Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel

Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel

by James Wood

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"James Wood has been called our best young critic. This is not true. He is our best critic; he thinks with a sublime ferocity."--Cynthia Ozick

Following the collection The Broken Estate--which established James Wood as the leading critic of his generation--The Irresponsible Self confirms Wood's preeminence, not only as a discerning judge but also as


"James Wood has been called our best young critic. This is not true. He is our best critic; he thinks with a sublime ferocity."--Cynthia Ozick

Following the collection The Broken Estate--which established James Wood as the leading critic of his generation--The Irresponsible Self confirms Wood's preeminence, not only as a discerning judge but also as an appreciator of contemporary novels.

In twenty-three passionate, sparkling dispatches, he effortlessly connects his encyclopedic, passionate understanding of the literary canon with an equally earnest and appreciative view of the most discussed authors writing today, including Franzen, Pynchon, Rushdie, DeLillo, Naipaul, David Foster Wallace, and Zadie Smith.

This collection includes Wood's famous and controversial attack on "hysterical realism", and his sensitive but unsparing examinations of White Teeth and Brick Lane. The Irresponsible Self is indispensable reading for anyone who cares about modern fiction.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Inimitable...He has not only a well-tuned ear for prose but a remarkable ability to convey how novelistic language transubstantiates life into literature...Wood's essays...vibrate with the difficult, serious pleasure that literature uniquely provides.” —A.O. Scott, New York Times Book Review

“Wood writes with such felicity and zeal that one feels neither the inclination nor the possibility of disagreeing with him...[His] enthusiasm provides such an attractive alternative to the truculence of Dale Peck, and the bloodlessness of 'in-house' academic criticism.” —Robert McFarlane, The Times Literary Supplement

Publishers Weekly
Still writing with magisterial sweep and terrific intensity, Wood (The Book Against God) in this newest collection of review-essays celebrates the indeterminate voice of comic narrative, which "replaces the knowable with the unknowable, transparency with unreliability," enabling the reader's sympathies without directing them. This voice aids the development of secular modernity, part of a "comedy of forgiveness" in which morality, no longer the voice of divine law, itself partakes of the foibles and variances of human temperament. Starting inevitably with Shakespeare and Cervantes, Wood offers up assessments of individual (male) writers who in one way or another exemplify Wood's principle, including Dostoyevski, Tolstoy, Italo Svevo, Giovanni Verga, Joseph Roth, Henry Green, Bellow. Oddly juxtaposed with this late 19th- to mid-20th-century sequence is a group of rather bilious reviews of a more recent generation of fiction, which Wood never deigns to call postmodern. His tone ranging from respectful reservation (about J.M. Coetzee) to outright contempt (for Tom Wolfe), Wood hammers vigilantly at the failure of intellectual, cultural and political motives to make good fiction. Unlike American culture-warriors, Wood takes his sharp ear and deep convictions straight to the work itself, carefully explaining the structural, formal and tonal weaknesses of what he calls "hysterical realism," revealing his distaste for journalism and pop culture but never advancing it. Most compelling is the way his own style swells and contracts with his subject matter, blithely metaphorical in praising Bellow, earnest and lucid in sorting out Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith, sarcastic in attacking Rushdie. Still, meaner spirits will await Dale Peck's Hatchet Jobs, also due in June. Agent, The Wiley Agency. (June 16) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A theory of distinctively "modern" comedy is and isn't consistently addressed in this provocative gathering of 21 recent (1999-2003) reviews by the stylish critic (The Broken Estate, 1999, etc.) and novelist (The Book Against God, 2003, etc.). A closely reasoned introductory essay contrasts the corrective emphases of classical satire and invective with a "comedy of forgiveness" that acknowledges, indeed esteems human frailty and folly. Wood locates the roots of such comedy in displays of "random consciousness" in Shakespearean soliloquies, and in the wise tolerance of exemplars like Cervantes, Erasmus, and Austen. This idea is developed with impressive variety and nuance in analyses of the irrational mood swings of Dostoevsky's posturing characters, Isaac Babel's "rhythmic discontinuity," and Saltykov-Schedrin's horrifically funny anatomy of hypocrisy in his underrated masterpiece The Golovlyov Family. One wants to applaud Wood's endorsements of such brilliant little-read writers as the Sicilian Chekhov Giovanni Verga, the Austro-Hungarian Empire's mordant "elegist" Joseph Roth, and the enormously reader-friendly Czech comic novelist Bohumil Hrabal. Equally incisive looks at contemporaries include a stringent criticism of the Dickens-inspired "hysterical realism" that suffuses ambitious overstuffed fictions by Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, and Salman Rushdie (though this generally negative essay does include an admirably evenhanded assessment of Zadie Smith's much-admired White Teeth). But a review of J.M. Coetzee's unsparingly judgmental (and splendid) novel Disgrace doesn't seem to belong here-and one wonders why space was wasted reprinting understandably dismissive analyses of TomWolfe's clunky A Man in Full and Rushdie's tedious, meretricious Fury. Focus is recovered with considerations of the inspiration for V.S. Naipaul's immortal Mr. Biswas (the author's appealing father Seepersad), V.S. Pritchett's "Russianized" English comedy, and Henry Green's aslant, quietly anarchic character studies. And Wood's admiring, admirably detailed tribute to "Saul Bellow's Comic Style" is, as they say, worth the price of admission. A miscellany, then-and an unusually rich and satisfying one. Agent: Andrew Wylie/Wylie Agency

