Monthly Archives: November 2017

The Early Essays of Virginia Woolf

I am making my way through the first volume of Virginia Woolf’s essays that she composed between the years 1904 and 1912.  In “The Decay of Essay Writing” (1904) she gives us some insight into her motivations behind writing her personal essays.  She teaches us how to read her essays with a bit of a rant about the way in which writers in her day have approached the personal essay:

But though it seems thus easy enough to write of one’s self, it is, as we know, a feat but seldom accomplished.  Of the multitude of autobiographies that are written, one or two alone are what they pretend to be.  Confronted with the terrible spectre of themselves, the bravest are inclined to run away or shade their eyes.  And thus, instead of the honest truth which we should all respect, we are given timid side-glances in the shape of essays, which, for the most part, fail in the cardinal virtue of sincerity.

I wonder what Woolf would think of the personal essays written  in the 21st century?  In the age of the Internet and social media, have we gone too far the other way with oversharing?

Much of the first volume is taken up with reviews of books that Woolf did for the Guardian and the TLS in order to earn some money.   I am in awe of the wide range of books that she read.  Just as a sample, for the year 1905 she read:

Fiction: The Golden Bowl by Henry James; Arrows of Fortune by Algernon Gissing; A Dark Lantern by Elizabeth Robins.

Non-fiction: The Women of America by Elizabeth McCracken; The Thackeray Country by Lewis Melville; The Dickens Country by F.G. Kitton.

Even when her reviews are not flattering, she still makes me want to read a book.  I want to read what she read and replicate her literary experience.  Her review of James, for example, is not positive but she still inspires me to take another look at his novels:

‘She rubbed with her palm the polished mahogany of the balustrade, which was mounted on fine iron-work, eighteenth-century English.’ These are trivial instance of detail which, perpetually insisted on, fatigues without adding to the picture.  Genius would have dissolved them, and whole chapters of the same kind, into a single word.  Genius,  however, is precisely what we do not find; and it is for this reason that we do not count Mr. James’s characters among the creatures of our brains, no can we read his books easily and without conscious effort.  But when we have made this reservation our praise must be unstinted.  There is no living novelist whose standard is higher, or whose achievement is so consistently great.

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Luxury and Death: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

The Satyricon, written by the emperor Nero’s arbiter elegentiae (judge of style), Petronius, in the first century B.C.E., is one of the most interesting pieces of realistic fiction that has survived from antiquity.  The work, estimated to be the size of a modest modern novel, is highly fragmentary so that the plot as a whole can only be loosely reconstructed.  The narrator, an amoral yet educated man named Encolpius, has done something to offend the Roman god of sexuality and fertility, Priapus, and as a result has been stricken with a horrible case of impotence.  He travels around Italy with his companion and young lover Giton looking for a cure, for the Roman equivalent of Viagra.  The work has been described as a satire, as a mock epic, and a picaresque novel; it is lewd, it is bawdy and it is funny.

The Satyricon, however, also has an underlying moral message and a serious side for which William Arrowsmith argues in his seminal paper entitled, “Luxury and Death in the Satyricon.”  The central episode of the novel, which is also the most extant part of the work that has survived, is the Cena Trimalchionis—The Dinner of Trimalchio; Encolpius and Giton, along with a third friend they picked up somewhere along the way named Ascyltus, are invited to an elaborate dinner at the home of a ridiculously wealthy freedman named Trimalchio.  The themes of luxury and death are meticulously and deftly blended together in the dinner party scene during which Trimalchio’s ostentatious wealth is fully on display along side his obsession with his own mortality.  He is rich enough, for instance, to hire a trumpeter that does nothing all day but sound his horn on the hour.  He has a water clock in his dining room, a very expensive and rare item for a Roman, which also marks time for him.  And the symbol, for me, that best displays the juxtaposition of the wealth and death themes is Trimalchio’s elaborate fresco that depicts the fates measuring and cutting the thread of his life—Trimalchio’s thread, of course, is painted in gold.

