James Wood, Religion, and the Novel

This Sunday, the Guardian published a fascinating profile of the New Yorker's James Wood. In it, we learn that:

  • Wood has a new book, The Nearest Thing to Life, coming out later this month. In it, he worries over the God-like omniscience that novelists claim to have over their characters.
  • He believes that many--most?--great works of literature can't really be appreciated by younger readers: “It’s very difficult explaining The Portrait of a Lady to 20-year-olds, because it’s about choices and consequences, about the realisation that the world is smaller than it seems. Understanding novels requires wisdom, which it takes decades of living to acquire."
  • Wood's two children have become "totally American" and don't appear to love reading as much as he did at their age.

Of most interest to readers of this blog, though, might be Wood's comments on the difficulty, perhaps the impossibility, of writing a great Christian novel:

I can only think of bad Christian novels, like Graham Greene’s. There are mystical novels – To the Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway – and in The Brothers Karamazov you have something like the iconostasis in a Russian Orthodox cathedral: certain panels, like those about Father Zossima or the parable of the grand inquisitor, uphold the faith that Dostoevsky undermines elsewhere. Maybe Moby-Dick qualifies too, though at the cost of being undramatic or essayistic or poetic. Perhaps narrative is inherently secular. It corrugates things, bends them too much to stay religious, as Dostoevsky wisely feared. Among contemporaries, Marilynne Robinson comes closest in Gilead, which is about a Congregationalist pastor in Iowa who’s dying – though she has to sacrifice a lot of the novel’s innate comedy and dynamism on the altar of high thought. The novel is a comic form, because it’s about our absurdities and failings. We’re told that Jesus wept, but never that he laughed.

I'd be interested to hear what other readers of Robinson think of Wood's characterization here. I, for one, think Gilead is a deeply if quietly funny novel. Think of the scene with the horse in the ditch, for instance, or the baptism of the kittens (which is, of course, also very serious). If you've ever had the pleasure of hearing Robinson read/speak in person, you know that she has a great, great chuckle, and her novels elicit that same quiet, forgiving kind of laughter.  

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Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). He writes Commonweal's "Bookmarks" column.

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