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The Irresponsible Self

On Laughter and the Novel

By James Wood


Copyright © 2005 James Wood
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-2381-1


Don Quixote's Old and New Testaments

The famous windmills Don Quixote mistakes for giants have something in common with the madeleine that makes Marcel's memorybuds salivate: they both occur conveniently early in very long books that are, in English at least, more praised than read. And Cervantes may resemble Proust in one further dimension. Both are comic writers, properly snagged in the mundane, whose fiction has too often been etherealized out of existence. Miguel de Unamuno, the relentlessly idealizing Spanish philosopher, considered Don Quixote a "profoundly Christian epic" and the true Spanish bible, and correspondingly managed to write about the novel as if not a single comic episode occurs in it. W. H. Auden thought that Don Quixote was a portrait of a Christian saint; and Unamuno's unlikely American supporter, Harold Bloom, reminds us that although "Don Quixote may not be a scripture," it nonetheless contains us all as Shakespeare does — which sounds more like religious lament than secular caution.

So it is worth reminding ourselves of the gross, the worldly, the violent, and above all the comic in Don Quixote — worth reminding ourselves that we are permitted the odd secular guffaw while reading this book. If all of modern fiction comes out of the knight's cape, then one reason might be that Cervantes's novel contains all major comic tropes, from the farcical to the delicately ironic, the trivial to the splendid. First there is the comedy of egotism. This is the "But enough about my work, what do you think of my book?" grand manner, brilliantly exploited by Tartuffe, or by Austen's Mr. Collins, who proposes to Elizabeth Bennet by listing all the ways in which he will benefit from marriage. Don Quixote is the great chivalric egotist, no more egotistical than when he appears to be most chivalrous, as when, after poor Sancho Panza has suffered several adventures with his master, including a beating by some drovers from Yanguas and being tossed in a blanket by a gang of men, Don Quixote has the nerve to tell his servant that these things are evil enchantments and therefore not really happening to Sancho: "Therefore you must not grieve for the misfortunes that befall me, for you have no part in them." This is the knight who, later in the book, finds he can't sleep and wakes his servant up, on the principle that "it is in the nature of good servants to share the griefs of their masters and to feel what they are feeling, if only for appearance's sake." No wonder that Sancho elsewhere defines a knight adventurer as "someone who's beaten and then finds himself emperor."

The egotist is never very good at laughing at himself, laughable though he often is. Cervantes has a marvelously undulating scene in which the knight and his servant are riding in the hills and are stopped by a fearfully loud noise. Both are made nervous by the sound. Don Quixote sets out to discover the source, and Sancho Panza weeps with terror; Don Quixote is moved by Sancho's tears. When they finally discover that the noise comes only from "six wooden fulling hammers," Don Quixote looks at Sancho Panza and sees that "his cheeks were puffed out and his mouth full of laughter, clear signs that he would soon explode, and Don Quixote's melancholy was not so great that he could resist laughing at the sight of Sancho, and when Sancho saw that his master had begun, the floodgates opened with such force that he had to press his sides with his fists to keep from bursting with laughter." At which Don Quixote gets cross with Sancho for laughing at him, and hits him with his pike, complaining: "In all the books of chivalry I have read, which are infinite in number, I have never found any squire who talks as much with his master as you do with yours." As so often in Don Quixote, the reader travels, in only a page or two, through different chambers of laughter: affectionate, ironic, satirical, harmonious.

