The lovely Claire reminds us today to check back in on discussion of The Waves for posts recently added to the list—I went back through last night and some great stuff has been written (you know, other than my post).
So if all this talk of Woolf makes you want to read this lovely novel, perhaps you would like to benefit from the most truly bizarre UPS snafu I’ve ever heard of (whose details unfortunately cannot be revealed, to protect the privacy of a third party). I ended up with two copies of my edition (Claire, and others, take note: it is the Harcourt Harvest Book edition), and one could be yours! (Here’s the real question: do any of my readers not already have it, by now especially?)
If you are interested, please leave a comment to let me know. Worldwide is cool. I’ll take entries until 11pm CST on Friday, March 5, and, of course, choose a winner at random.
“Now let us issue from the darkness of solitude,” said Louis.
“Now let us say, brutally and directly, what is in our minds,” said Neville. “Our isolation, our preparation, is over. The furtive days of secrecy and hiding, the revelations on staircases, moments of terror and ecstasy.”
As a story of friendship, especially between among a group, The Waves is unparalleled in my experience. This almost serves to make it alienating: this group of six people is knit impossibly together; are my relationships really this intense? Are they woven so tightly that one day, like Bernard, I will ask how we are even separated, when there is no obstacle between us?
But it’s this intense relationship that gives rise to the form of The Waves, which interests me more: the alternating soliloquies of six characters, along with a (superficially) unrelated third-person narrative. The novel is a kind of literary cubism whose effect is described at one point by Bernard:
We have come together (from the North, from the South, from Susan’s farm, from Louis’s house of business) to make one thing, not enduring—for what endures?—but seen by many eyes simultaneously. There is a red carnation in that vase. A single flower as we sat here waiting, but now a seven-sided flower, many-petalled, red, puce, purple-shaded, stiff with silver-tinted leaves—a whole flower to which every eye brings its own contribution.
This is really experimental; it’s just “said Bernard,” “said Susan,” “said Rhoda,” “said Neville,” “said Jinny,” “said Louis,” “said Bernard,” jarring and disorienting the reader, making him work. Who are these voices speaking to, if they are speaking at all? To the narrator? Who is the audience? But one thing is clear: even if there is no listener, even if the characters are silent, they are speaking, at least in
Continue reading Woolf in Winter: The Waves
Reading Orlando after On Being Ill as I did, it was illness that I noticed—in a novel where I didn’t much expect it, in fact. After all, when this is the biography of a character who lives for three centuries, one doesn’t expect him to spend much time ill—and what time is there for that, when he must also sleep with Elizabeth I, romance a mysterious Russian princess, become a patron of the arts, ambassador to Turkey… But after Orlando’s first disappointment in love, in his affair with the Muscovite Sasha, he returns to his lands and falls into a trance or coma for a week.
Here, Virginia Woolf seems to have the same attitude toward illness as in her essay: that it is an integral part of life. The “daily drama of life” is “death in small doses daily.” Here, in a novel much lighter than, say, Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse, she throws a little joke in at the end of her musings:
Has the finger of death to be laid on the tumult of life from time to time lest it rend us asunder? Are we so made that we have to take death in small doses daily or we could not go on with the business of living? And then what strange powers are these that penetrate our most secret ways and change our most treasured possessions without our willing it? Had Orlando, worn out by the extremity of his suffering, died for a week, and then come to life again? And if so, of what nature is death and of what nature life? Having waited well over half an hour for an answer to these questions, and none coming, let us get on with the story.
That intrusive narrator
Continue reading Woolf in Winter: Orlando
I so rarely read essays, but a good essay is a wonderful thing and Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill makes me want to change my ways. The essay is all her, structurally, which is to say it appears to flow like a stream but is always under her complete control. She begins by asking why illness hasn’t been a more important subject for literature, on the level of “love and battle and jealousy,” as certainly it takes up such an important place in life.
