Why is it that we don't like James Wood?
He is to fiction criticism in America what Danto is to art criticism, and what Anthony Lane is becoming to film criticism. One knows that he will be wise about contexts, and his dips into the novel he is reviewing will be, if not typical of the book, at least well chosen enough to make his version of the book plausible. But his grand enthusiasm for Saul Bellow seems, frankly, incredible -- he has never written about Bellow in such a way that I would want to read Bellow -- and his grand aversion for Don Delillo seems incredible -- he has never conveyed his allergy to Delillo in such a way that I would want to avoid Delillo -- and on the greats he seems to aim at that tone mixing just a hint of pop memory and desire -- of that great child's desire to go through the book, to eat it up -- that Trilling could sometimes bring off so that his reading actually haunts the writer. It takes some time to read Babel, for instance, after Trilling, because Trilling has interposed his own Babel so strongly, so carnally, between oneself and the stories.
Wood does a reading of James' high period novels -- The Spoils of Poynton, What Maisie Knew, The Awkward Age -- for the Atlantic. Of these, he only finds What Maisie Knew great. He says little about the Awkward Age. We think he is right about Maise, but very wrong about the Spoils. Awkward Age is not great, but it is very fast, and very enjoyable.
Wood does bring out how much What Maisie Knew depends upon knowing -- and how knowing attaches in unexpected ways to the knower. And he also sees how James is dealing the scene painter -- the laborious Zolas, immersed in the rotten fruit of Les Halles -- a deadly blow by doing much with a minimum of brushwork. For Wood, this is a grievous thing -- he's often expressed his nostalgia for the great 19th century novels, and he still believes that the Tolstoyan standard is the right one for fiction, underneath it all. This isn't an impossible belief -- James was the engineer of the too ready conciliation between fiction and its medium, reading, where you don't really see what you see, but we all know this can have terrible consequences, just like the too visual penchant of film that abuts in the dumb action movie, where all contradictions of character are resolved by contemptuously speeding past them, as though the viewer who expects intelligence to pervade the spectacle were being a gull, an utterly pre-MTV anachronism. This is just stripping our narrative sense, and it doesn't take Adorno to figure out just how compliant such an aesthetic must be with the most reactionary politics.
But we digress. Spoils of Poynton is a little gem in the James oeuvre.
Here is what Wood thinks: "The Spoils of Poynton, a work of real penetration, is marred, I think, by an inadequate sense of the motivations of its heroine, Fleda Vetch."
Wood spells out what he means by this, after canningly canning the plot:
"Fleda, a young woman of considerable insight and intellect, is the new friend of Mrs. Gereth, the owner of Poynton. James got the idea for this novel�what he habitually called the donn�e�at a dinner party; he dined out frequently and used these evenings to truffle for rich stories. His neighbor at the table had told him about a "small and ugly matter" in which a Scottish widow was suing her son over the fine furniture he had inherited, which she would not let him have. Mrs. Gereth, like the Scottish widow, has become embroiled in a struggle with her son, Owen, who is about to marry the vulgar, nouveau riche Mona Brigstock. Under English law, once Owen marries, he and his wife will become master and mistress of Poynton."
"In general, James's characters divide into gentle but weak men; formidable and finally monstrous manipulators (mostly women, but sometimes men); and those whose innocence needs to be protected (sometimes young women, sometimes young men, sometimes children). Mrs. Gereth is one of the manipulators, like Madame Merle in The Portrait of a Lady and Aunt Maud in The Wings of the Dove. She cannot bear the idea of the brash Mona in charge of her beautiful objets, and determines to act. Her weapon�at first unwitting, and then unwilling�will be young Fleda, whom she takes under her wing. Mrs. Gereth becomes excited when she hears that Owen and Mona have not yet agreed on a date for the wedding, and assumes that something is amiss with this detestable union. She sees that Fleda is attracted to her son, and soon hears that Owen returns the attraction. She decides to use Fleda as a wedge..."
Now, at this point a New Historicist would remember that women in England had only recently had their property rights given equal, or at least less equal, parity with men. Wood can't see why Fleda would find Mrs. Gereth ultimately a person whose fight for her place was worth, if not sympathy, at least pity; and then he cannot see why she would betray her.
We think that Fleda's resolutions are coherent. Fleda is overwhelmed at first by Mrs. Gereth, who, while being a manipulator, is not like Madame Merle. Merle is in love with a man, Mrs. Gereth in love with a position and a life. Her own life. Manipulation arises, in both cases, out of what both characters want, but Mrs. Gereth is a much less evil character. She does not operate against what she thinks would be Fleda's interests; she simply thinks those interests are a tepid version of her own.
Here is Mrs. Gereth getting down to brass tacks with Fleda:
Why, Fleda, it isn�t a crime, don�t you know that?� cried the delighted woman. �When I was a girl I was always in love, and not always with such nice people as Owen. I didn�t behave as well as you; compared with you I think I must have been odious. But if you�re proud and reserved it�s your own affair; I�m proud too, though I�m not reserved � that�s what spoils it."