Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts from the ‘Virginia Woolf’ category

I’ve mentioned the Swiss writer Clarisse Francillon a few times, mostly on Twitter (and maybe not so much here,) but she’s someone I’m very interested in translating. I discovered her by accident one day, by wandering toward the back of the tiny public library in Vevey and finding myself in a little room that I thought, at first, was a storage space. But the sign on the door read “Clarisse Francillon Archive,” so, always curious, I turned the light on and started browsing. When she died in 1976, she donated her personal book collection to the library and they have kept it open to the public. There are about 2500 books in this small room.

A little background: Francillon was born in the Jura mountains in 1899, in the small watchmaking town of St. Imier. Her father and uncle were both involved as founders of the Longines watch factory. She was raised mostly in France, however, and moved to Paris in 1934 to live in a small rooftop garret to write as much as possible. In her lifetime she published something like 17 novels and several story collections. She was taken under the wing of Maurice Nadeau, and he was her editor for many years. Nadeau is often credited with the discovery of a number of celebrated French writers – I’m sad that Francillon is never mentioned on this list.

I am slowly working my way through her novels, all of which were published between 1927 and 1970. She has a vast and fascinating body of work. The book I started with – supposed to be her most famous – called Le Carnet à Lucarnes (The Skylight Notebook?) is written in an incredible style. Difficult, in many ways, as the sentences go on and on, and the narrative perspective isn’t quite easy to pin down, but it’s also clever and funny and definitely sometimes tongue-in-cheek. She absolutely rejects any notion of linear storytelling. But the book is about a woman who makes a Faust-like pact with the devil to remain beautiful forever. I’ve received permission from Denoël, the original 1968 publisher, to shop this novel around to English publishers, so I am working on my sample.

During the war, Francillon came back to Switzerland, and she wrote a novel of what that was like—being separated from the rest of the artistic movement, safe in the vineyards of the Lavaux. (She lived in a small cabin in Villette for those years, which is a village about 10 minutes from where I live). I’ve just started reading this one, and I think I’m about to be amazingly impressed. She is particularly interested, in all of her books, in women who are dealing with intense solitude. It’s fascinating.

I should also mention that Francillon was a translator. She was the person who brought Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano into French. They were close friends, and they had some interesting correspondence about this work and writing and the world. Her book collection involves a number of English titles – she was a devoted fan of Virginia Woolf and many other British modernists.

I had a chance to slip into the archives yesterday. The room is always dark. I’ve never seen another person in there – which is both exciting, because it makes me feel like I’ve got a kind of secret, but also a bit sad. Because isn’t anyone even in Switzerland reading her? A month or so ago, when I went to check out a stack of her novels, one of the librarians asked me what her work was like. I told her what I thought, but I was also disappointed that she hadn’t read her.

Yesterday, however, provided another treat. I have a hard time finding certain English books – especially older texts – without going to the University library in Lausanne. But I discovered yesterday that among Francillon’s own collection is an entire shelf of English books, and everyone I’d like to read. I came home with a 1950 volume of Virginia Woolf’s essays – The Captains Death Bed.

Francillon may have died in 1976, but she is lending me her books at the moment. And it feels like a very special conversation.

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In 2010, I began a Virginia Woolf project, reading her fiction in the order it was published alongside her diaries and her short fiction. Between then and last year, I read her Diary Vol. I (1915 – 1919), the sixteen stories written up until 1921, The Voyage Out, Night and Day, Jacob’s Room and her Diary Vol. II (1920 – 1924).

I wrote a few things about my reactions to this body of work, which are perhaps not very interesting but have been interesting for me to look back on after my unexpected break in the project:

And now I am picking up the threads of this reading again. I spent most of last year moving very slowly through the second volume of her diaries, which cover the periods when she is writing Jacob’s Room and Mrs. Dalloway. There is a lot of worrying over the reception of her writing; this is always interesting. But also much more confidence in her artistic vision. In both Vol. I and Vol. II she spends a lot of her time talking about the people in her life, her friends and family, as well as domestic concerns – but in Vol. II she expands on her thoughts about writing and literature, and her own fiction as well.

