Cleanness

Perfect writing, deliciously crafted. But how can I feel so conflicted about being able to recommend it to people? Perhaps it’s because, as the author himself noted, the book is “100% pornographic and 100% high art.” And so you prudes out there are forewarned, this is some crazy erotica, some of the best writing about sex between men ever written (or sex between anyone?).

The narrator is an American teaching literature in Bulgaria; the ease and flow of the book’s words is something difficult to find these days as we are overloaded with terrible writing. Simple scenes such as the description of a group of writers gathered at the sea side after a workshop, watching the priest swim out further and further from shore, have so much else packed into their bones. A trip abroad with his young boyfriend, watching an outdoor opera performance then the sputtering disappointment of the town’s light show. Anguish as his gay students twist in not being able to be as open about their desires as he is. I’m now greedy for Garth Greenwell, will be searching out his earlier book.

The Experience of Insight: A Simple and Direct Guide to Buddhist Meditation

Joseph Goldstein’s 1976 guide to meditation plunges you into the world of a 30-day retreat, something I dream of being able to attend in a non-pandemic future. In the meantime, there is this book with snippets of wisdom taking you from the first evening to the third morning all the way through to the closing session on the thirtieth morning.

Just a few quotes: “Freedom lies in how we relate to what is happening in the moment.”

“We should speak the truth when it is useful.”

As he bids the attendees farewell, he suggests continuing their practice with sitting twice a day for an hour or longer at a time to strengthen concentration and mindfulness. Not sure I can make it to 2 hours daily, but a good goal post.

The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 4: 1931-1935

She seems to be relying on the diary a bit more as time goes on, using it to cool her brain as she struggled mightily writing The Years. As she captures daily life, we see a picture of Europe marching toward war. It’s horrifying to read her travel diary through Germany in May 1935, towns with signs saying Jews not welcome, she notes after they cross safely over the border that Leonard says it’s ok to write the truth again, they had suppressed their real thoughts until they were free.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. In 1931, Lytton is still alive, but dying. And the swirl of death in the air has her talking to Leonard about “death: its stupidity; what he would feel if I died… And the feeling of age coming over us: & the hardship of losing friends; & my dislike of the younger generation…”

In January 1932: “And I want to write another 4 novels: Waves, I mean; & the Tap on the Door; & to go through English literature, like a string through cheese, or rather like some industrious insect, eating its way from book to book, from Chaucer to Lawrence. This is a programme, considering my slowness, & how I get slower, thicker, more intolerant of the fling & the rash, to last out my 20 years, if I have them.”

14 July 1932 worth quoting in full: “‘Immunity’ I said to myself half an hour ago, lying back in my chair. Thats the state I am (or was) in. And its a holy, calm, satisfactory flawless feeling—To be immune, means to exist apart from rubs, shocks, suffering; to be beyond the range of darts; to have enough to live on without courting flattery, success; not to need to accept invitations; not to mind other people being praised; to feel This—to sit & breathe behind my screen, alone, is enough; to be strong; content; to let Nessa & D. go to Paris without envy; to feel no one’s thinking of me; to feel I have done certain things & can be quiet now; to be mistress of my hours; to feel detached from all sayings about me; & claims on me; to be glad of lunching alone with Leonard; to have a spare time this afternoon; to read Coleridge’s letters. Immunity is an exalted calm desirable state, & one I could reach much oftener than I do.”

Recording the suffering of an 92-year-old woman in the village who prays to die every night, repeating her misery over and over. “This is what we make of our lives—no reading or writing—keep her alive with doctors when she wishes to die. Human ingenuity in torture is very great.”

“Here I sit on my bed in the windy seaside hotel, & wait for dinner, with this usual sense of time shifting & life becoming unreal, so soon to vanish while the world will go on millions upon millions of years.”

On reading the Bible in 1935: “At last I am illuminating that dark spot in my reading.”

Catching up with Hugh Walpole at a party, she admits that films are an amazing art form: “Six months at Hollywood has completely changed him. When we said something about upper class, he laughed. Classes have been wiped out. He has seen through everything. Given up the Book of the Month; no longer frets about fame & reviews; & is taking to the great new art—the complex & amazing art of colour, music, words all in one. Of course there may be something in it.”

