Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘Virginia Woolf’

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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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’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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