The other day I wrote that reading The Mark on the Wall by Virginia Woolf compelled me to chuck all other authors aside and decide, finally, that I would read Woolf for my author project this year. After all my hemming and hawing, choosing Woolf felt so wonderfully, deliciously easy. I’m not under any illusions that reading her nine novels, all her short fiction and many of her essays will be a walk in the park, if anything Woolf provides an exhausting reading experience – her prose is so damn busy – but, I feel the same excitement heading into the project as I have felt in the past for other authors. So I know I’ve made the right decision.
But getting back to what convinced me – The Mark on the Wall. Reading Virginia Woolf gives me the same feeling I get when I step up from the metro in Paris. No matter the neighborhoods and their different flavors, this is Paris. Unmistakably. (Haussmann, Haussmann, Haussmann). I’ve never quite had this feeling anywhere else. And reading Woolf is the same – a few sentences in to The Mark on the Wall and already I knew – the voice, the active, vivid images, those industrious sentences. The skipping and shifting from thought to thought.
Now, as stories go The Mark on the Wall isn’t at all a story. It’s a series of thoughts squeezed between the two tiny actions of a woman looking through her cigarette smoke at a blot on the wall and a man laying his newspaper on the table. There is no conversation, no movement, no “story”.
But as thoughts go, these jumps and meditations and musings are fantastic. Woolf mimics the heady rush of thought, hopping and sliding from one idea to the next. The woman smoking her cigarette (is it Woolf? several clues make me say ‘yes, probably’) contemplates and imagines a messy little war between modernity and nature, men and women, tradition and fancy. At the same time she is engaged with her own intellectual process, aware of her slide of thought and both indulging and checking it as she goes along.
The pace of the story is frenetic. There is nowhere for the reader to settle, except in the tiny moments of exploded detail:
I like to think of the tree itself: first the close dry sensation of being wood; then the grinding of the storm; then the slow, delicious ooze of sap. I like to think of it, too, on winter’s nights standing in the empty field with all leaves close-furled, nothing tender exposed to the iron bullets of the moon, a naked mast upon an earth that goes tumbling, tumbling, tumbling all night long.
Lastly, although the story has no explicit, outward movement, it contains a tense feeling of expectation. Why isn’t she getting up? It’s a little like she’s trapped inside this moment, but happily so, willing to entertain her imagination, her fierce thoughts. It is clear that the intellectual exercise is one of pure pleasure, and she’s indulging it to the fullest. Until the end, of course, when she is inevitably interrupted.