“Habit is the desirable thing in writing.”

And to end on a humorous note: “Last night L. was woken at one, by a man shouting abuse of Woolf & Quack in German under his window. Ought we to tell the police? I think it was a drunken undergraduate.”

The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume 5, 1932-35

I feel myself dragging my feet to delay the end of this project since it’s giving me so much joy. And yet here I am at the end of 1935 already, finishing a volume of letters and a volume of the diary at the same time, the first coinciding.

During these years, Ethel Smyth remained her most-frequently corresponded with friend, although Vita still lingers on the outskirts. Glimpses of VW’s life are best seen through the letters interspersed with her diaries. Below are just bits I dogeared for later:

  • She encourages Elizabeth Bowen to start a LoudLatinLaughing of sorts – “I hope you will carry out your idea of a diary of books… I mean not tea parties but Milton and so on”
  • She continues to dodge the spotlight: “limelight is bad for me: the light in which I work best is twilight.”
  • “When one is writing a letter, the whole point is to rush ahead…”
  • “Sometimes I think heaven must be one continuous unexhausted reading.”

Her 23 Jan 1935 letter to Ethel Smyth has lots of good quotes:

“I have 3½ mins: before settling down to read the Bible. Why did you never tell me what a magnificent book it is! And the Testament? and the Psalms!… Oh I’ve been in such a howling duststorm—to sit alone and read the Bible is like drawing into a sunny submarine hollow between deep waves.”

“I agree with you entirely about death from Cancer: I forget how you said it: something about having a chance to die standing up.”

 

Freshwater

Impossible to categorize this– is it fiction, non-fiction? It’s a dramatic farce based on Woolf’s real life great aunt, Julia Cameron, known for her fuzzy out-of-focus classical photographs which Woolf lampoons. Originally planned for Christmas 1923 production, it was shelved and actually performed (much re-written) in 1935. Cameron famously took coffins on her last voyage to India, planning to die there and not convinced they would have quality coffins. Lord Tennyson recites Maud, Ellen Terry scampers away from her husband the elderly painter Watts, and the maid who marries a peer is included. All is grist for the mill for Woolf in retelling her great-aunt’s life.

Flush: A Biography

I was as unexcited to read this as Woolf was to have it published. She started this project as a lark, as a way to relieve the pressure of having created The Waves, dreaming up the biography of Flush, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog. Not being much of a dog person, I was reluctant to add this to my collection, but it’s still filled with dazzling VW sentences, and I liked the notes in the back that she writes to explain away her choices (we know Flush died, but not exactly when, etc.)

Interesting to read about the conflict between the haves and have nots, the scoundrels who kidnapped Flush and demanded a princely ransom (equivalent of $2500 in today’s currency) for his return. Other dog owners who didn’t pay received their dog’s paws severed from the dog’s body. Yikes.

The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 5: 1929-1932

The fifth volume of essays marks a shift away from the stewardship of Andrew McNellie to Stuart Clarke, a much-needed improvement. Clarke is the type of editor who panders to the exact audience for this volume, Woolf scholars who want every shift in word annotated and lengthy informative end notes pepper the essays. Stuart is still very active on the VW listserve, so it felt almost like reading a friend. I guess I’ve been reading these since July, when I finished up Volume 4.

Most of the joy I got from these was as supplements to the letters and diaries I was reading. She’d moan about having to finish up an essay or whinge about polishing off some reading. But underneath the complaining, the critical work Woolf did with the essays was a necessary complement to her fictional brain, it offered a release, and “proved her credentials.”

