The Years

Oddly, I can’t find a previous entry for this book although I have vivid memories of reading it in New York on one of my summer sabbaticals. The image of the final party was the one that stuck with me, and it becomes vivid again upon rereading. I read this one slowly, carefully, knowing exactly what a toll it took on Woolf to write, slogging through drafts and cutting and rewrites for years. Perhaps the title can also be a nod to the length of time it took her to complete this work.

The book follows the Pargiter family across the years, from 1880s through “present day” which would have been the 1930s. Eleanor is the oldest girl, caring for their aging father into her spinsterhood. Rose fights for suffrage rights. Delia marries an Irish gentleman. Edward teaches classics at Cambridge. One of their nephews, North, is back from farming in Africa. Sally/Sara befriends the Polish “Mr Brown” and her sister Maggie marries a Frenchman, Rene/Renny. Peggy becomes a doctor, tired from her work and wondering what it all means.

Perhaps Woolf sums it up best in a letter to Stephen Spender:

But what I meant I think was to give a picture of society as a whole; give characters from every side; turn them towards society, not private life; exhibit the effect of ceremonies; Keep one toe on the ground by means of dates, facts: envelop the whole in a changing temporal atmosphere; Compose into one vast many-sided group at the end; and then shift the stress from present to future; and show the old fabric insensibly changing without death or violence into the future—suggesting that there is no break, but a continuous development, possibly a recurrence of some pattern; of which of course we actors are ignorant. And the future was gradually to dawn.

Parakeet: A Novel

Insanely great novel about an unenthusiastic bride whose grandmother appears to her as a bird in the week leading up to her wedding, telling her to see her brother before she ties the knot. The bride ventures forth to discover her brother Tom has transitioned into her sister Simone, then she herself transmogrifies into her mother, then the painful wedding, flashes back to her past and the random stabbing and her work helping brain-traumatized clients reconstruct what they’ve lost, and finally the lackluster wedding but triumphant departure the next day when the wife leaves the new husband and flees with her sister. Tremendous writing talent, great storytelling, a perfect textile weaving story lines together with the right pacing, some of the best current writing out there.

Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell

Letters from Vanessa Bell, 1885 (as a six-year-old writing to her father) to 1961 (the year she died). Admittedly, my interest in Vanessa stems mainly from her relationship with her sister (Virginia Woolf) and the ability for these letters to color in the background details of their lives. But she is a wildly interesting character in her own right, the queen of Bloomsbury, a radical maternal figure who ended up living exactly the unconventional life she yearned for.

The letters are not quite as snarky and deliciously malicious as I’d been led to believe, but still were lively, entertaining, gossipy, and candid.

In 1904 she wrote to Virginia: “But there’s something horrible to me… in any third person’s reading what was meant to be only between two. I shall burn all my letters someday.”

 

In Love with the World: A Monk’s Journey Through the Bardos of Living and Dying

Excellent book, soothing wisdom to cool our overheated minds in these turbulent times. Beautifully written by Helen Tworkov’s help, the story of Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s journey as a 36-year-old hitting the road for a three year wandering of the world. He goes from being protected and cared for by his monastery to wandering homeless, begging for food, shedding the layers of his identity and continuing his meditation. The book centers around the first weeks as he endures the shock of the world, having to handle money and deal with people on his own for the first time ever, sleeping on the floor of the train and then the station and gradually making his way to a lesser-visited historical site of the Buddha. He slowly peels off his conception of who he is, finally removing the robes that confer him identity and respect, his money now run out he sleeps in a park and begs for food which poisons him, leaving him in a death-state.

Against this scaffolding, he offers meditation guidance, sometimes in the way of direct instruction (to the man who asks for advice), sometimes just by way of what he does. I found the thought meditation instruction helpful:

“Just as you have placed your mind on your breath, now place your mind on your thoughts. Whatever comes, just watch. In the same way that you could use the breath as support for meditation, now use thoughts. Breath never stays the same for an instant, but it can be a stable support. So try to practice this way, just staying aware of your thoughts, without chasing after them.”

The man comes back and says his mind goes blank when he tries to watch his thoughts, and Mingyur Rinpoche says Yes, exactly! “That is the secret of thought meditation. What you are calling blank is actually open awareness… If you can watch thoughts, it’s like watching television. You’re not in the television, you’re watching it… There is a big screen and there are many free channels. There are only two problems: The programs are quite old and there are a lot of reruns.”

“I finally discovered the only reliable liberation from suffering: not trying to get rid of the problem.”

“To enter an unmapped domain of newness, and to be completely open and available to what it offers, we must let go of our cherished ideas of how things are supposed to work.”

“In a noisy and materialistic society, to sit down and remain still and quiet is a reverse activity.”

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.