This Quality of Modern Fiction

In her essay Modern Fiction, Virginia Woolf comes close to pinning down that elusive quality that is the difference between a novel that may be well constructed, even beautifully written, but that lacks life or spirit, that essential thing that wakes us up with a blow to the head:

“[The novel] fails because of the comparative poverty of the writer’s mind, we might say simply and have done with it. But it is possible to press a little further and wonder whether we may not refer our sense of being in a bright yet narrow room, confined and shut in, rather than enlarged and set free, to some limitation imposed by the method as well as the mind. Is it the method that inhibits the creative power? Is it due to the method that we feel neither jovial nor magnanimous, but centred in a self which, in spite of its tremor of susceptibility, never embraces or creates what is outside itself and beyond.”

I should think that of the contemporary fiction I abandon, most of it is due to this suffocating quality.

Loathsome Labours

“For who can doubt that once writers had the chance of writing what they enjoy writing they would write on any other terms; or that readers once they had the chance of reading what writers enjoy writing, would find it so much more nourishing than what is written for money that they would refuse to be palmed off with the stale substitute any longer. Thus the slaves who are now kept hard at work piling words into books, piling words into articles, as the old slaves piled stones into pyramids, would shake the manacles from their wrists and give up their loathsome labour. And now “culture”, that amorphous bundle, swaddled up as she now is in insincerity, emitting half truths from her timid lips, sweetening and diluting her message with whatever sugar or water serves to swell the writer’s fame or his master’s purse, would regain her shape and become, as Milton, Keats and other great writers assure us that she is in reality, muscular, adventurous, free. Whereas now, Madam, at the very mention of culture the head aches, the eyes close, the doors shut, the air thickens; we are in a lecture room, rank with the fumes of stale print, listening to a gentleman who is forced to lecture or to write about Keats, while the lilac shakes its branches in the garden free, and the gulls, swirling and swooping, suggest with wild laughter that such stale fish might with advantage be tossed to them.”

A tremendous rant from Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas. My immediate thought is how much more impoverished our culture has become in the eighty years since this was published. Is it now even possible to conceive of a culture stripped of money, power, promotional and vanity motives? The only consolation to be found is that it is perhaps once again possible to take in everything genuinely worthwhile in contemporary culture. Assuming one is fortunate enough to find what is worthwhile amid the din.

Not Small After All

“Then there could be no doubt that as a novelist [Mary Carmichael] enjoyed some natural advantages of a high order. She had a sensibility that was very wide, eager and free. It responded to an almost imperceptible touch on it. It feasted like a plant newly stood in the air on every sight and sound that came its way. It ranged, too, very subtly and curiously, among almost unknown or unrecorded things; it lighted on small things and showed that perhaps they were not small after all. It brought buried things to light and made one wonder what need there had been to bury them. Awkward though she was and with the unconscious bearing of long descent which makes the least turn of the pen of a Thackeray or a Lamb delightful to the ear, she had – I began to think – mastered the first great lesson; she wrote as a woman, so that her pages were full of that curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself.”

A passage from Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, which I reread as preparation for a first reading of Three Guineas. (The picture above, incidentally, is, sadly, not of my edition. If you have a spare £20,000 a complete set of Virginia Woolf first editions could be yours, which seems a far better use of such a sum than a reasonably smart car, or desert island holiday.)

It doesn’t need me to point out how incisive is Woolf’s dissection of women’s inequity, but in the twenty years since I last read A Room of One’s Own, I had forgotten how elegant and witty her exposition. The passage above sums up so many of the qualities I enjoy in a writer, Dorothy Richardson comes closest to mind. Reading this essay again makes me wish to reread Woolf, and to read, like Three Guineas, some of the work I’ve missed.

Christina Hesselholdt’s Companions

“. . . everything is saturated with meaning, friendships, love affairs, the view of the world, the language.”

Reading Christina Hesselholdt’s Companions is to inhabit a constant rise and fall, immersion into conflicting currents and patterns that appear and disappear in the form of interior monologues of a group of the companions that give the book its title.

These companions are intertwined around Camilla, whose literary passion is one of the many pleasing aspects of this novel, as she contemplates, amongst many others, writers as diverse as Thomas Bernhard and Lawrence Durrell.

Saturation is the word that Virginia Woolf used to describe the effect she desired in The Waves, ‘a saturated unchopped completenesss’. Hesselholdt’s book stylistically nods in the direction of The Waves but has a different intensity. I found it absorbing and satisfying to follow each individual’s disillusionments and their sense of life and human separateness.

Starting Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage

For her achievement with the thirteen novels that make up Pilgrimage, Dorothy Richardson ought to be recognised as one of the world’s great novelists. Though I confess to only having read the first four in the sequence, I enjoyed them more than any other novel I’ve read. I don’t make the statement lightly.

