousness is, or tries to resemble, unvoiced soliloquy. And unvoiced soliloquy seems to meet our own unfinished thoughts, with the request that together we — the reader and the fictional character — complete, voice, a new ensemble. Their failed privacies become our more successful privacies.

Wood has long been one of our most insightful literary critics, and the essays in The Nearest Thing to Life have an enthusiasm and intimacy that rank alongside his best work.