Those Sixteen Years (Virginia Woolf)

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.

* * * *

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”

The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl by Italo Svevo

Hogarth Edition

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 IlychSvevo 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.

Growing by Leonard Woolf

 

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.

Virginia Woolf, Wit

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.

Christopher Ondaatje on Leonard Woolf

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.

Leonard Woolf’s Colonial Days

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.

Fondling Detail

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.

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.

To the Lighthouse

Nine days after completing To the Lighthouse and the book continues to haunt me in idle moments, particularly when I lie sleepless at four in the morning. For some reason it is the recurrent motif of the boar’s skull, flinty and bleached, wrapped in the fleecy, green woollen shawl that persists.

‘Well then,’ said Mrs. Ramsay, ‘we will cover it up,’ and they all watched her go to the chest of drawers, and open the little drawers quickly one after another, and not seeing anything that would do, she quickly took her own shawl off and wound it round the skull, round and round and round, and then she came back to Cam and laid her head almost flat on the pillow beside Cam’s and said how lovely it looked now; how the fairies would love it; it was like a bird’s nest; it was like a beautiful mountain such as she had seen abroad, with valleys and flowers and bells ringing and birds singing and little goats and antelopes . . .

The cashmere shawl being used to enwrap the boar’s skull, constantly casting it’s shadow across the room, is at the heart of many of the themes of this extraordinary book: the power of childhood emotions, the problem of perception, masculinity vs. femininity, the shadows cast across everyone by the benign, soft influence of Mrs. Ramsay and the unyielding shadow of Mr. Ramsay.
To the Lighthouse is St. Ives and the lighthouse in the book is the Godrevy light which she saw night by night shine across the bay into the windows of Talland House. No casements are so magic, no faery lands so forlorn as those which all our lives we treasure in our memory of the summer holidays of our childhood.

Woolf writes in To the Lighthouse:

And touching his [James] hair with her lips, she thought, he will never be so happy again, but stopped herself, remembering how it angered her husband that she should say that. Still, it was true. They [the children] were happier now than they ever would be again.

Part of the power of this evocation of childhood and the picture Woolf builds up, layer by layer like Lily’s painting, of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay is our knowledge that this is a fictionalised memoir of sorts. In A Writer’s Diary Woolf writes:

I used to think about him [her father] and mother daily; but writing the Lighthouse laid them in my mind. And now he comes back sometimes, but differently. I believe this to be true-that I was obsessed by them both, unhealthily; and writing of them was a necessary act.)

At 36 years of age Woolf wrote:

If Virginia Woolf at the age of 50, when she sits down to build her memoirs out of these books [her diaries], is unable to make a phrase as it should be made, I can only condole with her and remind her of the existence of the fireplace, where she has my leave to burn these pages to so many black films with red eyes in them. But how I envy her the task I am preparing for her! There is none I should like better!

Thankfully she did not burn the diaries but Woolf never wrote her memoirs. In To the Lighthouse we get a glimpse of how her childhood and perhaps happiest years may have been remembered.

Concerning E. M. Forster

On Saturday, in my favourite bookshop, I faltered over Frank Kermode’s Concerning E. M. Forster and left the shop with other selections. Edmund White’s absorbing review suggests I should revisit my decision. An excerpt of the review:

We learn that Forster would never have finished “A Passage to India” had it not been for Leonard Woolf’s prodding. Leonard was a brilliant editor, not only of his wife’s work but of the novels written by friends and the authors he and Virginia published. We read that Forster was, especially in his youth, a devoted Wagner ian and that the concept of leitmotifs influenced his ideas about literary rhythm, though Forster felt his own rhythms were less obtrusive than Wagner’s recurring themes. We discover that Forster rejected Henry James in part because he did not want to conform to James’s practice of writing an entire novel from a single point of view and in part because Forster liked to express his own opinions about life and the world in asides to the reader — an old-fashioned practice that James avoided. Using as an example one of Forster’s novels, Kermode writes, “It may be allowed that in ‘Howards End’ the characters are represented as free individuals, with minds of their own, but the book contains a strikingly large amount of authorial reflection, wise sayings about love, class and culture, panic and emptiness, prose and passion, connecting and not connecting, straightforward announcements of the Forsterian way of looking at the human condition.”

[Via Chekhov’s Mistress]