Conrad's Reviews > Axel's Castle: A Study of the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930

Axel's Castle by Edmund Wilson
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's review
Aug 09, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: poetry, philosophy, owned
Read in February, 2010

I'm in what I hope is the middle of a long period of incuriosity. Books don't really interest me these days, because most of the time when I pick one up, I think, what's the point, anyway? My inner devil likes to whisper that books haven't made a material difference in my own life besides maybe a slight air of well-read-ness, and maybe not even that. Depression isn't like having a raincloud over you all the time, it's more like a hangnail, annoying you whenever you try to do something you normally enjoy, and the harder you try, the harder the nail tries to tear itself from your finger.

So normally this wouldn't be the best time to read a disquisition on Modernism. This prose goes down so easily, though, that I ran out of reasons not to finish the book after having started it last September. Edmund Wilson is unique for me among early 20th century critics in that he sounds almost exactly up-to-date, and I don't think opinions of Valery or Eliot or Proust have really changed all that much since he wrote this critical assessment. Wilson's own writing is exacting without being fussy, and contemporary without being modish.

The exciting thing about this book is seeing Proust and Joyce and Yeats before there was a unified critical opinion as to their value. You get the sense that Wilson knows he's creating the consensus, and by bucking it occasionally he only firms up the broader narrative. As an example, Wilson had the privilege of being able to read "Four Quartets" without the weight of their putative greatness balanced over his head, and instead of praising the book without qualification, he says:

"...I am a little tired of hearing Eliot, only in his early forties, present himself as an 'aged eagle' who asks why he should make the effort to stretch his wings. Yet 'Ash Wednesday,' though less brilliant and intense than Eliot at his very best, is distinguished by most of the qualities which made his other poems remarkable: the exquisite phrasing in which we feel that every word is in its place and that there is not a word too much; the metrical mastery which catches so naturally, yet with so true a modulation, the faltering accents of the supplicant..."

The section on Proust performs more lay psychology than would probably be considered prudent these days, but while Wilson has little respect for Proust, he admires his habits of mind, and wishes only that Marcel had had to "meet the world on equal terms and [...:] felt the necessity of relating his art and ideas to the general problems of human society..." The last lines on Proust are so excellent that I won't reproduce them here - read the book. Anyway, Wilson prefers the fiery revolutionary Yeats, while finding his theories on history and his metaphysics to be rotten caricatures.

It is striking and rare to read someone with such nominal opinions of major early 20th-century writers express them in a voice that's so familiar yet inventive. Wilson seems to have understood with clarity the importance of the Symbolist and Modernist movements even as they coursed, developed and died all around him. Imagine writing at a time when the world had seen only a few serialized chapters of Finnegan's Wake!

Chew on this: Axel's Castle was written when Texas was still a depopulated backwater mostly without electricity. It was written twenty years before Hawaii or Alaska became states. It was written before American highways existed. It was written when cars were still a novelty in some parts of the country. It was written before anyone knew Wallace Stevens had written much poetry. It was written before Hitler came to power. You'd never guess it from the words on the page.
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Reading Progress

08/24/2009 page 25
08/27/2009 page 40
14.71% "If this holds, Edmund Wilson's going on my Favorite Authors page for sho. Not perfect, but the chapter on Yeats was pretty stunning."
03/17/2017 marked as: read
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Comments (showing 1-6)

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message 6: by Jesse (new)

Jesse Oh interesting. I've been meaning to read something by Wilson, you've kind of sold me on this.

message 5: by craige (new)

craige I could read your book reviews all day long. Much preferable to reading the books themselves, in fact.

Conrad Gawrsh, Craige! Thanks.

message 3: by John (new)

John Fine job on a piece of critical work that ought to feel dated but isn't. Wilson laid down groundwork that remains impressive for how it can bear a load.

Conrad John, I felt exactly the same way. Wilson has no right to this diction! But I regret that my own reaction to the criticism addresses his tone more than his ideas, which seem so sensible as to be self-evident - too much signal and not enough noise, I guess?

The longevity of Wilson's opinions is particularly surprising when you consider how badly his impression of Vladimir Ulyanov's work has fared by comparison...

message 1: by John (last edited Feb 05, 2010 10:58AM) (new)

John Wilson always showed such intelligence, yet always took into account the spirit; essentially he's a great humanist, upholding that core of value in our reading. Formally too, as craft, his essays stand out -- as you noticed.

None of which is to say the guy wasn't wrong sometimes. Wrong about Kafka, for instance. Wrong, most shockingly, about LOLITA.

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