In February 1924, she writes:

I’m working at The Hours, & I think it a very interesting attempt; I may have found my mine this time I think. I may get all my gold out. The great thing is never to feel bored with one’s own writing. That is the signal for a change—never mind what, so long as it brings interest. And my vein of gold lies so deep, in such bent channels. To get it I must forge ahead, stoop & grope. But it is gold of a kind I think.

In terms of catching up, I’ve actually already read Mrs. Dalloway twice, but I think I’ll reread it once more as I get started on Vol. III. And I’m actually behind on the short stories so I got started on those today. I have thirteen to read that were published between 1922 and 1925. The first of these is called “A Woman’s College from Outside” and it is one of those snippets of scene that works as a full story because of the fullness and emotional specificity of Woolf’s prose. It is nothing but a glimpse into a women’s dormitory and a close-up of a single girl. Although at one point she moves wider to touch upon a few other students and gives this wonderful description, which contains a reference point, a kind of clue, for the ending:

Good Bertha, leaning with her head against the chair, sighed profoundly. For she would willingly have slept, but since night is free pasturage, a limitless field, since night is unmoulded richness, one must tunnel into its darkness. One must hang it with jewels. Night was shared in secret, day browsed on by the whole flock.

The story is not much more than a portrait of a very particular emotion – one I would call expectancy, which makes sense for the setting as well. The woman in the story is waiting, observant, awed. It ends like this:

…she lay in this good world, this new world, this world at the end of the tunnel, until a desire to see it or forestall it drove her, tossing her blankets, to guide herself to the window, and there, looking out upon the garden, where the mist lay, all the windows open, one fiery-bluish, something murmuring in the distance, the world of course, and the morning coming, ‘Oh,’ she cried, as if in pain.

This is something I find again and again in Woolf’s prose, the ability to combine movement with emotion with exterior (most often natural) scenery. She does this so incredibly well. She conjures up so clearly, so concisely, the often unexplainable connections between the world and human sentiment.

Am very much looking forward to getting back into this project.

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I had my suspicions that it wasn’t a good idea to leave my 2013 reading so open—no defined projects, nothing to focus on—and I was right, because I have spent the month of January jumping somewhat aimlessly between books that weren’t speaking to each other. Luckily most of what I read was quite good: one exceptional novel-manuscript by the talented Steve Himmer and several books I would still like to write about, namely Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, Deborah Levy’s Black Vodka and Steve Edward’s memoir Breaking Into the Backcountry about living alone in a cabin in eastern Oregon for ten months. Still, I like a little more continuity in my reading and so I put an end to my random reading last evening and made a proper plan with matching spreadsheet (oh yes, big nerd).

Before I tell you about the new project, I should give a quick re-cap of a current one. Last year I began reading Virginia Woolf start to finish and I am not curtailing that project, but I am reading her diaries at the same time as her fiction, and trying to keep pace—which means that I am somewhere in 1923 (17 July 1923, to be exact), quite a few months after she published Jacob’s Room (1922) and she’s now begun working on Mrs. Dalloway. I’m really looking forward to rereading Mrs. Dalloway but I have a few diary years to catch up before that. And I find that the diaries are best read slowly, a few pages every evening.

There is a lovely passage I underlined recently, one of the few passages in which Woolf writes about children:

We came back from Rodmell yesterday, & I am in one of my moods, as the nurses used to call it, today. And what is it & why? A desire for children, I suppose; for Nessa’s life; for the sense of flowers breaking all round me involuntarily. Here’s Angelica—here’s Quentin & Julian. Now children don’t make yourself ill on plum pudding tonight. We have people dining. There’s no hot water. The gas is escaping in Quentin’s bedroom—I pluck what I call flowers at random. They make my life seem a little bare sometimes; & then my inveterate romanticism suggests an image of forging ahead, alone, through the night: of suffering inwardly, stoically; of blazing my way through to the end—& so forth. […] Let me have one confessional where I need not boast. Years & years ago, after the Lytton affair, I said to myself, walking up the hill at Beireuth, never pretend that the things you haven’t got are not worth having; good advice I think.

And she goes on at quite some length on the subject – it’s a very interesting moment in her journal, one of her most introspective.

In any case, while I do my catching up with Woolf, I need a new project, something to give some meaning to my reading, and as I’m elbow-deep in revisions of one of my novel manuscripts, and as this book is set in southern Japan, I thought to do some concentrated immersion. It is the perfect excuse to broaden and deepen my experience with modern and contemporary Japanese literature. I’ve put together a very preliminary list – works by well-known authors whom I’ve already read one or two novels, works by some lesser known writers, books by as many women as I can find in translation (and one Yoko Ogawa short story collection in Japanese – as slowly and painfully as I can) and many of the men as well.