As I was reading Mrs. Dalloway, the famous first lines of Arrowsmith’s article kept coming to my mind: “The Satyricon is a book obsessed with luxury (luxuria, that is) and death, and Trimalchio, the central character of the central episode, is a man with wealth and death very much on his mind.”  Arrowsmith’s words, I think, can be slightly amended to fit rather well with Virginia Woolf and her characters: Mrs. Dalloway is a book obsessed with luxury (luxuria, that is) and death, and Clarissa Dalloway, the central character of the central episode, is a woman with wealth and death very much on her mind.

Clarissa Dalloway, the fifty-two-year-old wife of a British politician, is busy planning one of her famous dinner parties for her usual group of upper class British friends and acquaintances.  She spends the day buying and arranging flowers, ordering around her maids and cooks, and laying out expensive silverware.  In the first few pages of the novel as she is bustling about her home and then about London, Big Ben lingers in the background, reminding her of every hour that has slipped by, thus reminding her of her mortality.  In the midst of her wealthy home and the luxuries she is setting out for her party, the clock faithfully strikes the hour:

For having lived in Westminster—how many years now? over twenty,—one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes.  There! Out it boomed.  First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable.

In the afternoon just before her party, an old flame visits Clarissa and he makes fun of her planning.  This, combined with her husband’s comments about her elaborate parties, causes her to examine why she fusses over these displays of ostentation and wealth for her upper class friends.  Thoughts of death and mortality are oftentimes mixed in her mind with thoughts of wealth and luxury which, to her, mean standing in society, social class, importance.  Social status brings meaning to Clarissa’s life, it is what keeps her going.  But the more she clings to these luxuries, the more she realizes their worthlessness and the more she thinks about life and death:

They thought, or Peter at any rate, thought, that she enjoyed imposing herself; like to have famous people about her; great names; was simply a snob in short.  Well, Peter might think so.  Richard merely thought it foolish of her to like excitement when she knew it was bad for her heart.  It was childish, he thought.  And both were quite wrong.  What she liked was simply life.

“That’s what I do it for,” she said, speaking aloud, to life.

The other, seemingly disparate plot, that runs parallel to Clarissa’s story is that of Septimus, a traumatized veteran of The Great War who feels utterly lost and hopeless as he tries to integrate himself back into civilian life.  His wife, Rezia, anguishes over trying to get him help before he harms himself as Septimus’ delusions become more frequent and more alarming to her.  He is a man obsessed with death and wonders if there is any meaning or point to life: “It might be possible, Septimus thought, looking at England from the train window, as they left Newhaven; it might be possible that the world itself is without meaning.”  Septimus’ thoughts and actions mimic the pattern of Clarissa’s own existential crisis.  They are both consumed with thoughts of death.

Similar to Petronius, it is during Clarissa’s party that the themes of luxury and death culminate in the text.  As she is greeting her guests, which include the Prime Minister, death intrudes on her upper class world.  She is numb, going through the motions of greeting her guests, when she is shocked out of her wealthy surroundings by the rumor of a suicide: “She felt, somehow very like him—the young man who killed himself.  She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away.  The clock was striking.  The leaden circles dissolved in the air.  He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun.  But she must go back.  She must assemble.”  I will end with another quote from Arrowsmith that I think applies equally well to Trimalcho and to Clarissa Dalloway: “Like hybris, luxuria affects a man so that he eventually loses his sense of specific function, his virtus or arête.*  He surpasses himself, luxuriating into other things and forms.”  For just a moment, it is death that brings Clarissa out of her surroundings, but then she comfortably goes back to her party.

*Virtus in Latin means courage, virtue or strength.  Arete in Ancient Greek means excellence.

