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.”

To the Lighthouse

I can’t recommend highly enough the best way to approach this book—sneaking up on it slowly by reading the months and years worth of letters and diaries and essays and other books that came before and during its birth. As soon as I reached 1927 in my chronology I got more and more excited that this was within reach, finally.

I haven’t read this in over 20 years. What is wrong with me? This needs to be a perennial read. Coming to it now, with a few decades under my belt, I’m even more staggered. The figure of Mr. Ramsay, so selfish in his widowhood, reminds me of my own father.

I can’t say too much here, there are really no words. After I finished, I immediately read Vanessa’s letter to Virginia that she wrote after reading it, high praise indeed, calling her a magnificent portrait painter for the likenesses she captured of their parents.

These seeds dropped into my brain at an early age, did they strengthen my resolve not to tether myself to one person for an eternal life sentence? Lily Briscoe succeeds and thrives as a spinster, urging her “exemption from the universal law” because she likes to be alone and to be herself. If so, add that to my growing list of debts to Woolf.

Most certainly I read this more slowly than ever before, taking long breaks in between sections to catch my breath and mull over her craft. If there is a blessing in the current chaos of pandemic life, it is in embracing slowness, stillness, appreciating things to the depth of their cores, no more surface skimming to get on to the next thing.

***

Related: letters from readers, cf:

and one from George Duckworth:

Cymbeline

Oh, you want to know more about the significance of Clarissa Dalloway’s “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun” murmur? Of course you must fling yourself into a Shakespearean rabbit hole and read the play it comes from, where you find that it’s a somber funeral song crooned as the two lost princes dig a grave for Imogen (unbeknownst to them, their sister; unbeknownst to them, actually still alive).

This is the a normal ragtag and slapdash Shakespearean tragedy, involving the usual doses of: miscommunication, an evil stepmother, cross-dressing, foolish leaders, poisons that send people into sleep not death, mysteriously kidnapped princes later discovered, hiding in chests to gather proof of infidelity. Some good insults, as always, like “whoreson jackanapes.”

Mrs. Dalloway

Reading this again by taking the smallest possible sips over the last week has been a balm for my soul. I never allowed myself that kind of space to sink into her writing before. When I caught myself straying from giddy attention, I marked my spot and put the book down, tended to my next object of thought, and returned to it when my mind was fresh. This quality of total, clear attention unleashes marvels from the book… which sounds dumb because what book wouldn’t benefit from that level of steady focus?

What strikes you first? The sounds. The hours marked by Big Ben, the leaden circles dissolving in the air. The backfiring of an automobile. The words of Shakespeare (“Fear no more the heat o’ the sun” from Cymbeline) spoken in a memory of the luxuriant past in the country at a home, Bourton, her brother inherited now that her father is gone. Bourton is as much of a place as London in this story, with layers of flashbacks to her youth spent flirting with Peter Walsh and falling in love with Sally Seton and finally meeting Richard Dalloway there.

Also the absence of sound: “As a cloud crosses the sun, silence falls on London; and falls on the mind. Effort ceases. Time flaps on the mast.”

The layers of consciousness, each character’s thoughts crashing on top of the other, a cacophony of perspectives.

Peter’s been away for many years, is now back in town, drops in to see Clarissa unexpectedly, weeps when he tells her he’s in love with a married woman in India. He flings himself outdoors, leaving her to prepare for her party. In Regent’s Park he sits on a bench and snores, then crosses paths with Septimus Warren Smith—the shell-shocked veteran of the Great War who has threatened to kill himself (and later does, by jumping out a window), who hears the birds singing in Greek. An airplane spells out an ad for coffee in the sky, droning on.

Peter thinks to himself “Those five years—1918 to 1923—had been somehow very important” (p 71). You could openly refer to things that were previously unmentionable. Woolf loves marking these lines of time in the sand, like in her essay Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, “on or about December 1910 human character changed.”

My favorite character that I did not remember from previous readings was the female vagrant spotted by Richard Dalloway in Green Park: “she had flung herself on the earth, rid of all ties, to observe curiously, to speculate boldly, to consider the whys and the wherefores, impudent, loose-lipped, humorous”, and she laughs at the sight of him.

And of course, Septimus, news of whose death reaches the Dalloway’s party on the lips of one of his doctors. Clarissa is twinned with him, “She felt somehow very like him—the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air.” Earlier, Clarissa thinks “Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate… there was an embrace in death.”

Fantastic last lines revolve around Peter’s thoughts:

It is Clarissa, he said.
For there she was.

Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel 1 & 2

Like water torture, I am continuing the drip, drip, dripping of the Bible. Joshua is an incredibly dull book—wars, circumcision (“At that time the Lord said unto Joshua, Make thee sharp knives, and circumcise again the children of Israel the second time.” – A SECOND TIME?!), the walls of Jericho fall down.