This is an aside but I took many of these names from the Akutagawa Prize winners – and while there are actually a lovely number of women on the list, most of them have not been translated. More of the men on the list have been translated into English. So it goes.

Here is the early list – and I welcome any additional suggestions:

  • Yoko Ogawa – Hotel Iris
  • Yoko Ogawa – Amours en Marge (quite a bit of Ogawa is available in French)
  • Yoko Ogawa – Mabuta (in Japanese – wish me luck)
  • Yasunari Kawabata – Thousand Cranes
  • Yasunari Kawabata – The Dancing Girl of Izu (we spent time on the Izu peninsula last year and I’d wished I’d read this before going)
  • Fumiko Enchi – Tale of False Fortunes (I am a big fan of Enchi’s Masks and The Waiting Years)
  • Shusaku Endo – Silence
  • Shusaku Endo – Volcano
  • Shusaku Endo – The Sea and Poison (if it’s been translated)
  • Kobo Abe – The Ark Sakura (Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes is one of my all-time favorite novels, it’s about time I read more from him)
  • Kobo Abe – The Ruined Map
  • Junichiro Tanizaki – The Makioka Sisters
  • Kenji Nakagami – The Cape and Other Stories
  • Kenzaburo Oe – Silent Cry
  • Kenzaburo Oe – Rouse up O Young Men of the New Age
  • Japanese Women Writers: Twentieth Century Short Fiction
  • Taeko Kono – Toddler Hunting
  • Minako Oba – Of Birds Crying
  • Risa Wataya – Isn’t it a pity? (which is supposed to be translated soon)
  • Yu Nagashima – Yuko’s Shortcut
  • Yoko Tawada – The Bridegroom was a Dog
  • Hiromi Kawakami – The Briefcase

That’s what I’ve got so far – what am I missing?

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Usually, when I read an author from start to finish, I try to avoid biography. It isn’t that I believe biography doesn’t or couldn’t inform my study of their work, but I prefer to take the work on its own terms first. I chose not to do this, however, with my Virginia Woolf read, mainly because her journals are so detailed, and really, they are as significant a contribution to her oeuvre as her fiction writing. (I have not taken on her essays or letters… yet. I’m tempted to integrate them now, especially as she consistently references both her reading and her critical writing.)

I’ve just finished Volume One of her diaries, which covers 1915 to 1919. What strikes me first and foremost about her diary writing is how different it is, on the whole, from her fiction. She has a very sharp and perceptive mind, that is evident in both, but she must have worked extremely hard to maintain her particular style in fiction. All writers have a “style,” of course, but Woolf was experimenting and so she breaks with traditional narrative structures and chronologies, even rhythms of language and thought. And then when you read her diary and see how concise it is, how succinct and detail-oriented her personal narration was—and I can only assume that personal narration is a writer’s most natural and instinctive voice—it only serves to highlight the affect of her fiction style.

The other thing I find interesting is that before reading her diaries, I might have been inclined to put her in the mad-genius category. This is a category of artist I am wary of because I do not believe that genius requires madness. To be fair, it is also a stereotype that is often imposed upon an artist by others and while some might enjoy the label there are those who fight it. I admit that I was curious to see how Woolf negotiated this tension, or whether it was even an issue for her in her lifetime. So it is curious to me that there is very little self-reflection upon her depressive tendencies, at least in these early diaries, even after the long depression she suffered between 1915 and 1917, during which she could not write at all. The first few months of entries written after this illness are markedly different from her usual journaling style, but she does not comment on the lapse herself except obliquely, and only on a few rare occasions.

I don’t know how frequently Woolf lost herself completely to depression—perhaps it began to happen more often or maybe she writes more about it as she grew older. I’ll be curious to see how the subject evolves throughout her diaries. I know about, but haven’t yet read her essay “On Being Ill” and I suspect she concentrates her thoughts here (another reason to order her complete essays!)

Going back to where I started, I’m happy to find that reading her diaries doesn’t interfere in any way with the experience of reading her fiction. It is easy to maintain a line between the two forms, and there is just so much to admire in her diaries – character portraits, anecdotes, thoughts on writing, exquisite descriptions of nature.