I have yet to read Woolf’s letters or diaries.  I was wondering if anyone has come across a reference to Petronius in any of her writings?  I don’t think it is too far fetched that Woolf would have been familiar with Petronius.  It interesting that F. Scott Fitzgerald, writing about the same time as Woolf,  was greatly influenced by the Satyricon in composing The Great Gatsby —another novel obsessed with luxury and death—and even considered the alternative title Trimalchio’s Dinner for his novel.

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How we Perished, Each Alone: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

I realize that entire academic careers and volumes of dissertations and articles are dedicated to studying the influences of Vergil on Virginia Woolf.  I have not looked at any of the scholarship nor do I wish to.  My writing here, I am sure, will not be new or unusual but it is simply my own interaction with the texts of Vergil and Virginia Woolf.  (Also, a bit of a warning that I do have a spoiler in my writing about the second part of the books.)

As I made my way through the three parts of To the Lighthouse, Vergil’s lines from Georgics 1.199-203 kept coming to mind.  The Roman poet is giving advice about scattering seeds for a successful harvest and concludes with a universal maxim (translation is my own):

sic omnia fatis
in peius ruere ac retro sublapsa referri,
non aliter quam qui aduerso uix flumine lembum
remigiis subigit, si bracchia forte remisit,
atque illum in praeceps prono rapit alveus amni.

Thus all things are fated to quickly hasten towards something
worse and to slide backwards, similar to when a man is hardly
able to steer his boat with his oars against the opposing
stream, and if, by chance, he should remove his arms, then he
and his skiff would be swept away by the swiftly moving river.

Part one of To the Lighthouse, “The Window,” captures a day in the life of the Ramsay family—mother, father, eight children and a few house guests—at their summer rental home in the Hebrides. At the center of the family is Mrs. Ramsay, middle-aged yet still beautiful, whose role as loving mother, wife and hostess is the unifying and joyful force behind their blissful, summer days. It is her care and understanding and warmth that steers her children towards a good and happy life. She reassures her youngest son, James, that he will make his greatly anticipated trip out to the lighthouse on the following day; despite his repeated refusals, she offers their crabby and aloof  houseguest, Mr. Carmichael, comforts like newspapers and tobacco; with a simple look she is able to calm her husband whose irrational anger flares up when a guest is taking too long eating his soup at dinner. Mrs. Ramsay shelters the children from their father’s stern presence which wavers between indifference and irritation. The dinner scene sympathetically describes Mrs. Ramsay at the center of it all:

And the whole of the effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her. Again she felt, as a fact without hostility, the sterility of men, for if she did not do it nobody would do it, and so, giving herself the little shake that one gives a watch that has stopped, the old familiar pulse began beating, as the watch begins ticking—one, two, three, one, two, three. And so on and so on, she repeated, listening to it, sheltering and fostering the still feeble pulse as one might guard a weak flame with a newspaper.

It is Mrs. Ramsay’s arms, her effort, that steer the family ship upstream, against the harsh tides of reality. In chapter two, “Time Passes,” the summer house is described as empty, desolate, lonely because the family has not visited it in the ten years since the untimely death of Mrs. Ramsay. The house in ruins, overtaken by nature, foreshadows the lack of joy and unity in the family without their wife and mother:

Only the lighthouse beam entered the rooms for a moment, sent its sudden stare over bed and wall in the darkness of winter, looked with equanimity at the thistle and the swallow, the rat and the straw. Nothing now withstood them; nothing said no to them. Let the wind blow; let the poppy seed itself and the carnation mate with the cabbage. Let the swallow build in the drawing-room, and the thistle thrust aside the tiles, and the butterfly sun itself on the faded chintz of the arm-chairs. Let the broken glass and china lie out on the lawn and be tangled over with grass and wild berries.

The second chapter is the most poetic—its repetitive lines and sections are akin to songs and melodies—and it includes many Vergilian allusions to the fourth Georgic. The most striking and pathetic of which is the Orpheus and Eurydice image when Mr. Ramsay is “stumbling along a passage one dark morning” and reaches for Mrs. Ramsay but his arms “remained empty” because she died suddenly the night before.

