Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged 󈥴th century literature’

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.

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?

My mother-in-law passed me a Jean Giono novel a few weeks ago, and I realized it’s probably the fourth she’s brought to my attention. For various reasons, and much to my embarrassment, I’ve never actually read any of them. But yesterday, I finished some work and was waiting for Mlle. Petitvore to wake up, so I started the first few pages. Giono has a lovely style, full of sounds to parallel his images, and careful, rolling sentences. This particular novel, Le Grand Troupeau (To the Slaughterhouse) from 1931, is a war novel, and it describes how war involves everyone, not only the men at the front. Giono was a fervent pacifist, and his disgust of war is a palpable element of the book.

I’m curious if any of you have read Jean Giono…I’d love some recommendations. He has a large oeuvre, over thirty novels and novellas. And I learned (thank you Wikipedia) that he was inspired by Balzac to write a series of ten novels similar to La Comédie Humaine. Unfortunately, he never finished the project, but there are four, maybe five novels that fall into the category. Could be interesting companion reads as I start digging deeper in Balzac.

And of all things, I have glimmerings of a war-novel project in mind. Not to start this year, of course, but it would be fascinating (perhaps a bit grim, however) to put together a number of “war” writers and begin a tour through that aspect of literature…Pat Barker, Jean Giono, Hemingway. Something to think about.

The Voyage Out, a fitting title to launch my Virginia Woolf read this year. And I do feel as if I’ve set out on a journey to discover and observe Virginia Woolf’s imagination and way of thinking. As I mentioned last week, her prose is so wonderfully distinctive that stepping into her fictional universe is quite an immersion. This is my first time reading The Voyage Out, and it’s Woolf’s first novel, published in 1915, but it contains many of the elements that would go on to become her signature style.

This is interesting to me – all writers develop and explore new fictional, thematic and stylistic territory but not all writers are so immediately and recognizably distinctive. Of course she had been writing for a long time already by then, and her upbringing was decidedly literary and artistic.

One of the more interesting aspects of this project for me is that I find myself, for almost the first time, wanting to know as much as possible about the writer’s life as I begin to experience the writing. I’m usually mostly interested in the work and what it does, how it affects me as a reader and writer, and ultimately, what the experience of reading it feels like. But with Woolf, there is a feeling that everything she wrote was intimately connected with who she was as a person, what her mind was processing and what happened to her on a day to day basis. Her “work”, as it were, is also “her.” Why I feel this way about Woolf compared to many other authors is something I’m going to have think about further as the project develops.

I am just about halfway through The Voyage Out. If I am allowed to use the term without belittling the work, this is very much a “coming-of-age” novel. And it is also highly reminiscent of a 19th century society novel in structure, except it is exceptionally modern in its preoccupation. What I mean by that is, that although the story of Rachel’s journey to South America and subsequent adventures follows a similar script of say an Austen, an Elliot or a Burney, it is much more intimately concerned with exploring questions about identity and existence and intelligence. One of the novel’s greatest questions seems to be: What are women really thinking? Why are they thinking it? Is it as worthwhile as what men are thinking?

Finally, just a general comment as I settle in to her writing. There is a thickness to her prose that I love, a layering of understanding and insight with respect to each of her characters and the setting in which they find themselves. She draws out her characters’ eccentricities but also the part of each individual that is fragile, and it is usually this fragility that manages to bring them into connection with each other.

I’ll finish here with a quote I think all readers will enjoy, taken from a scene in which Rachel is reading:

At last she shut the book sharply, lay back, and drew a deep breath, expressive of the wonder which always marks the transition from the imaginary world to the real world.

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.

Si le soleil ne revenait pas*  is about a tiny village high up in the Alps. The story is set between October and April, a time when the village doesn’t get any sun because of the steep mountain walls. The villagers are used to this and go about their winter activities without too much fuss. They miss the sunshine but know this period of their lives is something that will pass, as it has every year before.

Until one of the village elders, who is also a healer, predicts that this year the sun won’t come back. Something has changed in the movement of the stars and the sun will no longer be on their side of the earth. Not surprisingly, this prediction has a strong effect on the village and as the winter deepens they each begin to react.

Ramuz does a lot with man vs. nature in all of his writing but this novel takes that idea to an absolute extreme by focusing on a group of people who are already used to the idea that the sun will abandon them for a certain amount of time each year and then asking them to accept its eventual extinction. I think had he tried to set the novel down on the lake for example, the psychology of the villagers would have been completely different. Much more opposition to the idea, instead of this consuming fear.

One of the things I enjoy with Ramuz is his character sketches – with just a few lines he’s able to create this crystal clear picture of a variety of different people. The cast of characters in Si le soleil ne revenait pas is very rich. From old Anzévui, seated in front of his hearth with his long, scraggly beard and his book of numbers to young newlywed Isabelle with her yearning for summer and the chance to feel the sun on her skin. And I particularly loved how he rendered Arlettaz, a father literally losing his mind with grief over the loss of his daughter. The book simply overflows with side stories about the villagers and their lives.

And I know I’ve said this before, but Ramuz is a master of description. Here are just two of my favorite lines – taken from a scene when Métrailler goes to visit Anzévui (the healer) after the death of his father:

Les plantes étaient attachées par leurs racines aux poutres et pendaient, la tête en bas, comme des chauves-souris.

[The plants were attached by their roots to the ceiling beams and hung, head down, like bats.]

La flamme du feu était sur sa figure et ensuite n’y était plus; alors il y avait de l’ombre autour de ses yeux comme il y a de l’eau dans les creux d’une pierre.

[The flame from the fire was on his face and then it was gone; shadows appeared around his eyes like water in the cracks of a stone.]

These short descriptions are interspersed between a terse conversation (Métrailler thinks Anzévui had something to do with the death of his father) and I found the mention of bats, fire, shadows and stone just heightened the darkness of the moment. It was very effective.

I’m hoping hoping hoping that I’ll get a chance to translate this novel as well at some point. At the moment I’m concentrating on a few short stories and a different novel. But every time I pick Ramuz up I can’t believe that so little of his work ever really made it into English. So strange how these things turn out.

*The title can be translated literally as If the sun was never coming back but I think this is a bit clunky in English..the words soleil and revenait rhyme in French so it sounds much better, more fluid. Finding an appropriate English title would be tricky.