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!

The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume 3, 1923-1928

It’s taken me a few months to work my way through the 6 highly productive years covered in this volume of letters. During this time she wrote Mrs Dalloway, The Common Reader, To the Lighthouse, and Orlando, in addition to numerous essays, diary entries, and these letters. Her reputation began to soar but she still found time to write careful criticism to her nephew Julian about his poems, and launch her intense relationship with Vita.

The sheer volume of letters that deal with problems and theories of writing make me wonder if anyone’s ever attempted a corollary to Leonard’s compendium of her diary entries into a Writer’s Diary by making a compendium of advice from the letters. In these we find her thoughts about Gertrude Stein (“For my own part I wish we could skip a generation—skip Edith and Gertrude and Tom and Joyce and Virginia and come out in the open again…”) among other current writers.

In 1925 she’s wrestling with what a novel is; a letter to Janet Case: “What is form? What is character? What is a novel?” and to Vita: “I want you to invent a name by the way which I can use instead of ‘novel’. Thinking it over, I see I cannot, never could, never shall, write a novel. What, then, to call it?”

Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it: But no doubt I shall think differently next year.

We see her rejecting London social life in order to focus on work: “I have banged my door on parties, dug myself into a dank dismal burrow, where I do nothing but read and write. This is my hybernating season. I read 5 hours yesterday, the same today. Its grim but salutary.” Yet we find she does not like reading novels: “Nothing induces me to read a novel except when I have to make money by writing about it. I detest them. They seem to me wrong from start to finish—my own included.”

“I am reading six books at once, the only way of reading; since, as you will agree, one book is only a single unaccompanied note, and to get the full sound, one needs ten others at the same time.”

Against typewriting: “And then you’d never believe what a sterilising fracturing bone-cracking backaching effect on the style the typewriter has.”

The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 4: 1925-1928

This volume includes the essays I was grumpy about being missing from earlier volume, the editor choosing to put the entire Common Reader in here for some reason. Once you get over that chaffing, you settle in for hundreds of pages of essays printed across a much wider number of journals, including American ones which paid more than  TLS’s fee (so we see a precipitous drop in submissions to poor Bruce Richmond who was so important to helping VW gain confidence in her voice; plus there’s the 1921 matter of him rejecting her characterization of Henry James’s story as lewd).

Asking How Should One Read a Book, “one should read it as if one were writing it.” She gives an example of Defoe and how we casually drops in a little unnecessary fact that isn’t necessary to the story but is necessary to the truth of the story because this is how people talk—they always add some irrelevant detail without thinking. In this essay she also mentions something that I’m afflicted by: “so curiously is the brain compounded that while tracts of literature repel at one season, they are appetising and essential at another.”

We need to realize “how great a part the art of not reading plays into the art of reading. To be able to read books without reading them, to skip and saunter, to suspend judgement, to lounge and loaf down the alleys and bye-streets of letters is the best way of rejuvenating one’s own creative power.”

Another favorite, Street Haunting, has brilliant passages about books:

Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.

In writing of American writers, she praises Ring Lardner’s You Know Me, Al, pinpointing his success of using baseball as a meeting place for a diverse group of people who have no other center. “Games give him what society gives his English brother.” She also praises Americans for coining new words, saying that when the Brits want to freshen their speech, they borrow from America’s “poppycock, rambunctious, flipflop, booster, good-mixer — all the expressive ugly vigorous slang which creeps into use among us first in talk, later in writing…”

Tackling the subject of  her great-aunt Julia Margaret Cameron, she notes how Cameron chased Tennyson into his room shouting Coward! Coward! when he refused to get a vaccination.

Orlando, A Biography

Reading this playful book that Woolf herself referred to as a “bad joke” in a several letters to friends and family was a joy. I feel like my reading this time (as opposed to when I read it in 2016) was deeper due to the onramp I took toward it, fully immersed in her journals/diaries/essays. I know more about her constant stretching towards defining what a novel is, what fiction is, and revel in seeing her throw the label off completely by tagging this a biography, complete with preface and index. I’m more aware of who the friends are that she thanks in the preface, and can appreciate the gentle wave she gives to Lydia Lopokova (“the beauty of movement”). I see the gentle threads that connect this to her earlier work with an interest in the concept of time (see Chapter 2’s digression on whether or not simply saying “Time passed” isn’t easier, a direct connect to The Lighthouse’s section Time Passes). From her diary, I’m also aware of her examination of her own growing fame, put into words by Orlando that “fame impedes and constricts,… [but] obscurity is dark, ample, and free; obscurity lets the mind take its way unimpeded.”

