Friday, April 1, 2011

Writing about Writing: James Wood

One of my friends who loves reading, who is a serious reader, and who has so many friends that he sends out a thousand Christmas cards, said he could count on one hand the number of those friends who are serious readers. Ditto, except I don't have a thousand friends.  

I so much love to read that I love to read books about books. How Fiction Works was a great treat. Crystal-clear precise style. Well-wrought. Notable tidbits:

In a footnote, James Wood asks: "Am I the only reader addicted to the foolish pastime of amassing instances in which minor characters in books happen to have the names of writers?  Thus Camus the chemist in Proust, and another Camus in Bernano's Diary of a Country Priest, and the Pynchons in The House of the Seven Gables, and Horace Updike in Babbitt, and Brecht the dentist in Buddenbrooks, and Heidegger, one of Trotta's witnesses in Joseph Roth's The Emperor's Tomb, and Madame Foucault in Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale, and Father Larkin in David Jones's In Parenthesis, and Count Tolstoy in War and Peace, and a man named Barthes in Rousseau's Confessions, and come to think of it, a certain Madame Rousseau in Proust."

So, yes, James Wood pays close attention.

"In Flaubert and his successors we have the sense that the ideal of writing is a procession of strung details, a necklace of noticings, and that this is sometimes an obstruction to seeing, not an aid." I love his phrase "a necklace of noticings".  It reminds me of a line from the Spanish poet Lorca: "Life is laughter amid a rosary of deaths." A rosary of noticings?

"Flaubert loved to read aloud. It took him thirty-two hours to read his overblown lyrical fantasia, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, to two friends. And when he dined in Paris at the Goncourts', he loved to read out examples of bad writing.  Turgenev said that he knew of 'no other writer who scrupled in quite that way.' Even Henry James, the master stylist, was somewhat appalled by the religious devotion with which Flaubert assassinated repetition, unwanted cliches, clumsy sonorities. The scene of [Flaubert's] writing has become notorious: the study at Croisset, the slow river outside the window, while inside the bearish Norman, wrapped in his dressing gown and wreathed in pipe smoke, groaned and complained about how slow his progress was, each sentence laid as slowly and agonizingly as a fuse."

In a footnote to the above passage Wood "wonders if a great deal of time was not spent just sleeping and masturbating (Flaubert likened sentences to ejaculate). Often, the excruciation of the stylist seems to be a front for writer's block. This was the case with the marvelous American writer J.F. Powers, for instance, of whom Sean O'Faolain joked, in Wildean fashion, that he 'spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon wondering whether or not he should replace it with a semicolon.' More usual, I think, is the kind of literary routine ascribed to the minor English writer A.C. Benson -- that he did nothing all morning and then spent the afternoon writing up what he'd done in the morning."
(From my notes one could get the impression that Flaubert is the main subject of How Fiction Works, but he's not; Wood's swathe is wide; he discusses in depth a good many writers -- from Chekov to Saul Bellow.)


  1. A rosary of noticings?

    When I was a little girl, my brother was very day he was so angry with me...the worst thing he could think to call me? "Rosary bead Joan!"

    "My spellbound heart has made and remade the necklace of songs" Rabindranath Tagore's mind..

    books about books about books about books..big deep breath of loving it...

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