Judges continues the dullness with a bit more spice, continued wars but then there’s a lady who nails someone in the head to kill him, and the weird decision to draft every man “that lappeth of the water with his tongue, as a dog lappeth,” and the dude whose skull was fractured by a woman who then asked his servant to kill him so that people wouldn’t be able to say that a woman killed him. Our pal Samson (the strong hairy dude) is in here, shorn of his strength then he grows it back and pulls down the pillars of a house to kill everyone. Then there’s a scene with an eerie echo of Sodom, a man goes into a house and townsmen beat at the door saying they want to “know him” (bugger him) but the master of the house says don’t do such a wicked thing but here’s my daughter. Violent rape ensues and she dies on the doorstep of her father’s house the next morning. Jesus fucking christ. But the horror isn’t over—her body is then cut into 12 pieces and sent to all the coasts of Israel. WTF!? Then there’s some low-key kidnapping of wives and finally we get to Ruth.

Ruth, what a delight! The first book named after a woman, I settle in and am excited to read about her and Naomi (her mother-in-law). This is a welcome change from the war and violence of the previous seven books of the Bible. Ruth marries Naomi’s son who dies, and Ruth clings to Naomi, then she is married off to a kinsman, Boaz. We hear about the custom of giving someone your shoe as a testimony for confirming a land transaction? “Now this was the manner in former time in Israel concerning redeeming and concerning changing, for to confirm all things; a man plucked off his shoe, and gave it to his neighbor: and this was a testimony in Israel.” Ruth has a son and is the great-grandmother of David. Is it the famous David of Golliath? We’ll have to wait and see! And I’m ready to continue flipping pages of this delightful tale when, whoops, Ruth is over. Only 4 chapters?!

Samuel 1. Lots of killing, wars. Some weird thing where god turns Samuel into “another man”?? Saul is trouble from the start, hiding from everyone but he’s tall so his hiding place discovered easily. Then Saul becomes a mad king and we meet David, the gentle harp player/shepherd who’s known for taking down Goliath with a single stone before sawing his head off and parading around with it. (I guess you had to come with receipts to prove what you’d done.) Saul tells David he can marry his daughter Michal, but instead of a dowry he wanted 100 foreskins of the Philistines. What is up with this obsession about foreskin/circumcision? David overachieves and brings 200 foreskins. Saul keeps trying to kill David so he escapes, and when he’s recognized pretends to be mad (has lots of practice from seeing Saul up close, foaming at the mouth). Surprise: there is an extended discussion of fortune telling in here! (1 Samuel 28:7-19) Samuel, who’s dead, gets brought back by a spiritual medium and he tells Saul that he’ll die tomorrow. Which he does and David comes out on top.

Samuel 2. More killing, rape, incest. Good times. King David has an all-night dance party (he “danced before the lord with all his might). There’s a special form of torture where they “shaved off half of their beards, cut off their garments in the middle, even to their buttocks”. I vaguely remembered a Biblical tale of David and Bathsheba which is here: David spots Bath-sheba washing herself and she was “very beautiful to look upon” so he gets her pregnant and then has her husband sent off to be killed in war. More rape in 13:14 where Amnon rapes his half sister Tamar; this is revenged 2 years later when Tamar’s brother Absalom kills Amnon. This causes Absalom to flee from David’s wrath and leads to this curious exchange: he sends for Joab to be a messenger between him and David but Joab refused to come. After the 2nd time he refused to come, Absalom told his servants to set Joab’s barley field on fire, which they do, and Joab comes running, WTF are you doing, mate? Absalom sends him to talk to David for him. Later, Absalom humiliates his father David by sleeping with David’s 10 concubines in a tent on the roof of his palace so the whole town can see. During battle, Absalom gets caught in a tree and Joab walks up to kill him with 3 darts. David mourns his son’s death, “Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son!” What’s refreshing in all these violent, ruthless, devious books is the near absence of that vengeful god—most of the blathering is being done by humans instead of a jealous spirit. The ark, however, is being yanked around and moved from place to place still.

The Common Reader

From her diary and letters we know she wanted to have The Common Reader—written concurrently with Mrs. Dalloway—published first, followed by the novel, which is exactly what happened in 1925. Reading the essays, it’s clear why this order was preferred—she lays out a case for the experimentation she’s doing with her own writing and paves the way for a deeper dive into self in Mrs. Dalloway. The last sentence of the book indeed urges us to “scan the horizon; see the past in relation to the future; and so prepare the way for masterpieces to come.” Mic drop, may I introduce you to a masterpiece I call Mrs. Dalloway?

