Anna’s Fantastic Face

The following extended passage is from Brigid Brophy’s The Snow Ball. I doubt that I’ve read a better description of a face anywhere; it improves on Jane Austin with just a smidgen of Oscar Wilde. If I never read another word of Brophy’s work, this passage would afford me sufficient proof of her immense artistry.

Her face did not preclude her from being an attractive woman, any more than theirs precluded decorative putti from being decorative. But it was, or it provoked, a question of taste, a question of style. Anyone who contemplated forming an intimate relation to this face must ask himself whether he possessed such a taste and, possessing it, was prepared to develop it. That would demand that he immerse his senses in it, undergoing a larger and larger dose of exposure to it, until he became in a way calloused. The face would yield sensuous pleasure: but the sensualist must undertake an ascetic self-discipline first. He must harden himself to tolerate a tragic face whose tragedy was couched in half-formed baby features which, individually smudged and then squeezed up close together, had finally slipped or been twisted sideways in relation to the face, making it the face of an immortal baroque baby pettishly carrying into middle age the impress of being newly, and distortingly born.

Anna, whose own answer had long been Yes, she could tolerate it, cherished her face without pity or special pleading. She knew that to the eye of love its spoiled prettiness presented hints, minimal but recurrent, of the erotic, like the idea of an unfrocked nun. In the eye of self-love, the mirror, she had found its infinite rococo complexity infinitely interesting. A beautiful face might lead the mind that contemplated it into a daydream so unimpeded as to verge on sleep. Anna’s face, like one of those lizards called monsters, would have startled you awake if you had been asleep to begin with, so grossly did it contradict every dream satisfaction: and yet it was to the imagination that it was addressed: it was as much a flight of fancy as a swag of putti supporting a cloud; the word it recurrently brought to mind was fantastic.

Katie Roiphe’s In Praise of Messy Lives

That Gawker regularly vent their unsophisticated spleen on Katie Roiphe may be thought a reason to read her books. Much of the other invective that streams towards Roiphe appears to be a result of her mid-90’s polemics on campus rape.

I don’t know if this was the case during those debates, but Roiphe does seem courageous enough to argue against the grain in In Praise of Messy Lives, though in this case her target is conventional marriage and parenthood, and what, if any, putative advantages a nuclear family confers on a child compared to single parenthood (roughly half of all first children in the US are born to unwed mothers). Ropihe’s arguments are eloquent and convincing, but rarely stray beyond the confines of a narrow bourgeois demographic.

In Praise of Messy Lives also includes some entertaining pieces of literary criticism including a contentious defence of the US literary old-guard’s (Roth, Updike etc.) depiction of sex, compared to its vapid portrayal by the following generation (DFW, Franzen etc.) My favourite of these essays is the study of the depth of Joan Didion’s influence on later American women writers. Apart from a feeble essay on Jane Austen, Roiphe fails to acknowledge any writing outside the US, but this insularity that blights American literature is far from isolated to Roiphe.

For a flavour of Roiphe’s style I can recommend this superb article: Want To Understand Sexual Politics? Read This Novel. There also a good NYT review of these essays.

From A to X by John Berger

Reading John Berger’s attentive stories of friendship, oppression and love induces in me a languor, comparable to that of sitting on a beach late at night, food eaten and wine drunk, raging fire ablaze, listening to a storyteller. Something in his depiction of inanimate objects, with so clearly an artist’s eye, slows the pace, evokes that staring into timeless night that comes with sitting on a beach past midnight.

They [blackcurrants] stain your fingers red, the blackcurrants, and their taste, not their colour, is black, black and marine, like the taste of something living on the seabed. A sea urchin or some other echinoderms might have the same taste, though it would be less strong, less pungent.

