Harold Bloom on Virginia Woolf’s novels:
“That genius first fully manifested itself in 1925, and continued in full strength for the sixteen remaining years of Woolf’s life. Her absolute works are Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), The Waves (1931), The Years (1937), and Between the Acts (posthumously published, 1941). Five extraordinary novels culminate with her masterpiece; once I preferred To the Lighthouse, but at seventy I reread Between the Acts more frequently . . . the best preparation for understanding Mrs. Dalloway was to read The Winter’s Tale. That would also be the proper prelude for reading Between the Acts.
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Leonard Woolf on Virginia Woolf’s novels:
“The Waves seems to me a great work of art, far and away the greatest of her books. To the Lighthouse and Between the Acts should also, I think, live in their own right, while the other books, though on a lower level of achievement are, as I said, “serious” and will always be worth reading and studying”
One of those writers I keep meaning to get around to, Italo Svevo’s best known work is The Confessions of Zeno. Svevo was tutored by James Joyce, then an English teacher at the Berlitz school in Trieste. Joyce reputedly used Svevo as his model for Leopold Bloom. This English edition of The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl was translated by the Woolf’s Hogarth Press. Translated by Lacy Collison-Morley, the translation was criticised in the TLS review (1931): ” … important qualities of the Italian edition [are] missing from the English translation.”
In common with Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilych, Svevo deals with mortality and sexual obsession. Tonally the two books could not be more different, instead of Tolstoy’s lacerating prose The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl has a toothsome, ironic tone. The theme is the perennial morality of old men desiring young women, and the consequences of taking action. My expectations for the book were greater than my enjoyment, but I found pleasure in the depiction of the old man and his moral vacillations.
My Don Quixote inspired inability to settle and complete a book is over. I am nostalgic for my own far eastern childhood and for a Ceylon that no longer exists, in ways for which we can be thankful and saddened. This absorption is inspired by completing Leonard Woolf’s rather wonderful Growing, a memoir of his seven years as a Civil Servant in Ceylon.
Woolf’s style is unsentimental, except when talking of his love for animals, and probing. Over the seven years of the memoir Woolf developed in maturity and responsibility; he leaves Ceylon profoundly disquieted about imperialism. It is in describing the local culture and people that the richness of the writing becomes strongest; Woolf was clearly a curious observer.
I shall resist the urge to pick up the first or next volume of Woolf’s memoirs. Calling to me is Nabokov’s Despair.
From a keynote address given by Cecil Woolf, Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s nephew, to the fourteenth annual Virginia Woolf conference:
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. Leonard himself had a dry and laconic sense of humour.
The latter is quite apparent from Leonard Woolf’s Growing.
Writer Christopher Ondaatje, born in Sri Lanka, followed in the footsteps of Leonard Woolf for his book Woolf in Ceylon. Woolf’s memoir Growing is utterly fascinating as a study of colonial life and as an insight into the people of Ceylon at the peak of Britain’s empire. A review of Ondaatje’s book adds:
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ondaatje focuses much of his critical attention on the second volume of Woolf’s acclaimed autobiography, Growing – the instalment that deals specifically with the Ceylon years. Much of the attraction of Woolf’s five-volume autobiography is his lucid and candid self-examination. Sometimes this can border on the downright odd (as when, for example, he ponders humankind’s relationship with its companion animals), but for the most part he is simply and elegantly matter-of-fact (and often very funny). His recollections of his youthful sexual promiscuity are only sensational in as much as they are an intellectual exercise in candour. He even reproduces a letter to his closest friend Lytton Strachey, in which he reveals how he lost his virginity to a Burgher girl in Jaffna.
Ondaatje’s homage to Woolf will be a suitable reading companion to Woolf’s memoir.
Of all the books competing for my attention at the moment, Leonard Woolf’s Growing is the victor. My own roots are in the Far East, in a one-oil-field country at the fag-end of English colonialism. Woolf’s time as a civil servant in Ceylon at the peak of England’s imperial past is engrossing.
Of the characters Woolf says he “could never make up [his] mind whether Kipling had moulded his characters accurately in the image of Anglo-Indian society or whether we were moulding our characters accurately in the image of a Kipling story.”
In describing the Office Assistant to the Government Agent (OA) and his wife, Woolf says, “His wife, Mrs. Lewis, was the exact opposite of him. She was the kind of wife which so many slow, silent, shy men marry. Large, plump, floridly good-looking, she never stopped talking at the top of her voice.” This is so accurate that it is painful.
So far, Woolf’s autobiography is superb. I’ve skipped the first volume to read of his Ceylon years but will go back to it and inevitably the other three volumes. They are a joy to read as first Hogarth Press editions.
Like gratin dauphinoise or silky foie gras Don Quixote has left me stuffed, unable to do more than graze. It is rare I start a second book while committed to a first, but I have begun the first volume of Virginia Woolf’s diaries, Leonard Woolf’s autobiography, Thomas Bernhard’s memoirs, Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: A Life of Montaigne, David Crystal’s The Stories of English and am still rereading Borge’s Ficciones. Each captures my attention for an hour or two but I soon am distracted by another voice.
To add anchovies to the dauphinoise (as you really must), I started leafing through Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature. Nabby is just the professor to call attention to one’s inadequacies as a reader. His minute examination of Madame Bovary accentuate texture and detail I am barely aware of after rereading twice. I must surely reread again soon with the help of Nabokov’s gimlet eyes. “In reading, one should notice and fondle details.” Here, he elucidates the difference between master artists and minor authors:
Time and space, the colours of the seasons, the movements of muscles and minds, all these are for writers of genius (as far as we can guess and I trust we guess right) not traditional notions which may be borrowed from the circulating library of public truths but a series of unique surprises which master artists have learned to express in their own unique way. To minor authors is left the interpretation of the commonplace: these do not bother about any reinventing of the world; they merely try to squeeze the best they can out of a given order of things, out of traditional patterns of fiction. The various combinations these minor authors are able to produce within these set limits may be quite amusing in a mild ephemeral way because minor readers like to recognise their own ideas in a pleasing disguise.
Detect that wonderfully icy disdain, rolling down from that ivory tower? When reading, Nabokov let no detail pass unquestioned. In works of genius, every detail had a purpose and was worthy of minute examination. “Any ass can assimilate the main points of Tolstoy’s attitude toward adultery but in order to enjoy Tolstoy’s art the good reader must wish to visualise, for instance, the arrangement of a railway carriage on the Moscow-Petersburg night train as it was a hundred years ago.”
We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world, so that the first thing we should do is study that new world as closely as possible approaching it as something brand new, having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know. When this new world has been closely studied, then and only then let us examine its links with other brands of knowledge.