I do wonder about one thing, however, and maybe some of you know: do Woolf scholars believe that Woolf wrote her diaries knowing they would be public some day? How personal are they?

 

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While on holiday in September, I made some progress on my Virginia Woolf project and finished up Jacob’s Room. This is a title that isn’t spoken of much and although I really enjoyed it, I can easily see why. It isn’t the kind of book that makes anything easy for you—not that ease of reading or ease of understanding is a measure of a book’s worth—but I find it difficult to know exactly how to file this particular novel away onto my mental bookshelf. It fits on the Woolf shelf, but resists most other comparisons or associations.

Jacob’s Room is about Jacob Flanders: his family, his schooling, his friendships and romances, his movement into adulthood. The book moves forward more or less chronologically, but it isn’t at all concerned with fixing the reader into any real time line. We watch Jacob watching the world, and at the same time watch the world watching Jacob. The intensity of the reader’s focus gets caught up in the tension between these two perspectives.

Compared to both The Voyage Out and Night and Day, Woolf pushes her literary experiment much further with Jacob’s Room. Looking at the short stories she published around the same time, it is much of a piece with “The Mark on the Wall,” “Kew Gardens” and my favorite, “The Unwritten Novel”. All very impressionistic with an unspecified narrator shifting in and out within a scene. I quite like it when Woolf puts her energy into representing the movement of the mind and its perceptions instead of focusing on actual story. She does both just fine, but she is so skilled at exploding a character’s thinking into that lovely/strange mixture of feeling and thought.

The book feels light in many ways, on the one hand because Woolf’s writing is so lively and quick but also because it skims through conversations and holidays and dances, all the while hinting at being a coming-of-age novel, but there is too much darkness in Jacob for this passage from young man to adult to work out so easily. Woolf wrote Jacob’s Room during the First World War, although the book is set in pre-war London and Europe. But this impending war hovers over much of the novel, this idea that humanity has taken a wrong turn.

This is a novel to be read several times—I suspect that much would come from a second and third read. There is so much going on in each scene, each jump of thought. Like all of her fiction, when I’ve finished something, I usually want to start right over again at the beginning.

So the project is moving slowly— if I continue reading chronologically, then I need to catch up to 1922 in her diaries (I am currently in April of 1919) and then read the next set of short stories published between 1922 and 1925. And then I’ll happily pick up Mrs. Dalloway for a re-read.

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I had grand illusions of sitting down and writing about Jacob’s Room today, which I finished while on holiday, but jetlag has turned my brain to mush so it will have to wait for another day. Suffice it to say that Woolf’s third novel was both bewildering and clunky but overall an extremely beautiful work of fiction. Part of me wonders if this book, instead of To The Lighthouse or Mrs. Dalloway better accomplishes what Woolf was trying to do in terms of fictionalizing pure consciousness… but I’ll save that thought for a longer post.

In other news, I had a disappointing rejection of my novel manuscript come through while I was on holiday. And so to cheer myself up I have been hitting 2nd hand bookshops with a vengeance. This morning I stopped in to one of my favorites and found some excellent books:

  • The Selected Poems of Robert Frost
  • The Penguin Book of English Short Stories (It starts with Dickens in 1812 and moves forward with about one story per decade—Hardy, Conrad, Kipling, Wells, etc.—finishing up with “Raspberry Jam” by Angus Wilson (whom I’ve never heard of) in 1912.
  • Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death
  • Czeslaw Milosz’s Enfant d’Europe
  • Samuel Richardson’s Pamela
  • Ramuz, Notre Parrain (A biography by Hélène Cingria)

But the crowning jewel of this morning’s book hunt was a facsimile copy of a manuscript page from Ramuz’s La Beauty Sur la Terre. It was just sitting there on top of a pile of dusty Ramuz novels, just waiting to make my day.