Don Quixote is the greatest of all fictional enquiries into the relation between fiction and reality, and so a great deal of the comedy is self conscious, generated when one or more of the characters seems to step out of the book and appeal either to a nonfictional reality or directly to the audience (the staple of pantomime performance and commedia dell'arte). The second book of Don Quixote, written ten years (1615) after the first (1605), throws irony on irony as the knight and his sidekick set out once again on their adventures, only to discover that they have become celebrities because a book about their escapades has appeared in the ten-year interim — the novel we have just been reading. Thus, Cervantes incorporates the fact of his own novel into its sequel. He delights in the epistemological hornet's nest into which Don Quixote and Sancho stumble in this second volume, as they assert their reality by recourse to a prior fiction whose culmination they are now enacting. But long before all these complexities, Sancho pleads with his master, in the first book, after being thrashed by the drovers from Yanguas: "Señor, since these misfortunes are the harvest reaped by chivalry, tell me, your grace, if they happen very often, or come only at certain times. ..." Sancho winks at the audience, as if to say, "I know I'm playing a role, and so is my master." The awful poignancy of the novel is that the knight does not know this.

Sancho's request is the perfectly reasonable one that if violence is to be cartoonish, then the laws of the genre should be observed, and we should all be given fair notice — the banana skin seen in advance on the sidewalk, the large shadow cast by the prowling cat — that violence is on the way. And certainly many of the cartoon conventions do appear in Don Quixote. The two heroes are never, it seems, seriously damaged, despite the thrashings, beatings, tossings, and broken bones they suffer. They always peel their flattened silhouettes off the ground. There is slapstick, too: at one moment, after Don Quixote has been attacked by the shepherds whose sheep he has attempted to kill, he asks Sancho to peer into his mouth to see how many teeth have been knocked out. As he is doing so, Don Quixote vomits into his face. Sancho, when he realizes that this is vomit, not blood, promptly vomits back into his face. There is plenty of low comedy like this, including an inn that, like the cheese shop in the Monty Python sketch, is out of everything that is requested.

Nowadays, the violence and farce bore or repel, and indeed it can be tedious to wade through all the needlessly spilled blood: Don Quixote is pounded with a lance by a mule driver who beats him "as if he were threshing wheat"; "half an ear" is cut off by a Basque adversary; his ribs are crushed by the drovers from Yanguas; he is hit so hard by a mule driver that his mouth is bathed in blood; the shepherds knock his teeth out; and he is stoned by the convicts he tries to release. Vladimir Nabokov found it cruel, and never really reconciled himself to the novel. In a Tarantino-tainted age, when "reality" only ever seems to get the heavy sideburns of quotation marks, such violence seems less cruel than pointedly unreal, the guarantee of its unreality being the unkillability of its victims. But Cervantes's violence makes another point, too. It is powerfully anti-idealizing. It shows us how often the well-intentioned knight ends up inflicting his good intentions on others. Near the beginning of the book, Don Quixote runs into Andrés, a boy who is being whipped by his master. Certain that his chivalric duty is to free the oppressed, he sends the punitive master packing. Later, Andrés will turn up again, only to explain to Don Quixote and his friends that everything turned out "very different from what your grace imagines." The master returned, of course, explains the boy, and flogged him all the harder, each time making a joke about how he was making a fool of Don Quixote. Andrés leaves, saying to Don Quixote that if he ever comes upon him again, even if he's being torn to pieces, "don't help me and don't come to my rescue."

This is the Quixote pattern. In another incident, Don Quixote attacks a group of monks accompanying a corpse. Convinced that the corpse is a knight whose death he must avenge, he charges at the poor monks, breaking the leg of a young man. Quixote introduces himself as a knight whose "occupation and profession" is to "wander the world righting wrongs and rectifying injuries." The young man tartly points out that this is hardly the case, since he was all right until Don Quixote came along and broke his leg, which will be "injured for the rest of my life; it was a great misadventure for me to run across a man who is seeking adventures."

Novel writing has an entrepreneurial element: to invent a central story which can function simultaneously as a plausible action and as an emblematic or symbolic one is akin to inventing a new machine or product, a patent that will run and run. Think of Chichikov traveling around Russia buying up "dead souls" (a title Gogol wanted kept secret while he was writing his novel, surely because he knew it would give away the clue to his "invention"), or of Bellow's Herzog writing his mental letters to great thinkers and public figures. These are grand concepts. In Don Quixote, a moderately prosperous Spanish gentleman, "one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing," becomes possessed, through reading the fictions of chivalric adventures, by the idea that the knights-errant of folklore and fiction were real people; furthermore, it seems "reasonable and necessary to him, both for the sake of his honor and as a service to the nation, to become a knight-errant and travel the world with his armor and his horse to seek adventures."

When Cervantes invented Don Quixote's madness and propelled him out onto the Castilian plains to enact that madness, he set ticking a little hermeneutical clock by which, miraculously, we are still trying to tell the time. Don Quixote's misreadings — his determination to read fiction as reality — license our millions of readings of him because Cervantes kept the ambition of Don Quixote's journeying as wide and unspecific as possible. We know what Don Quixote thinks he is doing, but what is he really doing? What do his strivings represent? Does his misreading of the world represent the poignant comic battle of the unsullied Idea doing its best to exist in the brute world of Reality? Or for Idea and Reality should we read Spirit and Flesh? (Poor Sancho, in this schema, is always seen as the embodiment of Flesh.) Or Literature and Reality? Or is Don Quixote an absolutist artist, striving to shape the recalcitrant world into his vision of it?

