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Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The King James Version

Two more toothsome articles by James Wood, which deserve slow and careful reading.

The first, published in The Times Literary Supplement, analyses the prose of Saul Bellow and draws linkages with the King James version of the Bible.

“The excitement of Bellow’s prose has to do with its pressing mingle of sounds, a complex of Russian, American, Jewish and English influences. But, above all, the influence of the Bible cannot be overestimated… Good English prose often finds itself falling into the great English founding rhythm, iambic pentameter, or something pretty close to it … Bellow’s prose, with its colloquial interruptions and its habit of mixing high and low registers, rarely sounds exactly English. But it often sounds biblically English.

“…Lawrence, the most biblical of modern English novelists, can be seen as the bridge that links the Hebrew-biblical side of Bellow with the English-biblical side, the Jewish with the Anglican (Lawrence, apparently, translates well into Hebrew because of this biblical metre in his prose). And perhaps, too, Lawrence is the twentieth-century writer who most obviously links Dickens to the American master.”

And the second, in The New Republic, ostensibly a review of Realist Vision by Peter Brooks, but actually a re-statement of Wood's own position as to the type of novel he considers supreme:

“The realist novel, which Brooks expansively defines as stretching from Balzac to James and perhaps on into Proust, Joyce, and Woolf, was often politically and philosophically radical. Often, and most notably in Flaubert, it overwhelmed the world with words, with elaborations of style, even as it claimed exactly to match word with referent; and often it dealt savagely and pessimistically with its fictional characters.

“…Once realism is opened up, so that it becomes a way of writing deeply about the self-- a plunging into character--it comes to seem not a tradition, not a genre, but the broad central language of the novel, indeed of drama: what James in What Maisie Knew calls ‘the firm ground of fiction, through which indeed there curled the blue river of truth.’

“…Realism, seen broadly, cannot be only a genre; instead, it makes other forms of fiction seem like subgenres. For realism teaches everyone else. It schools its own truants: it is what allows magical realism, hysterical realism, fantasy, science fiction, even thrillers, to exist.”


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