Virginia Woolf

A brilliant biography of a brilliant writer, worth the re-read I gave it although it was like reading it for the first time, sparkling, perfect weaving of the threads of VW’s life. I’m a little reluctant to be done with it, although it frees me up to dive into Woolf’s oeuvre itself. Lee’s process is perfect– she neglects the boring chronological structure (although each part centers around a group of years), focusing on the main themes of Mother, Father, Other, War, etc. I appreciate her early statement that we can’t be sure what caused VW’s mental illness, only look at what it did to her and what she did with it. “This is a life of heroism, not of oppression, a life of writing wrestled from illness, fear, and pain.”
In the midst of reading this, I attended a social event and was casually making remarks about the room of my own that I have, laughing when I caught my reference, then explaining that I had been reading about VW all day. Unfortunately, the pedestrian commonplace refrain raised its ugly head with immediate reference to “depression, suicide”. There is something unnerving about this stripping away of VW’s power by summing her up as such. I chalk it up to ignorance on the speaker’s part, but wish the world would break out of this rut, keep its mindless cliche opinions to itself.
Duly chastised, I will try not to dog-ear or make marks in books:

Her notebooks reflected her timetables. They are her filing system, her way of keeping her compartments separate. In any given month, she may have several differently coloured notebooks on the go at the same time: one (or more) for the novel in progress, one for her current diary, one for newspaper clippings, one (or more) for her reading notes. These reading notebooks were her system of annotation. She hardly ever marked her books, and was satirical about people who did. She imagined annotators as types. First a peppery old Colonel, denouncing any “pernicious heresy” he finds in his books to his wife… or taking out his temper on his “violated margin.” Then an emotional lady who draws “thick lachrymose lines” in books of poetry “beside all the stanzas which deal with early deaths & hopes of immortality…” Last an inserter of errata and corrector of misprints, a public-spirited officious person who would “accost a stranger in the underground and tell him that his collar is turned up.” What all these addicted annotators have in common is that they are forcing their readings on her. (p 405-6)

Daybook: The Journal of an Artist

I don’t remember how I stumbled onto this book, the journals of renowned 20th century sculptor and painter, Anne Truitt, but they’re full of great bits. She begins to write them in 1974 after two retrospectives (Whitney – NYC and Concoran Gallery – DC) have left her feeling wrung out to dry emotionally. Truitt raises 3 children on her own after her divorce in 1971, subsisting on the capital from her inheritance and whatever work she could sell. Several entries go into the pain of bottoming out financially, toying with the idea of a workaday job but shying away because that would destroy everything creative inside her (sounds familiar!). She finds comfort in the artistic retreats of Yaddo (NY) and Ossabaw Island (GA), taking a reprieve from her family and household cares to focus solely on creating in silence. Her work is primarily painted wood sculptures and paintings, but I’ve yet to find a great resource that collects all of her works in one spot on the interwebs for easy viewing. Perhaps one of the greatest moments in this daybook is when her teenage son admits to not understanding anything she’s been trying to accomplish with her art during his entire life (they share a laugh). Truitt also withstands the vitriol of the Baltimore public that doesn’t appreciate her white Arundel paintings (see below info from physicist re: different ways we perceive things).
At Yaddo:

I have settled into the most comfortable routine I have ever known in my working life. I wake very early and, after a quiet period, have my breakfast in my room: cereal, fruit, nuts, the remainder of my luncheon Thermos of milk, and coffee. Then I write in my notebook in bed. By this time, the sun is well up and the pine trees waft delicious smells into my room. My whole body sings with the knowledge that nothing is expected of me except what I expect of myself. I dress, do my few room chores, walk to the mansion to pick up my lunch box (a sandwich, double fruit, double salad – often a whole head of lettuce) and Thermos of milk, and walk down the winding road to my Stone South studio. At noon, I stop working, walk up through the meadow to West House, have a reading lunch at my desk, and nap. By 2:30 or so I am back in the studio. Late in the afternoon, I return to my room, have a hot bath and dress for dinner. It is heavenly to work until I am tired, knowing that the evening will be effortless. Dinner is a peaceful pleasure. Afterword I return to my solitude, happy to have been in good company, happy to leave it. I read, or write letters, have another hot bath in the semidarkness of my room, and sink quietly to sleep. (p 30-31)

Describing her decision to become an artist:

The first (decision) was to invest in myself, as needed, the money I had inherited from my family. I simply poured my capital into my work. Fortunately – and indeed, more than fortunately, crucially – my husband underwrote the household expenses and I was able to have a very faithful live-in maid who was my friend as well and who shared household responsibilities with me. So I used my financial resources to the hilt.
The second major decision was to increase my energy output and to use it as wisely and fully as I could… If there were fifteen minutes between shopping and carpool, I used them. If I had an hour, or two hours, I rejoiced, but didn’t even waste time feeling happy, just worked. (p 125-126)

On the difficulty of what to do with the sunrise:

Change is easy to convey in writing. In painting, a choice must be made. The delicate changes implicit in rising are so the essence of sunrise that this choice automatically enforces an almost fatal limitation. Naturalistic paintings of nature generally tend toward this kind of dry declamation. In order to convey the essence of a whole range of visual experience in time, I would thus be forced out of naturalistic representation and into a language of art as complicated as words – and more irritating to people. No one questions the fact that verbal language has to be learned, but the commonplaceness of visual experience betrays art; people tend to assume that, because they can see, they can see art. So in the end my ability to convey my experience of the sunrise would depend, first, on my having mastered an abstract language and second, on someone else’s having mastered it too. (p 133)

On people not being able to “see” her work:

The Baltimore exhibit is now open. The reaction was exactly what it always is. Some, most, simply cannot “see” the work at all… This failure to see is not only psychological but can apparently be physical. A physicist explained to me during dinner at the museum last night about the macula lutea, a yellow retinal filter that circumscribes the fovea. Foveal vision, which determines our apprehension of line, is limited by its cellular nature to the perception of red and green only. This perceptive acuity apparently varies little from person to person. The saturation of yellow in the macula lutea, however, varies considerably. It is the nature of this filter that determines our perception of blues. Thus, some people, those with concentrated yellow in the macula lutea, are literally unable to see close changes of hue on the blue end of the spectrum.

On her mother:

She was herself only when alone. I used to watch her brace herself for people; even, occasionally, for me. And then watch her straight, narrow back relax, her shoulders drop a little, as she set out for a walk. (p 32)

On attention/consciousness:

When I painted a chair recently, I noticed that I put the paint on indifferently, smoothly but without particular attention. The results were satisfactory but not in any sense beautiful. Does the attention in itself with which paint is applied in art actually change the effect of the paint? Does the kind of consciousness with which we act determine the quality of our actions? (p 130)

She marvels at the masses’ response to art, but I find something in this that resonates about my own choice of friends/comrades:

The degree to which people are aware is the most handy yardstick for seeing where they stand. How closely have they held on to their capacity to know directly and in their own particular way? To what degree have they eschewed the preconceptions of social conditioning? (p 146)

Balancing intuition against sensory information, and sensitivity to one’s self against pragmatic knowledge of the world, is not a stance unique to artists. The specialness of artists is the degree to which these precarious balances are crucial backups for their real endeavor. Their essential effort is to catapult themselves wholly, without holding back one bit, into a course of action without having any idea where they will end up. (p 26)

Lasso the Wind: Away to the New West

Published over 15 years ago, this still holds up as a relevant and detailed picture of what’s happening in western America and what previously happened. Defiant cowboys openly abusing public lands, Indians attempting to recapture self-sufficiency and dignity, pillaging and excavating valuable elements from gorgeous previously unspoiled landscapes, epic battles over water, ancient glyphs and graphs discovered then needing protection from graffiti. Very nicely written, weaving personal experience with historical fact and political battle. The author and his brothers go fishing at an undisclosed spot in Idaho, discussing how you’re never more than 25 miles from a road in modern America.
The historical stuff touched on scenes hidden from viewРthe massacre in Utah of a train of non-Mormon emigrants trying to pass through to California, the People of the Blue-Green Water living inside the Grand Canyon for over 800 years, the continual habitation of Acoma (built on the crown of a sandstone butte that soars from a table 400 feet below, 7,000 ft above sea level), the ravaging of Acoma by O̱ate who cut off their hands and feet. Hat tips to Edward Abbey along the way.
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Reco’d by EZ

What Happens Next? and Preparations for the Ascent: Two Novels

A terrific reprint of a forgotten but funny writer, stories from the 1960s and 70s packaged together as two novels. Based mostly in NYC, with flights of fancy in Florida and Hollywood, we follow Julian/Arthur through the disintegration of his marriage to Daisy/Violet, wrapped in the tight family embrace of Upper West Side Jewish parents, bailing Violet’s ex-husband out of jail and loaning him money, forever cheating on his wife (and she occasionally on him), watching his step-children grow up, separating from his wife then suggesting that she move into the garden level apartment of his building, a fishing rod sending down the monthly check from Mr. Al E. Mony, perpetually shuffling in his loafers, moaning to his therapist, watering plants and walking dogs. Aghast to find he has left his newly-purchased reading glasses on while masturbating. Creeping around the Beverly Hills hotel in his raincoat and pajamas to track down a hitherto unknown bird (“I’m an ignoramus west of the Rockies”). Told to count sheep in order to sleep, he realizes he doesn’t know enough about sheep vis-a-vis fences, so calls up a sheep association that puts him on the phone with a sheep owner to burst the myth that sheep would ever jump one after the other over a fence.
An example of the sheer insanity bouncing around this man’s head:

The bedroom floor creaks alarmingly when Albert does his push-ups. What if it gave way and he descended, outstretched, into the apartment below like a poorly coordinated quattrocento angel? Suppose he crashed through a number of apartments in a hail of lath, plaster, Sheetrock, excelsior, whatever’s in there, his undershorts fluttering, wearing what an astonished succession of tenants took to be an insipid smile but was in fact an artistic convention.
This, he realizes, is preposterous; he lives on the third floor. Plummeting through two apartments to fetch up in a boiler room wouldn’t be worth the pain and suffering, regardless of the sensation he caused. Worse, there might be nobody at home. To drop unnoticed through vacant rooms seems to Albert to be an act that could only lower one’s spirits.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories

The only negative thought I had while frolicking through this collection of stories was that it functioned as a distraction for Mantel, that she should have been hard at work churning out the third installment of the Cromwell trilogy I anxiously await instead of goofing off and showing off her skills. But I’m sure it was a welcome break, to pull herself out of the 16th century and shove up some contemporary prose. The stories range from childhood memories of spying on a “rich” house with a bedraggled friend who she still recognizes decades later, daft and pushing a baby carriage full of laundry; to unwelcome visits of a Pakistani man while living abroad in Saudi Arabia, trapped inside and stripped of wandering rights as a woman, waiting for her husband to come home but being polite at first and then frustrated with the Pak’s visits (interrupting her writing); to various shades of horror within marriages: The Long QT detailing the quick death of a wife whose heart fails when spotting her husband canoodling in the kitchen with a young woman, perhaps from shock, perhaps from laughter, Winter Break showcasing the power struggle of traveling spouses, knowing exactly what her husband will say and being irritated by everything he does (their cab runs over a child, or is it a kid goat, no it’s a human hand they spot in the trunk near their luggage), Offenses Against The Person dips into the life of a cheating father who then runs off with his secretary and has twins, but the secretary confides in her step-daughter that he’s staying out late and did he do that previously? the cheating cycle continuing. I very much enjoyed How Shall I Know You?, giving us a glimpse inside the non-glamorous life of a traveling lecturing author, staying in horrid hotels and left without food or water. The Heart Fails Without Warning was a frightening story about the self-destruction of an anorexic girl, her younger sister witnessing the decline, the withering away, goading her “Oh look, a relative of yours” when there was a picture of a skeleton in the morning paper. And of course, the eponymous story, where an Irish assassin sneaks his way into a home and sets out to right some wrongs by offing Thatcher. “Rejoice,” he echoes Thatcher’s response during the announcement of the recapture of South Georgia in the Falkland Islands, “Just rejoice at that news and congratulate our forces and the marines.” A reporter asks, “Are we going to declare war on Argentina, Mrs. Thatcher?” Thatcher pauses, says “Rejoice.”

Mrs. Dalloway

I am learning to read slowly. I’m learning to not jam books into my bag to read in small snatches of time between other bits of life, but to savor a book, linger over it, let myself get carried away in the eddies and flow over the same words multiple times. Mrs. Dalloway is a book to be sipped and savored. I gulped it down in my first reading many years ago, but this time I tasted each word, noticed the cadence, spotted the repetitions. The leaden circles of Big Ben punctuating the day. Is there controversy over the influence of Ulysses on this book, I don’t know. She’d been exposed to Joyce’s work, and then produced her own book encapsulating a June day with a cast of various characters high and low.
Clarissa, the hostess throwing a party, who (going about her daily life) runs into old friends and an old boyfriend, who lives to bring people together and yet has depths beyond the superficial frivolity of parties. Peter Walsh, her old beau, back from India and playing with his knife. Septimus Smith, war veteran gone mad, Clarissa’s counterbalance in the story and whose suicide she hears about at her party. Richard, Clarissa’s husband, and Elizabeth, Clarissa’s daughter (swept up with the awful Miss Kilman, super-religious freak wandering about wearing a mackintosh and “dreadfully poor”). Hugh Whitbread, the court groveler called upon to write a letter to the editor to increase emigration to Canada. Various other vagrants and stuffed shirts and flavors of Westminster and the Strand. Elizabeth’s calm and competent mounting of an omnibus. All culminating in the evening’s party, first deemed a failure by Clarissa but then a success when people stream in.

As a cloud crosses the sun, silence falls on London; and falls on the mind. Effort ceases. Time flaps on the mast. There we stop; there we stand. Rigid, the skeleton of habit alone upholds the human frame. Where there is nothing, Peter Walsh said to himself; feeling hollowed out, utterly empty within. Clarissa refused me, he thought. He stood there thinking, Clarissa refused me. (p 49)

… when the ship actually sailed, he felt an extraordinary relief, wanted nothing so much as to be alone; was annoyed to find all her little attentions – cigars, notes, a rug for the voyage – in his cabin. Every one if they were honest would say the same; one doesn’t want people after fifty; one doesn’t want to go on telling women they are pretty; that’s what most men of fifty would say, Peter Walsh thought, if they were honest. (p 79)