That Don Quixote's adventures have been so idealized, not to say Christianized, says more about the idealizing tendencies of Christianity than about Cervantes's novel. It is as if those determined to see Don Quixote as some kind of saint or wild missionary of the spirit simply close their eyes to the mayhem and suffering he causes. But Andrés, the flogged boy, is right: Don Quixote's good intentions have a way of inverting themselves, of becoming opposites. Perhaps Cervantes was interested, then, not only in the pious triumphs of his knight but also in his pious defeats? And perhaps this interest, despite all that is said about Cervantes's Catholicism, has a secular, even blasphemous, bent? Dostoevsky, who was very interested in Don Quixote, surely saw this when he created the quixotic figure of Prince Myshkin, the Idiot, whose Christ-like actions have a way of contaminating the world around him. Prince Myshkin is not just too good for the world; he is dangerously too good.

When the young man complains to Don Quixote about his broken leg, the two fall into a kind of theological argument, really an argument about theodicy, about the ways in which we try to justify God's plan for the world. The young man is a skeptic. He alleges that the man whose corpse he is accompanying was killed "by God, by means of a pestilential fever." Don Quixote argues the conventional, orthodox position: "Not all things ... happen in precisely the same way," he says, defending his decision to charge at the monks. For a brief, weird moment, it is as if Don Quixote is likening himself to God, to a God whose ways we cannot know, yet whose decisions seem to inflict incomprehensible suffering on us.

Cervantes's novel bristles with little blasphemous shards like this; it is why the novel is the great founder of secular comedy. In the novel, Don Quixote is often likened by his friends and acquaintances to a preacher, a missionary, a holy man. He himself argues that he is doing Christ's work. When he falls into conversation with a canon, the man in holy orders rebukes the knight for reading his books about chivalry, which are all folly and falsehood. He should instead read the Scriptures. But the great stories of knight-errantry are not fictions, replies Don Quixote. Who could deny, for instance, that Pierres and the fair Magalona really existed, for to this day one can see in the royal armory "the peg, slightly larger than a carriage pole, with which the valiant Pierres directed the wooden horse as he rode it through the air." The canon denies ever having seen this, but the damage is done. Blasphemy hangs like mirage heat. For how has Don Quixote just defended the existence of blatant fictions? By arguing from the existence of relics. And the logic is unavoidable: if mere fictions are proved real by arguing from relics, then religious relics, commonly used to prove the veracity of religion, may be fictions, too. This, in a Catholic country in the midst of Counter-Reformation fervency! Later, at the beginning of the second book, Don Quixote will argue that the legendary "giant Morgante," another folkloric figure, must have existed because we all believe — don't we? — that the biblical Goliath existed. Cervantes joins that select company of writers, like Milton, Montaigne, and Pierres Bayle, who delight in slipping blasphemy in through the tradesman's entrance while noisily welcoming divinity at the front gate.

This kind of teasing continues into the novel's second volume, in which Don Quixote and Sancho find themselves having to prove that they are the legendary figures they claim to be. It is a shame that many readers never get to the novel's stupendous second book, which is both funnier and more affecting than its first. A rough analogy of the action in the second book might go like this: Jesus Christ is wandering around first-century Palestine trying to convince people that he is the true Messiah. It is a difficult task, because John the Baptist, instead of preparing the way for the Messiah, has claimed that he is the true Messiah, and has gone and got himself appropriately crucified on Calvary. Since many people have heard of John's death and resurrection, Jesus finds himself being skeptically tested by his audience: can he perform this and that miracle? Moreover, when Jesus hears that John has been crucified on Calvary, he decides to prove his authenticity by changing his plans: he will not now be crucified on Calvary, but will instead travel to Rome to be eaten by lions. Tired, disillusioned, deeply saddened by the unexpected explosion of his greatest dreams, he sets out for Rome with his dearest disciple and right-hand man, Peter. But Peter, taking pity on him, gets together with some of the disciples and convinces Jesus that he should give up this Messiah lark, and should retire to somewhere nice, like Sorrento. Jesus meekly obeys, arrives in Sorrento, and immediately falls sick and dies, though not before renouncing all claims to divinity and announcing his convinced atheism.


Excerpted from The Irresponsible Self by James Wood. Copyright © 2005 James Wood. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

James Wood was the chief literary critic of The Guardian and is a senior editor at The New Republic. His previous work includes The Book Against God (Picador, 2004).

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