This may be completely off the mark, but I’d like to hazard that Virginia Woolf’s second novel, Night and Day, published in 1919, was written not because the story came to her as an idea, but because Woolf had a question she wanted to take apart and examine and so created a story to suit it. I suppose one of the characters may have come to her first – if that’s the case, I’d guess it was Katherine Hilbery – but again, most likely even the most basic details of character were formed within the context of her question.
I say this because although Night and Day follows a relatively simple, domestic storyline, it is clearly more concerned with getting to the very heart of its question than it is with containing all the threads of its story. So on one level, this is a book about several people meeting, falling in love and getting engaged. To do this, they walk in the city, have dinner together, visit each other’s homes, have conversations, and spend time at various points in London. All rather mundane. On another level, however, this is a book that wants to investigate what ‘love’ means, whether it is even possible for a person to truly love another, and whether marriage has any meaning at all. That question then brought out some truly incredible passages of writing.
Now, in my experience, Woolf is a writer who wanted to understand and represent how thinking works, on both an emotional and a practical level. Again and again, she goes inside the minds of her characters, parceling out their thoughts in an orderly, detailed fashion, showing how thoughts shift from moment to moment, how emotions influence thoughts, how conversation effects and inspires a person’s thinking. This kind of writing can take a single instant in someone’s life and stretch it out to the length of that person’s interior reflection about said instant. Now imagine an entire book constructed around this kind of stop-time expansion. This is what reading Night and Day felt like.
What I find so curious about this is that I usually describe Woolf’s writing style with words like lively, frenetic, animated, energetic, even sometimes, exhausting. And on a sentence per sentence level, Night and Day certainly made use of Woolf’s prose energy. But the combination of the novel’s relatively fixed and flat storyline with that constant ballooning of thought, forced me to read slowly. I could not have raced through this novel if I wanted to, in fact, it would have made for a frustrating reading experience. Instead, I took up with the book chapter by chapter, curious to see how Woolf would approach this question of love and marriage in whatever scene or character would greet me.
Taken that way, Night and Day makes for a fascinating read. Here are all these young people trying to figure out whether attaching themselves to another being for the rest of their lives is a good idea, whether doing this will change them – possibly for the better, or unthinkably, for the worse. Woolf’s main character, Katharine Hilbery, internalizes this debate so fiercely she practically explodes (while remaining outwardly composed, of course) before the end of the novel. Because the book involves several different characters, Woolf offers several solutions to this difficult problem, something which, arguably, dilutes the story a bit, but I couldn’t help approving of the honesty of that response.
I’m still thinking about this book, and will undoubtedly go back to it, and her first novel, The Voyage Out, as I continue to read all of Woolf’s work.