Possibly my favorite article was her Letter to a Young Poet (1932) which has so many delicious quotable bits: “All you need now is to stand at the window and let your rhythmical sense open and shut, open, and shut, boldly and freely, until one thing melts in another, until the taxis are dancing with the daffodils, until a whole has been made from all these separate fragments” and “reading, you know, is rather like opening the door to a horde of rebels who swarm out attacking one in twenty places at once” and “The art of writing…, the art of having at one’s beck and call every word in the language, of knowing their weights, colours, sounds, associations, and thus making them, as is so necessary in English, suggest more than they can state, can be learnt of course to some extent by reading—it is impossible to read too much; but much more drastically and effectively by imagining that one is not oneself but somebody different. How can you learn to write if you write only about one single person?”

The Second Common Reader

Literary archeology is continued in this last volume of essays Woolf collected, seven years after the first Common Reader appeared. In that seven year period, she wrote several of her masterpieces (Lighthouse, Orlando, Room, Waves) and over 100 articles and essays. Several of those are collected here, but she also wrote four new essays for the collection (The Strange Elizabethans, Donne After Three Centuries, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, and De Quincey’s Autobiography). She writes about Defoe, Sterne, Hardy, Meredith, Sidney, Swift, Hazlitt, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth, Fanny Burney, Christina Rossetti, Cowper, the list goes on. Throughout her writing life she balanced this type of nonfiction, critical reading/writing with the fiction creation that sprung from another well in her brain.

The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume 4, 1929-1931

This volume points out a clear shift in VW’s friendships, veering slightly away from Vita and into Ethel Smyth (composer)’s arms. We have Woolf’s reactions to her readers’ reactions to her books, A Room of One’s Own and The Waves. Nessa is a constant presence and at the end a frantic torrent of panic around Lytton’s illness (he dies in January 1932). She and Leonard successfully sue a hotel about the noise pollution their nightly band makes.

This, from the introduction, seals my satisfaction in the current project I’m on, to read everything chronologically:

The diary and letters are complementary. Almost nothing is repeated from one into the other. Virginia tossed away an idea or a phrase as soon as she had minted it. Each fills the gaps left by the other, gaps created because many of her letters do not survive, and by what she deliberately withheld from her friends or did not bother to mention in her diary. They must be read side by side. Together they form the portrait of an artist in travail, but one who did not allow her creative anguish to suppress her gaiety. If the diaries seem more contemplative, and the letters more exuberant, it was because these moods alternated in her, and for each she adopted the appropriate vehicle, a hammock and a trampoline.

To Gerald Brenan about Robinson Jeffers: “Tomorrow I shall go back to London, and there already awaits me a string of inevitable experiences—what is called “seeing people”. You don’t know what that means—it means one can’t get out of it. It means that Miss Winter has asked us to ask Mr Robinson Jeffers to tea because he is only in London for a week and will then return to a cave in California and write immortal poetry for ever. Mr Jeffers is a genius so one must see him.”

On writing:

“I write everything except Orlando 4 times over, and should write it 6 times; and after a morning of grunting and groaning have 200 words to show: and those as crazy as broken china.”

“Yet after all, thats the way to write; and if I had time to prove it, the truth of one’s sensations is not in the fact, but in the reverberation.”

“[I] light a cigarette, take my writing board on my knee; and let myself down, like a diver, very cautiously into the last sentence I wrote yesterday. Then perhaps after 20 minutes, or it may be more, I shall see a light in the depths of the sea, and stealthily approach—for one’s sentences are only an approximation, a net one flings over some sea pearl which may vanish; and if one brings it up it wont be anything like what it was when I saw it, under the sea. Now these are the great excitements of life.”

“Its so difficult to write, because,—well, after finishing a book, the mind bobs like a cork on the sea—I hate the feeling; I had forgotten the horror.”

“I have finished my book [The Waves]—yes—but it is a failure. Too difficult: too jerky: too inchoate altogether. But what’s the point of writing if one doesn’t make a fool of oneself?”

“All writing is nothing but putting words on the backs of rhythm.”