By the end of her first novel, Pointed Roofs, I’d started to understand what Richardson was trying to do; as I concluded the third, Honeycomb, the originality and profundity of these novels left me with that feeling of new life that comes after immersion in an icy, dark, deep winter lake. For sustained immersion is what Richardson achieves, into the consciousness of her protagonist Miriam Henderson. In May Sinclair’s review of Pilgrimage, she applied, for the first time, the term stream-of-consciousness to a novel–though Richardson disliked the term.

Other novelists use similar techniques–Joyce, Woolf, Lispector–with differing degrees of effectiveness, but I’ve never been as convinced as I am with Pilgrimage that I am plunged into another’s consciousness, channeled through the pen of Richardson. This is what literature is for, at least for this reader, an opportunity, however brief, to meet the consciousness of another, momentary respite from our solipsism and isolation.

I’m likely to be reading Pilgrimage for some time, as these are not novels to be rushed. Richardson takes all sorts of liberties with time. You must be on your guard to get most of the essence of Miriam Henderson’s encounters with the world. Making sense of the world through the eyes of another is no less taxing than trying to understand people and situations oneself. But her writing is beautiful and exciting. The way Richardson describes the play of light in a room, the minutiae of everyday life, the fragmentary nature of her brushes with others offers a fresh, bracing perspective.

If you have opportunity and an interest, track down John Cowper Powys’s Dorothy M. Richardson. It is a forty-eight page celebration of depth, a fan’s deep and loving appreciation of Pilgrimage. At one time, I might have dismissed it as hyperbole but no more. To borrow from Constance Garnett’s Karamazov, the experience of reading Pilgrimage, so far, is not a matter of intellect or logic, though these novels have enough of both, it’s more about loving life–and literature–with one’s inside.

Christa Wolf’s One Day a Year 2001-2011

Christa Wolf’s One Day a Year is without equal. With remarkable resolve, Wolf described one day, the twenty-seventh of September, for five decades. This latest edition completes what is available in English translation. The earlier volume is inexplicably out of print but available at a premium. We have translator Katy Derbyshire and Seagull Books to thank for completing the project with the years 2001-2011.

I feel at home within the fluid form of Christa Wolf’s diary of sorts, where you sense that she luxuriates in what feels like a personal composition without the tension of public display. Each twenty-seventh of September, Wolf builds texture from whatever happens in her day, combining her thoughts on weighty world events, private reading and what Virginia Woolf called the dailiness of inessential trivia.

This project situates the fabric of Wolf’s life at its centre. Her anxieties about her weight and ageing, the books she is reading her–now fully grown–children’s birthdays and illnesses, mingle indiscriminately with her thoughts on social and political causes, the latest American wars, and the minutiae of what husband Gerd is cooking for the evening meal.

For compassion and lucidity, Wolf’s One Day a Year bears comparison with similar works, which present daily life as an artistic construct: the diaries of Virginia Woolf, Pepys and André Gide. She succeeds in creating remarkable substance from the impalpable and evanescent fabric of daily life.

Christa Wolf: One Day a Year: 1960-2000

It might seem, at first appearance, a little daunting, this six hundred and eighteen page book that promises to recount in exacting detail One Day a Year for forty years, those between 1960 and 2000. Daunting, unless, of course, you are acquainted with the writing of Christa Wolf, for this will hardly be your first Wolf. If you’ve been fortunate  enough to read her Cassandra, Medea, or the first-rate City of Angels, you’ll already be looking forward to immersing yourself into this autobiography of sorts, of a writer of such high cultural seriousness as Wolf.

Aside from the fascination of following Wolf’s reluctant self-revelation over such an extended time, her book also provides the sublime backdrop of history as Wolf becomes ever more disillusioned with the communism of the German Democratic Republic, whilst retaining an unshakeable faith in the economic–if not humane–ideals of Marxian socialism.

Juxtaposed with the historical context, Wolf writes of her meals with husband ‘Gerd’ Wolf, the books she is reading, her literary friends and influences–Anna Seghers, Nelly Sachs, Günter Grass, Max Frisch and especially Heinrich Böll–and the unfolding lives–birthdays, marriages, divorces–of her daughters. Beneath the macro and micro history lies Wolf’s agonising struggle to escape the boundaries of her recurring depression, realising early the important metaphysical necessity of writing.

It is impossible to read One Day a Year without bringing to mind another writer’s veiled autobiographical works, that of her near-namesake Virginia Woolf. For both writers, writing was a therapeutic act, a way of transposing trauma into literature. Both found it difficult to write about their inner selves. As Woolf wrote so poignantly in The Waves, “But how to describe the world seen without a self? There are no words.”