I am a mischievous reader. Sometimes I am unable to release myself into the flow of narrative in the way I imagine a writer intends. I get stuck on a sentence, a phrase, sometimes a portmanteau word, and am unable to read on. I am undone. I cannot comply with the onward progression.
Tonight it is with Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room that I am stopped dead by her exquisite prose:
Slowly welling from the point of her gold nib, pale blue ink dissolved the full stop, for there her pen stuck; her eyes fixed, and tears slowly filled them. The entire bay quivered; the lighthouse wobbled; and she had the illusion that the mast of Mr. Connor’s little yacht was bending like a wax candle in the sun. She winked quickly. Accidents were awful things. She winked again. The mast was straight; the waves were regular; the lighthouse was upright; but the blot had spread.
It is here I quickly understand it is too perilous to read on tonight, as I will keep circling around this paragraph, keep pondering the watery course of the pale blue ink, possibly reiterating the pale blue of the bay on which sails the little yacht. The slowly welling tears blurring the ink blot frozen momentarily on the page before it spreads. That sentence: accidents were awful things, that means nothing yet, and yet is the source of the tears that blur her eyes. That sentence that is hard and frozen amid the quiet notes of the paragraph. I wonder for a moment why she chose the word winked, only to realise that blinked jangles in the ear. And the coincidence, surely, that on the first page of Woolf’s 1922 novel, she has anticipated the lighthouse and the waves that will form part or all of the titles of her 1927 and 1931 novels To the Lighthouse and The Waves.
When I told my Woolf-loving friend I was to read Jacob’s Room tonight, she urged me to read it slowly. I find so far I have little choice.