Michael Wood

  • I Too Dislike It

    Vladimir Nabokov saw the beginnings of literature in a familiar idiom. He imagined a boy “running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels.” The child was shouting, reasonably and referentially enough, “Wolf, wolf.” But this alone was not literature. “Literature was born,” Nabokov says, “on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him.”

    So literature is a kind of lying? Well, yes, among other things. The ideal definition was offered early in the game, long before the word literature was used by anyone. The formulation is so sly and full of

  • Fêtes and Furies

    Sarah Bakewell’s previous book, published six years ago, told the story of two lives: the one Michel de Montaigne lived in sixteenth-century France, and the one that became “the long party” attended by everyone who read him over the years after his death. The party was an intimate affair because Montaigne often seemed to know us better than we know ourselves, and certainly expressed many of our thoughts better than we do. Bakewell’s new book, At the Existentialist Café, has the same double motion. It recounts the lives of the writers and philosophers who hung out at that literal or metaphorical

  • Words to Live By

    Lynne Tillman’s characters inhabit language the way others live in rooms and cities. It’s not that they are made only of words—all literary characters are—or that they don’t have their own versions of material longings, needs, attachments, and obstructions. What’s different is that they are attuned to language. They fraternize with words even when they are not talking. They treasure clichés and ready-made phrases as if they were messages or hints, turning them over to find their wisdom, or at least the joke wrapped inside them. In her collection This Is Not It (2002), when a woman makes a

  • Power of Babble

    "I think you are going to like Moshe,” reads the second sentence of Adam Thirlwell’s funny, inventive first novel, Politics (2003). “His girlfriend’s name was Nana. I think you will like her too.” And on the next page, “I like this couple.” Isn’t he overdoing the authorial intervention? Not a bit—this is a double bluff, and it manifestly works. “This may seem a little pushy to you,” the style says, “but I’m sure you’ll enjoy the book in spite of my pushiness—well, because of my pushiness, because my pushiness is so playful.” I say the double bluff works because you can’t argue with such tangible

  • Picture of a Gone World

    There is a strange, shifting air of congruence between Don DeLillo’s two most recent novels, Cosmopolis (2003) and Falling Man, the first seeming to call for or provoke the second. In fact, the second revokes the first, abruptly strands it in a forgotten time and mentality. The time of Cosmopolis is “the year 2000, a day in April,” and soon after that the days changed.

    Falling Man, set in the immediate aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, presents a situation no character in Cosmopolis could imagine, although, perversely, the protagonist of that novel would no doubt have loved to.