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.
If she were writing today, I wonder if she’d be egged on by her agent to be plainer and speed things up a bit so that the action scenes could get some Hollywood interest?
What a ghastly thought. Better we leave VW in the 1930s.
‘Helicopter. “Noooo”, screams someone, a voice, whose voice? Rotor blades chop a crescendo. Boom. Fragments. Always fragments. They cut. Cut to shot of businessman. His face in fragments. Fragments of voice on phone. Whose voice? “Yes,” he says “it is done.” But whose voice is his?’ ctd on p.94
The last line of that first chapter is one of the best I’ve ever read: “Outside the rain poured down more directly and powerfully as the wind fell in the early hours of the morning. The aster was beaten to the earth. The child’s bucket was half-full of rainwater; and the opal-shelled crab slowly circled round the bottom, trying with its weakly legs to climb the steep side; trying again and falling back, and trying again and again.”
It is interesting to read in her diaries several years later how much fault she finds with Jacob’s Room. (Mostly due to criticism from her peers/other writers). It is a deeply and wonderfully complicated book.
I haven’t got past the first page, but I’m looking forward that sentence. Thrilled to be reading this book.
agree, it’s a really wonderful one, especially that crab sentence. for a long time the waves was a favourite of mine, and around 5 years ago or so it changed and it’s been jacob’s room ever since. should really be rereading it too….
It is so interesting how many people reveal Jacob’s Room to be a favourite Woolf. I’d never heard that appreciation before, otherwise would have read it years ago.
I read Jacob’s Room two years ago and bowled over. I mean I love Woolf so I shouldn’t be surprised and amazed but she has yet to fail me in that quarter. Yes, definitely read slowly.
Thanks, Stefanie, there is no other way to read it but slowly, almost every page something makes me pause and scribble and think.
Are you reading the Vintage edition? There’s a marvellous typo towards the end that I had to cross-check against another edition to make sure I wasn’t going mad.
It is a wonderful book.
Thanks for commenting. I’m reading The Art of the Novella edition from Melville House.
I’m reading this myself at the moment, and it is indeed very good. Beautiful prose, and not remotely a quick read despite it’s brevity.
Huw, what’s the typo? That’s the edition I’m reading.
The term novella doesn’t seem to do justice to a work like this, so I have decided it is a novel.
Max, I don’t think I should tell you otherwise it won’t be a surprise. If you finish the book and haven’t seen it leave another comment.
Huw, either I missed it, or it’s been corrected in the kindle version, or I noticed it but have forgotten it. In any event, put me out of my misery!
Max, if you’re reading on the Kindle then I suspect it’s been corrected. It’s chapter 13 (p160 in the paperback, for anyone else with a Vintage edition to hand):
‘…small children ran down the sloping grass, stretched their arms, and fell.
“Very urbane,” Jason brought out.
“Urbane” on the lips of Jacob had mysteriously all the shapeliness…’
For a good ten minutes I could not work out who this Jason was, why I hadn’t read about him before, and what he was doing in Hyde Park with Jacob and Bonamy.
How funny. It is a novel where characters walk on never to be seen again. Hopefully it was corrected, it is somewhat jarring.
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