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I’ve now read and reread Virginia Woolf’s short story, “The Unwritten Novel,” several times. Something I love about Woolf is her ability to create a story out of what seems like nothing. No real frame, no elaborate “set-up”. She simply takes an ordinary moment and expands it, pressing it further outward as far as it can go. This particular moment begins on a train, when the narrator allows her eyes to slip upward from her newspaper and something about the face of the woman seated in front of her works like a spark—suddenly, an entire life begins to take shape around the woman’s expression:

Such an expression of unhappiness was enough by itself to make one’s eyes slide above the paper’s edge to the poor woman’s face—insignificant without that look, almost a symbol of human destiny with it. Life’s what you see in people’s eyes; life’s what they learn, and, having learnt it, never, though they seek to hide it, cease to be aware of—what? That life’s like that.

This is a chatty narrator, who is pondering several big thoughts while she watches and judges and invents the life of the woman seated before her. This is, I believe, Woolf’s best kind of narrator. One which she gives free reign to skip and jump from detail to detail while centering all this rapid reflection on a precise idea—here the idea is how to define or describe life—like a touchstone the narrator cannot keep from grasping at every few minutes.

The woman and the narrator finally exchange a few words, which suffices to give the narrator a fuller picture of the woman’s life and then the narrator leans back into her corner of the train seat and lets a vast story play itself out in her mind. Here is the unwritten novel, the story of this unfortunate woman’s life. I love the idea here that contained within every chance encounter is a full and fascinating work of fiction.

Alongside the narrator’s inventions is a running commentary on how the novelist/narrator is going to put the story together. This is an excellent and subtly-done metafictional thread. Here she is contemplating the other travelers:

But what I cannot thus eliminate, what I must, head down, eyes shut, with the courage of a battalion and the blindness of a bull, charge and disperse are, indubitably, the figures behind the ferns, commercial travellers. There I’ve hidden them all this time in the hope that somehow they’d disappear, or better still emerge, as indeed they must, if the story’s to go on gathering richness and rotundity, destiny and tragedy, as stories should, rolling along with it two, if not three, commercial travelers and a whole grove of aspidistra.

By this time her story has taken on such a life that she’s already got the travelers somewhere in her scene, half hidden between some shrubbery – which of course isn’t on the train – but she’s working out the details and arguing about what’s appropriate for her setting and season. And she gets so deep into her story, is so certain she’s created the real life of this woman seated before her, as well as started in on the details of another man, that she is startled when the train stops and the woman gets down. The narrator has made her an unhappy old maid, off to visit her brother and his hated wife but then suddenly on the platform the woman is fetched by her son. A son! Suddenly the woman transforms into a mother and the narrator is left reeling:

Well, but I’m confounded…Look how he bends as they reach the gateway. She finds her ticket. What’s the joke? Off they go, down the road, side by side…Well, my world’s done for! What do I stand on? What do I know? That’s not Minnie. There never was Moggridge. Who am I? Life’s bare as bone.

But even the transformation of her original characters cannot stop her. The narrator rushes after them, wondering at this new configuration and what story she might be able to create around it. Suddenly everyone walking about her on the street embodies the possibility of a novelistic “life.”

If I fall on my knees, if I go through the ritual, the ancient antics, it’s you, unknown figures, you I adore; if I open my arms, it’s you I embrace, you I draw to me—adorable world!

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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.

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Officially, I am just about halfway finished with Woolf’s second novel, Night and Day. Despite a slowish start, this is turning into an excellent read. The style is subtly different than her other work, a bit more calm, a bit more serious.

Night and Day (published in 1919) is the story of three, almost four people. I say almost four because three of the characters appear to have taken hold a little deeper in Woolf’s imagination and she gives them more of her time than the fourth. At least in the first half of the novel, I suppose this could change. Essentially, this is the story of four young people, two men and two women, and how they negotiate and cope with their feelings about marriage. The central question seems to be whether love and marriage can and should be associated.

I suppose if I wanted to be overly critical, I might say the novel plods a bit. But this isn’t quite the right expression. It has a leisurely pace in terms of story momentum, and it involves quite a lot of interior deliberation. Yet, one of the things I enjoy most about Woolf is her ability to give a character room to think. She has her characters weigh their actions, justify their thoughts and decisions, explore their possibilities. It takes a great amount of narrative skill to do this without alienating a reader, and I think Woolf succeeds.