In the final chapter, ten years have passed and the family has decided to visit their summer home but there is a marked change in their mood and interactions with one another. Without Mrs. Ramsay they cannot recapture the joy of the last summer in the house. Mr. Ramsay, whose irritability and tyranny is no longer subdued by his wife, scares his children and makes his guests uncomfortable.  He has, mostly definitely, hastened towards something worse in the absence of his wife.  He decides to take James and Cam, now teenagers, on a boat trip out to the lighthouse to make up, somehow, for the trip that was never taken ten summers prior. Their tense and miserable journey out to the lighthouse is laden with water and sailing imagery that is, for me, especially reminiscent of the Georgics passage which I translated above:

The sea was more important now than the shore. Waves were all round them, tossing and sinking, with a log wallowing down one wave; a gull riding on another. About here, she thought, dabbling her fingers in the water, a ship had sunk, and she murmured dreamily half asleep, how we perished, each alone.

 

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When, if not now?: The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf

Between 1960 and 2010, Christa Wolf recorded her thoughts, impressions, and experiences on the same day, September 27th, in each of those years.  In 1968, the same year in which The Quest for Christa T. was published, Wolf spent time in a hospital to treat her recurring depression. In her diary for that year she writes:

Now, while writing, I begin to feel better. Just the process of writing already helps. So it will probably remain the only thing for me after all. But ‘life’—that is: political, national life—runs along the old tracks. Sometimes it seems to me that it races towards a bad end. And we stand next to it and give woebegone commentaries. But once you have jumped the tracks with such force, you do not get back on them again…

The Quest for Christa T. follows the lives and friendship of two women, the unnamed narrator and Christa T., from World War II through the 1960’s when East Germany is under communist rule. The narrator, in a nonlinear narrative, uses her own memories, Christa’s letters and diaries, and discussions with others who knew her to piece together the life of her friend who died at the age of thirty-five from leukemia.   Although the novel is not overtly political, there is a constant sense of disillusionment and restlessness that Christa T. suffers and, the like author with whom she shares her name, her only solace against this is to write.  One of Christa T.’s diary entries reads: “To think that I can only cope with things by writing!”

As the narrator describes Christa T.’s life, childhood, education, friendship, career, first love, marriage, children, an affair, she also explores important questions about identity.  One can collect a list of biographical facts about a life, but what, truly, is the essence of that person?  Can we ever reconstruct the reality of another person?  Wolf’s style of writing is complex and reading this disjoined narrative requires a great deal of concentration and reflection—my favorite kind of book.  The novel is full of deeply philosophical passages such as:

You’ll certainly remember what we used to say when one of us was feeling forlorn: When, if not now?  When should one live, if not in the time that’s given to one?  It always helped.  But now—if only I could tell you how it is…The whole world like a wall facing me.  I fumble over the stones: no gaps.  Why should I go on deluding myself: there’s no gap for me to live in.  It’s my own fault.  It’s me, I’m simply not determined enough.  Yet how simple and natural everything seemed when I first read about it in books.

The most heart wrenching and difficult parts of the story were the descriptions of Christa T.’s tragic illness and death.  When she is diagnosed with an advanced form of leukemia at thirty-five she is at a happy, content point in her life and even though she had an affair, she has settled back into her marriage and has two young children.  As her death approaches Wolf repeats the phrase “When, if not now?” a few times within the text and this is also the line with which she ends the novel.  A simple phrase, yet so profound.  Something we all contemplate in our own lives, especially as we approach middle age.  It is no wonder that the GDR kept a close eye on Wolf and informed bookstores to sell this book only to serious members of the literary community.