This last essay, How It Strikes a Contemporary, tries to understand why critics can’t agree on any masterpieces being produced in the current post-Great War age. Woolf points out that this is primarily a result of writers having “ceased to believe.” (This emphasis on belief is something she pushes as a prerequisite for good writing in The Modern Essay.) But looking at past classics, she raises a questioning finger and says they “seem deliberately to refuse to gratify those senses which are stimulated so briskly by the moderns; the senses of sight, of sound, of touch—above all, the sense of the human being, his depth and the variety of his perceptions, his complexity, his confusion, his self, in short.”

Modern Fiction carries on the argument she developed in 1924’s Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, drawing a line between the old guard “materialists” and the new writers she deems “spiritualists”; Joyce gets a lot of ink here (although she does call out the “comparative poverty” of his mind, zing!), pointing out how much of life we normally exclude or ignore. With regard to the old way of writing, she asks “Must novels be like this?” Life is very different from the tight plots of novels, it’s “a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible?”

She seems also to be speaking of herself in the Jane Austen essay as she imagines what Jane could have done with her next six novels:

She would have devised a method, clear and composed as ever, but deeper and more suggestive, for conveying not only what people say, but what they leave unsaid; not only what they are, but what life is. She would have stood farther away from her characters, and seen them more as a group, less as individuals. Her satire, while it played less incessantly, would have been more stringent and severe. She would have been the forerunner of Henry James and of Proust—

Excellent advice on writing fills the space of The Modern Essay. “… but what art can the essayist use in these short lengths of prose to sting us wide awake and fix us in a trance which is not sleep but rather an intensification of life…?” She must know how to write. Essays must be free from “dullness, deadness, and deposits of extraneous matter.” Of the dangers encountered: “Soon the current, which is the life-blood of literature, runs slow; and instead of sparking and flashing or moving with a quieter impulse which has a deeper excitement, words coagulate together in frozen sprays…” And THIS, MY GOD THIS: “To write weekly, to write daily, to write shortly, to write for busy people catching trains in the morning or for tired people coming home in the evening, is a heart-breaking task for men who know good writing from bad.

The Brontës essay (Charlotte was a poet, but Emily was the greater poet) also gives us a window into what Woolf was trying to do with her own fiction: “It is as if she could tear up all that we know human beings by, and fill these unrecognisable transparences with such a gust of life that they transcend reality. Hers, then, is the rarest of all powers. She could free life from its dependence on facts; with a few touches indicate the spirit of a face so that it needs no body; by speaking of the moor make the wind blow and the thunder roar.”

In On Not Knowing Greek, she gets as close as I’ve yet seen to discussing the impact of the Great War: “In the vast catastrophe of the European war our emotions had to be broken up for us, and put at an angle from us, before we could allow ourselves to feel them in poetry and fiction.”

I’m thankful for having just read Montaigne’s essays and it made me appreciate even more her Montaigne:

For ourselves, who are ordinary men and women, let us return thanks to Nature for her bounty by using every one of the senses she has given us; vary our state as much as possible; turn now this side, now that, to the warmth, and relish to the full before the sun goes down the kisses of youth and the echoes of a beautiful voice singing Catullus. Every season is likeable, and wet days and fine, red wine and white, company and solitude. Even sleep, that deplorable curtailment of the joy of life, can be full of dreams; and the most common actions—a walk, a talk, solitude in one’s own orchard—can be enhanced and lit up by the association of the mind. Beauty is everywhere, and beauty is only two finger’s-breadth from goodness. So, in the name of health and sanity, let us not dwell on the end of the journey. Let death come upon us planting our cabbages

I love her method for introducing Chaucer into the conversation, by way of the story of the 15th century Paston family and the young gentleman who preferred to sit reading in his windy castle rather than tend to his family’s business.

Russian writers were hugely important to Woolf, but only read in translation although she did attempt to learn Russian (1921) in order to help Kot with his translations into English. The subject of translation is briefly touched on in The Russian Point of View:

What we are saying amounts to this, then, that we have judged a whole literature stripped of its style. When you have changed every word in a sentence from Russian to English, have thereby altered the sense a little, the sound, weight, and accent of the words in relation to each other completely, nothing remains except a crude and coarsened version of the sense. Thus treated, the great Russian writers are like men deprived by an earthquake or a railway accident not only of all their clothes, but also of something subtler and more important—their manners, the idiosyncrasies of their characters. What remains is, as the English have proved by the fanaticism of their admiration, something very powerful and very impressive, but it is difficult to feel sure, in view of these mutilations, how far we can trust ourselves not to impute, to distort, to read into them an emphasis which is false.

Also of note in this essay is that she quotes Elena Militsina again (“Learn to make yourselves akin to people… let this sympathy be not with the mind—for it is easy with the mind—but with the heart, with love towards them.”). This is the second time she quotes Militsina in this collection of essays (also in Modern Fiction), and originally quoted in her 1918 essay that I just dug up from a rabbit hole search— The Russian Point of View — which she clearly revised heavily for inclusion here.