Here is one easy example:

Katherine looked at her mother, but did not stir or answer. She had suddenly become very angry, with a rage which their relationship made silent, and therefore doubly powerful and critical. She felt all the unfairness of the claim which her mother tacitly made to her time and sympathy, and what Mrs. Hilbery took, Katharine thought bitterly, she wasted. Then, in a flash, she remembered that she had still to tell her about Cyril’s misbehavior. Her anger immediately dissipated itself: it broke like some wave that has gathered itself high above the rest: the waters were resumed into the sea again, and Katharine felt once more full of peace and solicitude, and anxious only that her mother should be protected from pain.

This is quite a hefty dose of explanation, and another writer might have portrayed these same emotions through action or dialogue. Much of the novel, perhaps a good three quarters, is given this way. It works, however, to my mind, because Woolf’s narrator is terribly eloquent and not afraid to sneak in a bit of imagery (the wave idea) to spice up all that exposition. Also, the middle bit of that second sentence is extremely straightforward, but extremely powerful…with a rage which their relationship made silent.

I am starting to believe that Woolf’s greatest skill may in fact be her narrator…which is a fascinating thing to trace, as she experiments so much with it.

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Today, I am thinking about Virginia Woolf. Her diary, her short stories and her second novel Night and Day.

Let’s start with Night and Day. I had never even heard of this book before I put together all the reading lists for my Woolf project. And I suspect that along with The Voyage Out, it isn’t often read unless someone is doing what I’m doing, or maybe for a class. Truth be told, it isn’t remarkable in the way her other novels are. I’m thinking of To The Lighthouse or Mrs. Dalloway, novels which begin with a full head of steam and sort of charge forward with that recognizable Woolfian prose. (Have I mentioned that I dislike the word Woolfian…how to write about her without using it? Ugh.)

I am only about a third of the way through the book, so obviously my thoughts will shift and change, but for now, Night and Day feels like Woolf restrained. There is something almost too straightforward about the descriptions and the narrative. More so than The Voyage Out, which was her first novel and as I mentioned before, similar to a 19th century society novel and ‘tamer’ than I expected. But even The Voyage Out had more narrative wandering and plenty of those unique narrative insights and descriptions I so love compared with Night and Day.

This is not to say I’m not enjoying the novel. It is just quieter, and has less of that typical Virginia Woolf feeling. It is a novel about class, and a bit about politics also, and most definitely about love. I’ll have more to say, and hopefully with more enthusiasm, as I get further in.

On to the short stories. The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf is organized chronologically and begins with five pieces written before 1917. I don’t think any of these were published with her first collection in 192, which makes sense as they all feel a bit like experiment pieces. Different tones, different POVs, different subjects.

I wrote a little about Phyllis and Rosamond earlier, and I’d just like to mention one of the others, The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn. It is a two-part story, beginning with the description of an older woman interested in British history who comes across a manuscript from 1520. The manuscript is the diary of a young woman, who we learn from the manuscript’s keeper, a distant relative, never married and died at the age of thirty.

Knowing about her early death and spinsterhood before we begin to read Joan Martyn’s journal is a neat trick on Woolf’s part, because much of the diary is about her impending marriage to one of her father’s associates. She is a practical young woman although some of her dreams are quite big, and since we know that none of it will come to anything, it is quite a bittersweet little story.

But aside from the story, which is richly imagined and involves a variety of ideas from poverty to literacy, it is mostly just intriguing to see Woolf write in the voice of a young woman from the 1500s. This is what I meant about these early pieces feeling like experiments. It’s clear she is trying to imagine what someone like herself – a reader, a writer, an independent thinker, would have felt under different, more severe restrictions. In that sense it is intensely felt. The ending is lovely and reveals the inner life Woolf gives her fictional Joan, who is standing in their family church, admiring the tombstones, where she will be taken in a shorter time than she realizes:

As a child I know the stark white figures used to frighten me: especially when I could read that they bore my name; but now that I know that they never move from their backs, and keep their hands crossed always, I pity them; and would fain do some small act that would give them pleasure. It must be something secret, and unthought of – a kiss or a stroke, such as you give a living person.

Finally, just a few quick words on her diary. I’m curious about how little Woolf writes in her diary about her writing and I wonder if this is because of the era. Would it have been strange in the early 1900s for her to be obsessing over the details of her writing decisions, her characters and her ideas for fiction in her personal diary? She writes mainly about the people they see, stories about friends, a little bit of news about her and Leonard’s printing work. It’s all very interesting to read, but I am struck with the absence of her literary thoughts. Does she begin to do this later?

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