Like Nabokov, I am no enthusiast for epistolary novels. In From A to X we are offered up ‘some letters recuperated by John Berger’. Writing of the ‘easy epistolary form’ in Mansfield Park, Nabokov wrote, “This is a sure sign of a certain weariness on the part of the author when she takes recourse in such an easy form”. But this is John Berger, an author whose shopping list I would read if offered. The typical challenges of the epistolary novel are present in Berger’s book: a lack of narrative propulsion, and the unreal nature of many elements of the letters, reminding the recipient of his personal history.

Berger chooses to keep ambiguous the identity of the oppressor, or the crime(s) that earned two life sentences for Xavier, the recipient of A’ida’s letters. The setting, hinted at in Xavier’s notes – a device to allow Berger to be present in the narrative – is non-specific, a fictional Middle Eastern/Central American setting. It is possible to drift through, drowsily admiring the beauty of much of the prose, without truly engaging in the story.

If From A to X interests you, there are very many proper reviews, from the enthusiastic to the uncomplimentary. Take your choice.

The Wit of Virginia Woolf

Contrary to the portrayal of her melancholic disposition in contemporary culture, it is Virginia Woolf’s humour that emerges most forcibly in the essays that make up the first volume of The Common Reader.

Gossiping about seventeenth-century diarist John Evelyn Woolf writes:

Ignorant, yet justly confident that with his own hands he might advance not merely his private knowledge but the knowledge of mankind, Evelyn dabbled in all the arts and sciences, ran about the continent for ten years, gazed with unflagging gusto upon hairy women and rational dogs, and drew inferences and framed speculations which are now only to be matched by listening to the talk of old women round the village pump.

Or when describing the habits of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle:

No fears impede her. She has the irresponsibility of a child and the arrogance of a Duchess. The wildest fancies come to her, and she canters away on their backs. We seem to hear her, as the thoughts boil and bubble, calling to John, who sat with a pen in his hand next door, to come quick, ‘John, John, I conceive!’

The drollery, evident in these essays, was commented on recently by Woolf’s nephew Cecil who said:

Despite her rather sombre appearance, Virginia could be extremely funny.The image she has in some people’s minds of a sad and deeply depressed woman is false. (Nicole Kidman in The Hours springs to mind.) Quite the contrary. Leonard remembered that during the First World War when they sheltered in the basement of their London lodgings from enemy bombing, Virginia made the servants laugh so much that he complained he was unable to sleep. My recollection of her is of a fun-loving, witty and, at times, slightly malicious person.

Acerbic wit aside, there is insight aplenty in Woolf’s essays. Particularly fine is the analysis of Jane Austen, and Woolf’s encouragement to read all her books:

The second-rate works of a great writer are worth reading because they offer the best criticism of his masterpieces.

Woolf not only considers the work of long-dead authors but also discusses her contemporaries. In a perceptive essay on modern novels she comments:

Any one who has read The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man or, what promises to be a far more interesting work, Ulysses, [(Woolf had read the magazine, The Little Review, which published the first thirteen, and part of the fourteenth, episodes of Ulysses)] now appearing in the Little Review, will have hazarded some theory of this nature as to Mr Joyce’s intention. On our part, with such a fragment before us, it is hazarded rather than affirmed; but whatever the intention of the whole, there is no question but that it is of the utmost sincerity and that the result, difficult or unpleasant as we may judge it, it is undeniably important.

Woolf’s reaction to Ulysses was ultimately unfavourable. In her diary she wrote, “I finished Ulysses and think it is a mis-fire. Genius it has, I think; but of inferior water. The book is diffuse. It is brackish. It is pretentious. It is underbred, not only in the obvious sense, but in the literary sense.” In the final essay in The Common Reader, written four years after her essay on modern novels, she comments briefly, “Ulysses was a memorable catastrophe – immense in daring, terrific in disaster.”

Written for the Common Reader these essays are engaging and accessible. The extraordinary quality of the writing lead me gently and enjoyably through all the essays, whether about modern literature, mad duchesses or the literary poverty of not knowing Greek. One final excerpt which adequately summarises the writer behind these essays:

But literature is stern; it is no use being charming, virtuous, or even learned and brilliant into the bargain, unless, she seems to reiterate, you fulfil her first condition – to know how to write.