Having just read her essay skewering Hemingway in 1927, I can see another barb for him here: “(And from this it follows that only the most profound masters of style can tell the truth, and when one meets a simple one-syllabled writer, one may conclude, without any doubt at all, that the poor man is lying.)”

What else? Of course the gender fluidity, plus commentary about reading, writing, teasing that she’s about to reveal the meaning of life, protesting against Victorian-era worship of the act of marriage, protesting about the treatment of women in general and women writers more particularly. It’s the most famous example of a labor of love, directed at Vita, swirling round Vita, with Knole as the backdrop and photos of Vita (and Angelica, VW’s niece) included to make it a proper bio.

Life? Literature? One to be made into the other? But how monstrously difficult! For – here came by a pair of tight scarlet trousers – how would Addison have put that? Here came two dogs dancing on their hind legs. How would Lamb have described that? For reading Sir Nicholas and his friends …, she somehow got the impression – here she rose and walked – they made one feel – it was an extremely uncomfortable feeling – one must never, never say what one thought. (She stood on the banks of the Serpentine. It was a bronze colour; spider-thin boats were skimming from side to side.) They made one feel, she continued, that one must always, always write like somebody else.

Kings 1 & 2, Chronicles 1 & 2, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther

It’s taken me a while to muster up the desire to continue, after getting mired down in the dull, singsongy repetition of the two books of Kings. Don’t get me wrong— 1 Kings 1:1 starts out strong, you think, “AW YEAH!” when you hear that King David as an old man is shivering but finds that he can only go on if he snuggles up to a young virgin to warm him up. But then it’s a snoozefest, and David dies, and Solomon lives and here we have the famous decree to cut a disputed baby in half to identify the real mother. Guess how many wives Solomon had. 700 wives and 300 concubines—a bit excessive.

In 2 Kings, things still plod but there are scraps of interest. Elisha puts on a magic show raising people from the dead and creating unending flows of food (sounds familiar, right, Jesus?). There’s a disturbing scene where a woman complains that she agreed with her neighbor to first eat her son and the next day they’d eat her neighbor’s son, “So we boiled my son, and did eat him: and I said unto her on the next day, Give thy son, that we may eat him: and she hath hid her son.” In chapter 9, we get gruesome details of Jezebel’s death—thrown from a window and trampled by horses until nothing left but her skull. Chapter 18 describes men who during a siege have to “eat their own dung and drink their own piss.” Chapter 23 mentions male prostitutes (sodomites).

1 Chronicles is the place to go if you’re looking for Biblical names. New favorite verse is 1:1:10 – “And Cush begat Nimrod : he began to be mighty upon the earth.” But seriously, most of this book is just lists of names, a genealogy from Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael. We get a retelling of the stories we’ve already heard in the books of Samuel & Kings, like David’s story. 1:21:1 has the first appearance of the word Satan, which opens a can of worms. Previously, bad people were referred to as sons of Belial, and the Eden serpent in Genesis is just a snake. Whether or not there’s a definite article (the satan vs satan) shifts the meaning. The devilish Satan that we know won’t show up until Job. From Wikipedia:

The original Hebrew term sâtan (שָּׂטָן‎) is a generic noun meaning “accuser” or “adversary”, which is used throughout the Hebrew Bible to refer to ordinary human adversaries, as well as a specific supernatural entity. The word is derived from a verb meaning primarily “to obstruct, oppose”. When it is used without the definite article (simply satan), the word can refer to any accuser, but when it is used with the definite article (ha-satan), it usually refers specifically to the heavenly accuser: the satan.

2 Chronicles repeats a lot of the Kings stuff, about Solomon and his progeny. It’s a seesaw of God-fearing then God-snubbing people, with wars and peace then wars and peace again. I learned that 20,000 baths of wine = 120,000 gallons. We’ve got more mention of lost texts (like those of Iddo the seer). Next time I want to mis-inform someone, I’m going to say that God put the lying spirit in my mouth. Elijah prophesizes that Jehoram “shall have great sickness by disease of your bowels, until your bowels fall out by reason of the sickness day by day.” Yikes. And what would a book of the bible be without an evil woman; this time it’s our girl Athaliah (daughter of Jezebel, of course!) who counseled her son to do wicked things, then seizes the government by killing the whole royal family (Can I get some detail here?! All we have is “But when Athaliah the mother of Ahaziah saw that her son was dead, she arose and destroyed all the seed royal of the house of Judah.”). She actually gets a speaking part, too, very exciting for a woman: “Then Athaliah rent her clothes, and said, Treason, Treason.”