The Waves

After closing the book, the words continued to wash over me as their echoes faded. What is there to say about this magnificent poem? I’d forgotten in the 20 year span since I last read it how powerful it was, seductive. Was I able to read it slowly last time? Did I savor it in small bursts like this go-round? Did I have the same level of appreciation as this time when I was excited to reach 1931 in her chronology, knowing that The Waves awaited? Or is a deeper understanding only possible now as a middle aged person rather than as a bubble-headed undergrad flinging her way into the world, at the beginning of her journey? The progression through time squeezed my heart in a way that would be imperceptible to a twenty-something. I also find it invaluable to have been her sweat and tears and gnash her teeth over the prior months in working hard at this masterpiece, in contrast to how she flung off the “joke” of Orlando in a dash. Rhythm and pace and beat preoccupied her thoughts, how helpful to have been becoming close pals with Ethel Smyth at the same time as composing this?

Several images in here that have popped up in her other writing, the rooks settling like a net on the trees, the fin out on the water, the moths.

I appreciate the many years I’ve belonged to the VW listserve, as the question of pronunciation of names came up a while ago, someone calling out how the emphasis is always on the first syllable in British names (BERNard, not berNARD) which left me correctly pronouncing the characters this time.

I immediately jumped to my new favorite resource to read a selection of letters that were written to her in response. The below might be my favorite, feeling a similar feeling of the “utmost depression” as one who also proposes to write.

 

The Book of Job

Coming across the book of Job in the Bible is like stumbling onto an oasis in the desert. It’s downright Shakespearean, even set up like a play wherein Satan goads God into tormenting Job with further and further pain to see if Job will renounce him; later, Job’s three pals show up to throw shade at him and taunt him for obviously not being a true believer since God has forsaken him. This is the book that Melville quotes from in Moby- Dick, “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” And Virginia Woolf, the daughter of famous un-believer Leslie Stephen, adds it to her repertoire in 1922: “I read the book of Job last night—I dont think God comes well out of it.”

So the quick and dirty summary: Job’s a wealthy dude with a large family and he’s very God-abiding/fearing. Satan makes a bet with God that he can get Job to denounce him, God says “Go for it, but don’t kill him.” Satan kills off Job’s entire family and has all of his wealth stolen. Job doesn’t budge. Satan’s strolling around heaven again and God brags about how great Job is, prodding Satan to try again, which he does by putting boils and other bodily ills to Job. His wife (of course! women are always evil in the Bible) counsels Job to curse God but he refuses. Then three of his friends arrive to harangue him and tell him he’s obviously good for nothing. Job philosophizes and it gets a little sleepy there in the middle. Then a 4th “friend”, Elihu shows up to continue to berate Job before God pops over to shut everyone up. God’s pissed at the three friends and Job prays for them, then Job is rewarded with double the wealth he originally had and, oddly, the exact number of sons and daughters he had that were murdered. Bananas. He lives for 140 years, happily ever after.

There’s a lot of quotable bits here, but my favorite might be verse 6:6: “Can that which is unsavory be eaten without salt? or is there any taste in the white of an egg?” (Verse 10:10 a close second: “Have you not poured me out as milk, and curdled me like cheese?”)

Crash Course: If You Want To Get Away With Murder Buy A Car

Great graphic journalism depicting the absolute insanity of the laws we have on the books that protect cars and leave pedestrians defenseless. I heard an interview with Phoenix on the podcast War on Cars and ordered it up immediately. What struck me was his perception that cars is what has shaped Americans into the teeming mass of self-centered jerks that we are—you get into your enclosed bubble and mow down whoever’s in your way. The book depicts roads empty of people or other cars which gives it an eerie feeling; he continues to hammer home how much damage these objects do— because of mass and speed — to the human body. He brings up the creepiness of an empty parking lot, how alien it feels, but lord help you if it’s a parking lot pulsing with angry motorists instead, like the wild west.

The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 3: 1925-1930

I stumbled across my own manic underlining in this volume, decades-old notes from my past self to my current, proclaiming what was important to me then. For this read I adopted the much saner light pencil markings and dogeared pages.

Again there is too much to mention from this fertile period (To the Lighthouse, Orlando, Room of One’s Own, The Waves). She exposes the day-to-day struggle she has with both writing and managing servants. (Surely someone has written something interesting about Woolf & the servants? Ah, yes.)

