Tuesday, October 03, 2006

What James Wood Does Like to Read

I took a seminar with James Wood this semester. It's over now, even though the semester has barely started, which makes me feel gloomy, because he was a brilliant teacher; passionate and insightful as a reader of Bellow (the stories), Dostoevsky (Notes from Underground), Chekhov (stories) and Woolf (To the Lighthouse) and adept at talking about these works not just from the perspective of criticism, but of craft. He also had a very entertaining story about his own doppelganger, and about the Dostoevskian saga which ensued for him following the intervention into his life of that person, who shared his name and his occupation, and, for a while, showed up at every turn for Wood, writing letters, reviews, and even blurbs. It reminded me strongly of Paul Auster's novella City of Glass, but probably because that, in itself, is one big Dostoevskian trope.
Anyway, after the last class, Wood took some time to talk about "literature in general" and to take any questions the class had on this subject, and of course somebody asked the question that was on everybody's lips ("Which books have you liked in recent years?"), albeit phrased more delicately than others might have put it, given Wood's no-nonsense tack as a critic ("Is there anything you've ever liked?") And, while Wood was happier to give names (Spark, Sebald, Bellow, Coetzee, and the earlier Roth) than titles, there were a few that he singled out:
Amit Chaudhuri's collection A Strange and Sublime Address(1991)V.S. Naipaul's novel A House for Mr. Biswas (1961) Henry Green's novel Loving (1945)(see Wood’s TLS article on Green, from the TLS last January).

Naturally, I haven't read any of them; this is the first I've heard of Green, in fact. His novel sounds intriguing, set as it is among a bunch of servants in a castle in Ireland during WWII. I didn't get to ask Wood what he thought of Bowen, or of any other Irish writers; his slow, somewhat agonised but still fascinating revelation of his favourites was then intercepted by a bland question about marketing and the young writer (snore), so there were revealed no more than these. But at least it saved me from yet again displaying my provincial tendencies for all to see.

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