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.