The idea of writing something about Woolf’s more mindful comments constantly pricked me: “But I dont think of the future, or the past, I feast on the moment. This is the secret of happiness; but only reached now in middle age.”

More on middle age: “At 46 one must be a miser; only have time for essentials.”

She grapples with her increasing fame and continues to hate Americans: “Also the ‘fame’ is becoming vulgar & a nuisance. It means nothing; & yet takes one’s time. Americans perpetually.”

Continued love of walking around London: “Also London itself perpetually attracts, stimulates, gives me a play & a story & a poem, without any trouble, save that of moving my legs through the streets.” and “To walk alone in London is the greatest rest.”

Some exquisite phrases:

  • “… something of a gorged look, which connoisseurs have; as if he had always just swallowed a bargain.”
  • “Quiet brings me cool clear quick mornings, in which I dispose of a good deal of work, & toss my brain into the air when I take a walk.”
  • “… I have such a razor edge to my palette that seeing people often disgusts me of seeing them.”
  • “Time flaps on the mast—my own phrase I think.” (she’s quoting herself from Mrs Dalloway)

An occasional peek at her relationship with Leonard: “I like to have space to spread my mind out in. Whatever I think, I can rap out, suddenly to L. We are somehow very detached, free, harmonious.” and “Had I married Lytton I should never have written anything. So I thought at dinner the other night. He checks & inhibits in the most curious way. L. may be severe; but he stimulates. Anything is possible with him.”

On Shakespeare: “I read Shakespeare directly I have finished writing, when my mind is agape & red & hot. Then it is astonishing. I never yet knew how amazing his stretch & speed & word coining power is, until I felt it utterly outpace & outrace my own, seeming to start equal & then I see him draw ahead & do things I could not in my wildest tumult & utmost press of mind imagine. Even the less known & worser plays are written at a speed that is quicker than anybody else’s quickest; & the words drop so fast one can’t pick them up.”

Reading: “I am reading Dante; & my present view of reading is to elongate immensely. I take a week over one canto. No hurry.”

Men’s confidence: “And the egotism of men surprises & shocks me even now. Is there a woman of my acquaintance who could sit in my arm chair from 3 to 6.30 without the semblance of a suspicion that I may be busy, or tired, or bored; & so sitting could talk, grumbling & grudging, of her difficulties, worries; then eat chocolates, then read a book, & go at last, apparently self-complacent & wrapped in a kind of blubber of misty self satisfaction? Not the girls at Newnham or Girton. They are far too spry; far too disciplined. None of that self-confidence is their lot.”

Her comments about the General Strike of 1926 are of interest as we live through the pandemic: “(one of the curious effects of the Strike is that it is difficult to remember the day of the week). Everything is the same, but unreasonably, or because of the weather, or habit, we are more cheerful, take less notice, & occasionally think of other things… There are various skeleton papers being sold. One believes nothing… So we go on, turning in our cage. I notice how frequently we break of⁠[f] with ‘Well I don’t know.’… The shops are open but empty. Over it all is some odd pale unnatural atmosphere—great activity but no normal life. I think we shall become more independent & stoical as the days go on.”

On not wanting children anymore: “And yet oddly enough I scarcely want children of my own now. This insatiable desire to write something before I die, this ravaging sense of the shortness & feverishness of life, make me cling, like a man on a rock, to my one anchor. I don’t like the physicalness of having children of one’s own.”

A Room of One’s Own

I’m apparently re-reading this book every two years (2014, 2016, 2018), which feels completely reasonable. This was the first reading where I’ve been comfortably sunk in VW-land for months as I read her work chronologically. And so it struck me to see threads of things she’s been grappling with, like what is “the novel” anyway? And her favorite writers show up again, and anyone who’s been on this same journey will recognize flashes and flares of ideas from her myriad of essays, letters, and diary entries.

Other thoughts from the grab-bag of my brain: that this was published only days before the epic stock market crash that plunged the world into The Depression; that there are beautiful passages about writing and city walking and time passing. That I will invariably reach for this again in 2022. And now, back to the books! I’m excited to read the letters/diaries to see the reactions Room received!