James Wood and Tim Parks, two critics, two books

Tim ParksTwo prominent literary commentators and critics — James Wood and Tim Parks— have release books within months of each other. Both the books are compilations of previously delivered speeches and/or columns. James Wood’s The Nearest Thing To Life is a collection of Mandel lectures delivered in April 2013 at the Mandel Center for the Humanities, Brandeis University. It also contains a lecture delivered in February 2014 at the British Museum in a series run by the museum and the London Review of Books. Tim Parks Where I’m Reading From is a compilation of essays first published in the New York Review of Books.

Both the critics have chosen to write part-memoir, part-reflective essays but very germane James Woodto contemporary conversations about publishing, writing, reading and literary criticism. Since these were written over a short period of a time, published more or less immediately, these observations encapsulate a period in publishing history which would otherwise get lost in the deluge of information available online. To read these essays printed and bound as a book allows one the pleasure of absorbing the ideas at one’s pace. There is a range of issues they cover — reading, what constitutes good criticism, what is the hallmark of a good writer and critic, what constitutes disciplined reading, of literary prizes, storytelling and the notion of “home” that surfaces regularly among writers including these essayists, both of whom are Englishmen but reside in other countries — Tim Parks in Italy and James Wood in America. This eternal question about what constitutes “home” turns their attention on world literature. It is also fascinating to discover the strict Christian upbringing both the critics had which they consciously chose to move away from  — it requires tremendous grit and determination to transcend this — to read literature as acutely as they do, is astounding.

At a time when discussions about global literature, significance of translations, accessing new literature and cultures and cross-pollinations of literary traditions and techniques dominate, to have two prominent critics discuss world literature is significant. Tim Parks’s fearlessly exquisite essay, “The Dull New Global Novel” ( NYRB blog, 9 February 2010. http://bit.ly/1PnbidG)  and James Wood engaging essay in “Secular Homelessness” based on his impressive close reading of literature for the New Yorker ( Essay and podcast available at “On Not Going Home” LRB, Vol 36 No. 4, 20 February 2014. http://bit.ly/1PnbABm ). Reading literature especially fiction gives a literary critic formidable insight into socio-eco-political scenarios, raising questions, but connecting dots of daily life that would otherwise pass by us in a blur little realising their import. For instance the conversations about world literature and “tangle of feelings” as evident in world literature are closely aligned to issues about emigration/ immigration/ exile ( voluntary and otherwise), idea of home, the global village becoming a repository of many cultural influences  instead of being culturally homogeneous and undisturbed for many years, what are the politics of translations etc. Both critics, Tim Parks and James Wood, dwell at length on this as illustrated by a couple of extracts from the essays:

Tim Parks

What are the consequences for literature? From the moment an author perceives his ultimate audience as international rather than national, the nature of his writing is bound to change. In particular one notes a tendency to remove obstacles to international comprehension. Writing in the 1960’s, intensely engaged with his own culture and its complex politics, Hugo Claus apparently did not care that his novels would require a special effort on the reader’s and above all the translator’s part if they were to be understood outside his native Belgium. In sharp contrast, contemporary authors like the Norwegian Per Petterson, the Dutch Gerbrand Bakker, or the Italian Alessandro Baricco, offer us works that require no such knowledge or effort, nor offer the rewards that such effort will bring.

More importantly the language is kept simple. Kazuo Ishiguro has spoken of the importance of avoiding word play and allusion to make things easy for the translator. Scandinavian writers I know tell me they avoid character names that would be difficult for an English reader.

If culture-specific clutter and linguistic virtuosity have become impediments, other strategies are seen positively: the deployment of highly visible tropes immediately recognizable as “literary” and “imaginative,” analogous to the wearisome lingua franca of special effects in contemporary cinema, and the foregrounding of a political sensibility that places the author among those “working for world peace.” So the overstated fantasy devices of a Rushdie or a Pamuk always go hand in hand with a certain liberal position since, as Borges once remarked, most people have so little aesthetic sense they rely on other criteria to judge the works they read.

James Wood

What I have been describing, both in my own life and in the lives of others, is more like secular homelessness. It cannot claim the theological prestige of the transcendent. Perhaps it is not even homelessness; homelooseness (with an admixture of loss) might be the necessary (hideous) neologism: in which the ties that might bind one to Home have been loosened, perhaps happily, perhaps unhappily, perhaps permanently, perhaps only temporarily. Clearly, this secular homelessness overlaps, at times, with the more established categories of emigration, exile and postcolonial movement. Just as clearly, it diverges from them at times. Sebald, a German writer who lived most of his adult life in England (and who was thus perhaps an emigrant, certainly an immigrant, but not exactly an émigré, nor an exile), had an exquisite sense of the varieties of not-belonging. He came to Manchester, from Germany, in the mid-1960s, as a graduate student. He returned, briefly, to Switzerland, and then came back to England in 1970, to take a lectureship at the University of East Anglia. The pattern of his own emigration is one of secular homelessness or homelooseness. He had the economic freedom to return to West Germany; and once he was well known, in the mid-1990s, he could have worked almost anywhere he wanted to. 

Sebald seems to know the difference between homesickness and homelessness. If there is anguish, there is also discretion: how could my loss adequately compare with yours? Where exile is often marked by the absolutism of the separation, secular homelessness is marked by a certain provisionality, a structure of departure and return that may not end. This is a powerful motif in the work of Aleksandar Hemon, a Bosnian-American writer who came to the States from Sarajevo, in 1992, only to discover that the siege of his hometown prohibited his return. Hemon stayed in America, learned how to write a brilliant, Nabokovian English (a feat in some sense greater than Nabokov’s because achieved at a steroidal pace), and published his first book, The Question of Bruno, in 2000 (dedicated to his wife, and to Sarajevo). Once the Bosnian war was over, Hemon could, presumably, have returned to his native city. What had not been a choice became one; he decided to make himself into an American writer.

These books are a precious addition to my personal library.

Tim Parks Where I’m Reading From Harvill Secker, London, 2014. Hb. pp.250 Rs 599

James Wood The Nearest Thing To Life Jonathan Cape, London, 2015. Hb. pp. 140. Rs 599

15 May 2015 

 

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