Things start to get dull in Ezra, where not much happens except the restriction on “mixed” marriage, so all the non-Jewish wives and children were abandoned. Some gruesome decree from King Darius where whoever alters his decrees “let timber be pulled down from his house, and let him be hanged thereon; and let his house be made a dunghill for this.”

The book of Nehemiah used to be mixed in with Ezra but has been separate since the 16th c AD. Dullsville: Jerusalem is rebuilt and there’s long lists of names to lull you to sleep. Really hope things start to pick up soon.

Which they do, in Esther. It’s always a good sign when a book is named after a woman. Things start out exciting, with Queen Vashti refusing to come and be ogled by the king and his friends on the 7th day of an epic 180 day drinkfest. This refusal sets off panic in the court, with the dudes protesting that if other women caught wind of this rebellion, they too would start standing up to their husbands. THIS MUST BE STOPPED! And so a law was written that every man would “bear rule in his own house”, Vashti was banished, and the search was on for all “fair young virgins” to be brought to the king. Enter our hero, Esther, a Jewish orphan being raised by her uncle Mordecai, who told her not to reveal her Jewishness. This is great: all these pure, young virgins, had to undergo 12 months of further purification (6 months being oiled up with myrrh, 6 months with “sweet odors”) before they were pure enough for the king to ravage. Esther’s chosen to be the new wife. Meanwhile, Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman, who then sets a plan in place to kill all the Jews in the kingdom. Haman throws lots to see when this should take place, and it’s determined that a year from now is the day. He gets the king to send decrees across the whole land saying that on such-and-such a day in 12 months, everyone should rise up against all Jews (“young and old, little children and women”), kill them and steal their money.  So Haman’s a bad dude. He goes around setting up a scaffolding to hang Mordecai from but the king remembers all the great things Mordecai has done for him and grants him great wealth. Haman is eventually hung on the gallows he created for Mordecai. Esther has revealed her Jewishness and gotten the king to reverse his decree, and thus the festival of Purim is born. (Pur-im, because the date of their supposed destruction was determined by throwing Pur, or lots). Oh, and bible scholars say this book is a complete fiction made up to explain the origins of Purim. It’s one of 2 books in the Hebrew bible that don’t mention god (Song of Songs the other).

Woolf on Hemingway

Reading Woolf’s review of Hemingway made me laugh out loud. She found herself unable to turn down the £120 offered for four reviews for the New York Herald Tribune but bemoans the effort in a Sept 1927 letter to Vita, “Here I am bound hand and foot to write an article on the works of a man called Hemingway… write for the Americans again, write for money again, I will not.” (Spoiler alert: she will and does.)

According to Hemingway’s biographer, Michael Reynolds, he read the review in Sylvia Beach’s Parisian bookshop (Shakespeare & Co) and was so furious “that he punched a lamp and broke it. Sylvia billed him for the lamp.”

Woolf begins the review uncovering the nature of criticism, attempting to pull back the curtain and explain the inner workings of what goes on. First, what does the critic already know about the author. Vague rumors—Hemingway is an American living in France, “an ‘advanced’ writer, we suspect, connected with what is called a movement, thought which of the many we own that we do not know.”

Then we must read his earlier book, The Sun Also Rises, in order to evaluate the current book, Men Without Women. In looking at that book, Woolf determines that Hemingway’s writing occasionally gives us a real emotion, “[b]ut there is something faked, too, which turns bad and gives an unpleasant feeling…” She sums up what she knows so far: he is not an advanced writer, he seems to fake his characters (this is a particular passionate inquiry of Woolf’s, see Mr. Bennett & Mrs Brown/Character in Fiction).

With this in mind, what do we make of his current book? Woolf starts with the problematic title, Men Without Women. Once you gender a book, you’ve “brought into play sympathies and antipathies which have nothing to do with art. The greatest writers lay no stress upon sex one way or the other.”

Another thing critics do is compare against classics, so Woolf flashes these short stories against the masters, to Hemingway’s disadvantage. “If one had not summoned the ghosts of Tchekov, Mérimée, and Maupassant, no doubt one would be enthusiastic.” The short stories aren’t as deep as his novel, probably due to the “excessive use of dialogue… At last we are inclined to cry out with the little girl in ‘Hills Like White Elephants’: ‘Would you please please please please please please stop talking?'” (This is where I laughed.)

She examines his craft and finds it lacking. Things are out of proportion. His “tendency to flood the page with unnecessary dialogue” trips him up. A true writer gets much closer to the truth, life, reality, than Hemingway does. To sum up, “he has moments of bare and nervous beauty; he is modern in manner but not in vision; he is self-consciously virile; his talent has contracted rather than expanded; compared with his novel his stories are a little dry and sterile.”