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Edged with Mist: The Waves by Virginia Woolf

I hope that the literary community will forgive me for not getting to Virginia Woolf and this book sooner.  I have always focused my reading on 19th century female British authors—Austen, Bronte, Gaskell, Eliot, etc.  But this year I have discovered Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Richardson, both of whom have given me a new appreciation for 20th century female British authors.  I realize I have a lot of catching up to do.

The Waves describes, in the most beautiful and poetic prose, the ebb and flow of the lives of six people, both as individuals and as members of their group, who attended boarding school together.  When they graduate from school they remain friends and even through middle age they maintain contact with one another.  Written in 1931, it is considered one of Woolf’s most experimental and difficult novels.  I have seen it described as a “stream-of-consciousness” narrative, but to me it read more like a prose poem and Woolf herself described it as “playpoem.”  The beginning of the book is the most difficult as the six characters are young and described their experiences attending a boarding school.  Their identities are tangled with one another and not yet distinct enough to grasp fully.  Woolf is very interested in identity and how we view ourselves through others, especially during the formative years.  We see this in a conversation between the young Susan and Bernard:

‘I love,’ said Susan, ‘and I hate.  I desire one thing only.  My eyes are hard.  Jinny’s eyes break into a thousand lights.  Rhonda’s are like those pale flowers to which moths come in the evening.  Yours grow full and brim and never break.  But I am already set on my pursuit.  I see insects in the grass.  Though my mother still knits white socks for me and hems pinafores and I am a child, I love and I hate.’

‘But when we sit together, close,’ said Bernard, ‘we melt into each other with phrases.  We are edged with mist. We make an unsubstantial territory.’

In just this short passage Woolf gives us so many vivid images to contemplate.  What struck me immediately was the “I love and I hate” which is a reference to Catullus Poem #85.*  Although Catullus is referring to the tumultuous relationship with his lover in this poem, the mix of emotions is very appropriate for Woolf’s characters.  They are trying to figure out their own, individual places in the world but still feel like they “melt” into each other and are “edged with mist.”

As they age and grow their individual temperaments slowly surface; Bernard is a storyteller, Louis is a business man who is self-conscious of his Australian origins, Jinny enjoys parties and has many lovers and admirers, Susan is a mother who enjoys her home in the country, Rhonda is constantly anxious and enjoys her solitude.  There is a seventh character who never speaks himself, we only hear about him through the others.  Percival is the “hero” of the group—everyone likes him and is devastated when he dies on a trip in India.  But even as their own, distinct personalities emerge, they are still drawn back to their identity as part of a group.  The seven friends get together in order to see Percival off on his trip to India and Louis comments:

‘It is Percival, said Louis, ‘sitting silent as he sate among the tickling grass when the breeze parted the clouds and they formed again, who makes us aware that these attempts to say, “I am this, I am that,” which we make, coming together, like separated parts of one body and soul, are false.  Something has been left out from fear.  Something has been altered, from vanity.  We have tried to accentuate differences.  From the desire to be separate we have laid stress upon our faults, and what is particular to us.  But there is a chain whirling round, round, in a steel-blue circle beneath.’

There are so many beautiful passages in this book and I must point out, in particular, the nine introductions to each section that Woolf writes describing the sun and its effect on the sea as it rises and sets in the sky.  The book is worth reading just for these gorgeous passages:

The sun, risen, no longer couched on a green mattress darting a fitful glance through watery jewels, bared its face and looked straight over the waves.  They fell with a regular thud.  They fell with the concussion of horses’ hooves on the turf.  Their spray rose like the tossing of lances and assegais over the riders’ heads.  They swept the beach with steel blue and diamond-tipped water.  They drew in and out with the energy, the muscularity of an engine which sweeps its force in and out again.

I’m curious to hear about readers’ favorite Woolf books. I was thinking about reading To the Lighthouse next.  Any other suggestions are most welcomed.

*For the extra curious, here is the Latin for Catullus Poem #85 and my translation:

Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

I hate and I love.  Perhaps you might ask why I do this.
I do not know, but I feel it and I am tortured.

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