But of all this daily drama of the body there is no record. People write always of the doings of the mind; the thoughts that come to it; its noble plans; how the mind has civilised the universe. They show it ignoring the body in the philospher’s turret; or kicking the body, like an old leather football, across leagues of snow and desert in the pursuit of conquest or discovery. Those great wars which the body wages with the mind a slave to it, in the solitude of the bedroom against the assault of fever or the oncome of melancholia, are neglected. Nor is the reason far to seek. To look these things squarely in the face would need the courage of a lion tamer; a robust phliosophy; a reason rooted in the bowels of the earth. Short of these, this monster, the body, this miracle, its pain, will soon make us taper into mysticism, or rise, with rapid beats of the wings, into the raptures of transcendentalism.
Hermione Lee notes in her introduction to the Paris Press edition that Woolf suffered not only psychological illness in her lifetime, but also physical illness, and that the two were often fundamentally connected for her. So throughout the essay, there is a close relationship between physical symptoms and
Continue reading On Being Ill by Virginia Woolf
Two weeks ago, Mrs. Dalloway was a bit of a revelation for me, and To the Lighthouse has deepened my almost-love of Virginia Woolf. There are a million things going on here that I could write about, and I’ll be thinking about them as I continue with Woolf in Winter because they are definitely a part of Woolf’s “project”—especially her concern with creative types creating things. But I’d like to focus on one scene from the novel, which does bring in a number of its issues: the scene between Lily Briscoe and Mr. Ramsay after the family’s postwar return to the island house.
Mr. Ramsay is waiting for his children to ready themselves for their trip to the lighthouse, and Lily is trying to ignore him and pretend to work on a painting to avoid speaking to him. Mr. Ramsay is emotionally needy, always demanding to be praised, spoiled by his wife and other women who are charmed by him, constantly in search of female sympathy. And Lily Briscoe, a spinster in her forties now, doesn’t like to give in to the baseless demands on her sympathy made by men she doesn’t really care for. Just as she experiments with being less than caring toward Charles Tansley at the dinner party earlier in the novel, she wants to avoid giving Mr. Ramsay her sympathy. But she decides it will be easier if she tries to “give him what she could.”
But he’s so demanding, and she so cold, that she simply cannot do it. She feels “stuck,” “nauseated,” like “the whole horizon [is] swept bare of objects to talk about.”
They stood there, isolated from the rest of the world. His immense self-pity, his demand for sympathy poured and spread itself in pool at her feet, and all
Continue reading Woolf in Winter: To the Lighthouse
Before I read Virginia Woolf, I knew a fair bit about her and her work, but her chief characteristic in my mind was the “stream-of-consciousness” I’d read about, and she felt very wrapped up in the idea of the internal life.
It turns out that was a pretty good idea, but not in the way I expected. Where I thought Woolf’s narration would focus on the interior, instead her characters’ thoughts are all externalized. Clarissa Dalloway does not go around London thinking and feeling, but noticing the outside world, remarking on it, appreciating it, being taken back by it to another time—in which memories she’ll also notice things, remark on things. The narrative is almost materialistic in this way, because of its sensuality—the characters are reacting to sights, sounds, smells, with which they’re surrounded in an incredibly lush and vivid London.
It all makes for an incredibly absorbing text—especially on re-read. After living through that whole June day with Mrs. Dalloway & Co., now that we know her quite well, the opening scene of her in Bond Street is almost jarring in how crisply her character comes through in every paragraph. There is Peter Walsh’s pocket knife on the very first page, and the first mention of “the perfect hostess” on the fifth—Woolf wastes no time in introducing the motifs that will recur like haunting memories. “[S]he had cried over it in her bedroom,” and she still can’t get that nagging reproach out of her mind.
Mrs. Dalloway’s thoughts of death start up right away as well, and death too is wrapped up in materialism. Not to say that Mrs. Dalloway is upset about her earthly body; on the contrary. An atheist, she is confident that she will live on, metaphorically—in the very same material things she notices
Continue reading Woolf in Winter: Mrs. Dalloway