The publisher was kind enough to send me a review copy of The Nearest Thing to Life, by James Wood; I always turn to Wood’s reviews eagerly (though I often find myself arguing with them) — he’s very well-read, acutely sensitive to the qualities of good writing, and (most important) an excellent writer himself — so I opened it with anticipation, and was not disappointed, even though I had read two of the four essays before, the first in the New Yorker and the last in the London Review of Books. I like Woods better when he’s mingling observations on literature, life, and his own memories, as he does here, rather than when he’s concentrating fiercely on a single book. I love reading the Chekhov stories he discusses and listening to the music he mentions, and he says things whose wording I admire or that plunge me into thought on nearly every page. Here are a couple of passages that will serve as a sampler; from the second essay, evoking his early life in Durham:
The school’s headmaster, the Reverend Canon John Grove, was probably only in his early fifties, but seemed to us a fantastically antique figure. He was a bachelor and a clergyman, and wore the uniform of his calling: a black suit, a black buttonless shirt, a thick white clerical collar. […] Except for the band of white starch round his neck, Canon Grove was entirely colourless—his ancient Oxford shoes were black, his thick spectacles were black, the pipe he smoked was black. He seemed to have been carbonized centuries ago, turned into ash, and when he lit his pipe, it seemed as if he was lighting himself. Like all children, we were fascinated by the match held over the pipe-bowl, by the flame steadily journeying along the flimsy match, entranced by the sucking noises of the smoker, and the way the flame halted its horizontal passage at these moments and then briefly disappeared vertically into the bowl. And always there was the question: how can he hold the match alight for so long, with such reptilian imperviousness?
And from the final essay, on his hard-to-define longing for what once was home:
In America, I crave the English reality that has disappeared; childhood seems breathingly close. But the sense of masquerade persists: I gorge on nostalgia, on fondnesses that might have embarrassed me when I lived in Britain. Geoff Dyer writes funnily, in Out of Sheer Rage, about how, when he was living in Italy, he developed an obsession with reading the TV listings in English papers, even though he had never watched telly when he lived in England, and didn’t like it. To hear a Geordie voice on an American news program leaves me flushed with longing: the dance of that dialect, with its seasick Scandinavian pitch. And all those fabulous words: segs (the metal plates you’d bang onto your shoe heels, to make sparks on the ground and act like a hard nut); kets (‘sweets’); neb (‘nose’); nowt (‘nothing’); stotty-cake (a kind of flat, doughy bread); claggy (‘sticky’). The way Northerners say eee, as an exclamation: ‘Eee, it’s red-hot today!’ (Any temperature over about seventy-two degrees.) Recently, I heard the old song ‘When the Boat Comes In’ on National Public Radio, and I almost wept.
Now come here little Jacky
Now I’ve smoked me packy,
Let’s have some cracky
Till the boat comes in.
And you shall have a fishy
On a little dishy,
You shall have a fishy
When the boat comes in.
But I really disliked that song when I was a boy. I never had a very northern accent. My father was born in London. It was important to my Scottish petty-bourgeois mother that I didn’t sound like a Geordie. Friends used to say, with a bit of menace in their voices: ‘You don’t talk like a Durham lad. Where are you from?’ Sometimes it was necessary to mimic the accent, to fit in, to avoid getting beaten up. I could never say, as the man in the song ‘Coming Home Newcastle’ foolishly does: ‘And I’m proud to be a Geordie/And to live in Geordie-land.’
I’ll add, since as a copyeditor I notice these things, that the book is extraordinarily well proofread; the only error I noticed was a running head that had strayed from the essay “Why?” to “Using Everything” (p. 91). Well done, Brandeis University Press!