Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

I like reading authors from start to finish, beginning with their early works and moving forward in sequence. There are other ways to get to know a writer, I suppose, and it’s tempting even to work backwards or just go at random, and then let the different works speak to another. I suspect there would be some fascinating bridges and parallels to be found. But I am obstinately compelled to begin at the beginning and turn those pages until I get to the end.

And so my Virginia Woolf project begins with her first novel The Voyage Out, published in 1915. I won’t be able to get through this book in one post, and I think it would be a mistake, an injustice even, to attempt to do that. So I’ll begin here with some scribbling and impressions.

First, it was both lighter and heavier than I expected. By lighter, I mean that it reminded me of many novels written in the late 1800’s, society novels, in which people travel and interact with lots of other people, in which couples are formed and broken, in which small events string together with sometimes haphazard connection but still manage to race toward an ending. And by heavier, I mean that mixed up within all these conversations and events and people was a fascinating, profound, eccentric and insightful contemplation of a wide variety of people. What they think, how they feel, what they want.

The Voyage Out is preoccupied with existential questions – does all of this meeting and chatting and loving really matter? The story attempts to answer some of those questions, others it leaves hanging, and to nice effect.

Second, what a narrator! What incredible narrative control and authority. Perhaps it impressed me so much because contemporary fiction seems to have abandoned this kind of omniscient third person, but the skill with which Woolf explodes a moment into multiple levels of thinking, layering each character’s thoughts on top of another, is a true pleasure to read. Not to mention how well she differentiates between each character by their thinking. Each person is allowed truly exceptional thoughts, but they are tailored to the individual.

And finally, although I think the last statement I wrote is true, I also think that many of Woolf’s characters, perhaps the more important ones to the story, share one quality that I believe comes from Woolf’s own unique approach to the world…a recognition that perception, insight and awareness are double-edged strengths. On the one hand, this kind of sensitivity makes a person more alive to his or her surroundings, more receptive, but on the other, that state of being receptive involves a certain rawness, it makes a perceived sensation/intuition both revolutionary and painful.

I did so much underlining in The Voyage Out, and I’m not quite sure where I want to begin further discussion. I loved the book, for several different reasons, and I want to sort those out before writing again.

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