Lazy Writing

Nabokov shares some of my dislike of epistolary novels or stories structured on letters, newspaper clippings, emails, etc. Writing of Mansfield Park, a book that he respected:

Fanny’s removal to Portsmouth affects the unity of the novel, which up to now, except for a natural and necessary early exchange of messages between Fanny and Mary Crawford, has been pleasantly free from that dismal feature of eighteenth-century English and French novels, information conveyed by letters.

The novel which shows signs of disintegrating, now lapses more and more into the easy epistolary form. This is a sure sign of a certain weariness on the part of the author when she takes recourse in such an easy form.

As ever there are exceptions, novels that use the epistolary form to enhance the narrative. Herzog comes immediately to mind.

The Waves by Virginia Woolf

Leonard Woolf’s first impression of his wife’s novel The Waves was, “It is a masterpiece,” “And the best of your books”. He also thought “the first 100 pages extremely difficult.” Virginia Woolf’s own note read “never have I screwed my brain so tight over a book.”

Each of those sentiments is immediately recognisable as I read this remarkable prose poem. As is my custom I read the introduction to my Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Waves after completing the novel. Had I read it before I may have felt less inadequate to the task:

Certainly, the reader of The Waves  needs to swim, to trust to the buoyancy of the eye and the suppleness of the understanding. It is no good panicking when sequence seems lost or persons are hard to pick out. The rhythms of the work will sustain us comfortably as long as we do not flounder about trying to catch hold of events. The events are there, sure enough, but they are not sundered from the flow. This is to say that the form of the waves is acted out in the actual reading experience, and the reader must trust the medium. The rhythmic patterns of the book, this ‘play-poem’, provide the clues for the performance.

The feelings of inadequacy that this novel inspired from time to time never subtracted from the thrill of reading something sublime. Reading T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is comparable. The inadequacy comes from the knowledge that there are allusions and a depth that would need a lifetime of study to fully comprehend.

Bernard’s final soliloquy is the only part of the novel where I read more than fifty pages in a single sitting. Prior to the last chapter, twenty page bursts were sufficient at a time. I needed to recap, to drink in the words. The last chapter presented no alternative but to be consumed singly, breathlessly.

The book is brilliant and a logical development, the one I hoped for, from Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. As an exploration of self and perception, the book is profound. To be aware of Woolf’s psychologically precarious existence and her diary entries that these “characters” suggested different aspects of of self, perhaps of that enigmatic “lady writing” whilst the gardeners sweep, is to appreciate more profoundly how difficult this book must have been to write.

Here in the few minutes that remain, I must record, heaven be praised, the end of The Waves. I write the words O Death fifteen minutes ago, having reeled across the last ten pages with some moments of such intensity and intoxication that I seemed only to stumble after my own voice, or almost, after some sort of speaker (as when I was mad) I was almost afraid remembering the voices that used to fly ahead.

Reading The Waves brings to a close Woolf in Winter, my first shared reading experience. My heartfelt thanks to Sarah, Emily, Clare and Frances for galvanising me finally to tackle Virginia Woolf. Reading Woolf, particularly To the Lighthouse and The Waves, has been enriching.

Though Mrs. Woolf and I need a little time apart, I will surely read The Years and Between the Acts, Hermoine Lee’s biography and dip frequently into the essays and diaries, all of which now sit on my library shelves. The Waves and To the Lighthouse are also novels to be read again, several times.

In a twelve month period where I have finally read Austen and Woolf, this Harold Bloom excerpt seems apposite and appropriately controversial:

Will we ever again have novelists as original and superb as Austen, George Eliot, and Woolf, or a poet as extraordinary and intelligent as Dickinson? Half a century after Woolf’s death, she has no rivals among women novelists or critics, though they enjoy the liberation she prophesied.

Feel free to provide answers below.