Cover image for The irresponsible self : on laughter and the novel
The irresponsible self : on laughter and the novel
Wood, James, 1965-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, [2004]

Physical Description:
312 pages ; 22 cm
Introduction : comedy and the irresponsible self -- Shakespeare and the pathos of rambling -- How Shakespeare's 'irresponsibility' saved Coleridge -- Dostoevsky's God -- Isaac Babel and the dangers of exaggeration -- Saltykov-Shchedrin's subversion of hypocrisy -- Anna Karenina and characterisation -- Italo Svevo's unreliable comedy -- Giovanni Verga's comic sympathy -- Joseph Roth's empire of signs -- Bohumil Harabal's comic world -- J.F. Powers and the priests -- Hysterical realism -- Jonathan Franzen and the 'social novel' -- Tom Wolfe's shallowness and the problem of information -- Salman Rushdie's nobu novel -- Monica Ali's novelties -- Saul Bellow's comic style -- The real Mr. Biswas -- V.S. Pritchett and English comedy -- Henry Green's England.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PN3352.C6 W66 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



James Wood's first book of essays,The Broken Estate, established him as the leading critic of his generation, one whose judgments "are distinguished by their originality and precision, the depth of reading that informs them, and the metaphorical richness of their language" (Harper's). Its successor,The Irresponsible Self, confirms Wood's preeminence, not only as a discerning judge but also as an appreciator of novels, with a special interest in the ways they make us laugh. In twenty-three passionate, sparkling dispatches, he defends what he calls "secular comedy"-human, tragicomic, forgiving, bound up with the very origins of the novel -against the narrower "religious comedy" of satire and farce, which is corrective, punitive, and theatrical. Ranging over such crucial comic writers as Cervantes, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Waugh, Bellow, and Naipaul, Wood offers a broad history of comedy while examining each chosen writer with his customary care and intense focus. This collection (which includes Wood's much-discussed attack on "hysterical realism") is indispensable reading for anyone who cares about modern fiction or criticism today.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Literary critic Wood doesn't simply assemble collections of random writings but rather follows a line of inquiry in a series of essays that then forms an intellectually exhilarating whole. In The Broken Estate (1999), he wrote about how art came to be viewed as sacred. Here, Wood, a class act on the mastheads of both the Guardian and the New Republic, considers comedy in literature, particularly the emergence of a new form of humor engendered by the psychological depth of the modern novel, a kind of tragicomic stoicism which might best be called a comedy of forgiveness. This coalesced along with the unreliably unreliable narrator, a key figure Wood traces back to Shakespeare, whose transformation of the soliloquy, Wood avers, made possible the first streams of consciousness. Wood then writes with exquisite sensitivity and stirring acuity about two dozen diverse writers, including Coleridge, Tolstoy, Italo Svevo, Joseph Roth, Bellow, Coetzee, Rushdie, Franzen, and Monica Ali, in sterling essays as voluptuous in style as they are clarion in thought. --Donna Seaman Copyright 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

Still writing with magisterial sweep and terrific intensity, Wood (The Book Against God) in this newest collection of review-essays celebrates the indeterminate voice of comic narrative, which "replaces the knowable with the unknowable, transparency with unreliability," enabling the reader's sympathies without directing them. This voice aids the development of secular modernity, part of a "comedy of forgiveness" in which morality, no longer the voice of divine law, itself partakes of the foibles and variances of human temperament. Starting inevitably with Shakespeare and Cervantes, Wood offers up assessments of individual (male) writers who in one way or another exemplify Wood's principle, including Dostoyevski, Tolstoy, Italo Svevo, Giovanni Verga, Joseph Roth, Henry Green, Bellow. Oddly juxtaposed with this late 19th- to mid-20th-century sequence is a group of rather bilious reviews of a more recent generation of fiction, which Wood never deigns to call postmodern. His tone ranging from respectful reservation (about J.M. Coetzee) to outright contempt (for Tom Wolfe), Wood hammers vigilantly at the failure of intellectual, cultural and political motives to make good fiction. Unlike American culture-warriors, Wood takes his sharp ear and deep convictions straight to the work itself, carefully explaining the structural, formal and tonal weaknesses of what he calls "hysterical realism," revealing his distaste for journalism and pop culture but never advancing it. Most compelling is the way his own style swells and contracts with his subject matter, blithely metaphorical in praising Bellow, earnest and lucid in sorting out Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith, sarcastic in attacking Rushdie. Still, meaner spirits will await Dale Peck's Hatchet Jobs, also due in June. Agent, The Wiley Agency. (June 16) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Many of the 23 essays in this book deal with "a kind of tragicomic stoicism which might be called the comedy of forgiveness ... [which] can be distinguished--if a little roughly--from the comedy of correction." Focusing on the secular and modern novel--and on laughter in particular--Wood (one-time literary critic at The Guardian and now senior editor of The New Republic) incorporates discussion of the novel's origins, techniques, and development and provides an approach and critical tools to make the reader a better and more complete consumer of fiction. Wood begins with essays on Cervantes and Shakespeare and goes on to discuss the work of such writers as Isaac Babel, Italo Svevo, Giovanni Verga, Salman Rushdie, and Saul Bellow. He describes the authors' lives and provides critical details and interpretations of their work in a lively and engaging style. The result is a book replete with interesting insights, for example that Shakespeare developed "what might be called rambling consciousness." ^BSumming Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers. W. B. Warde Jr. University of North Texas

Table of Contents

Introduction: Comedy and the Irresponsible Selfp. 3
Don Quixote's Old and New Testamentsp. 20
Shakespeare and the Pathos of Ramblingp. 31
How Shakespeare's "Irresponsibility" Saved Coleridgep. 42
Dostoevsky's Godp. 59
Isaac Babel and the Dangers of Exaggerationp. 75
Saltykov-Shchedrin's Subversion of Hypocrisyp. 87
Anna Karenina and Characterizationp. 96
Italo Svevo's Unreliable Comedyp. 109
Giovanni Verga's Comic Sympathyp. 124
Joseph Roth's Empire of Signsp. 137
Bohumil Hrabal's Comic Worldp. 153
J. F. Powers and the Priestsp. 166
Hysterical Realismp. 178
Jonathan Franzen and the "Social Novel"p. 195
Tom Wolfe's Shallowness, and the Trouble with Informationp. 210
Salman Rushdie's Nobu Novelp. 221
Monica Ali's Noveltiesp. 234
Coetzee's Disgrace: A Few Skeptical Thoughtsp. 246
Saul Bellow's Comic Stylep. 258
The Real Mr. Biswasp. 274
V.S. Pritchett and English Comedyp. 287
Henry Green's Englandp. 299
A Long Day at the Chocolate Bar Factory: David Bezmozgis's Compassionate Ironyp. 313