Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Virginia Woolf

Question: Does any good book begin like this?

"The sun had not yet risen. The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it. Gradually as the sky whitened a dark line lay on the horizon dividing the sea from the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes moving, one after another, beneath the surface, following each other, pursuing each other, perpetually…"

Answer: no.

One, of course, really SEES nothing and learns nothing - typical result of the highly introspective "close inspection of things" which was a byword of Early Modernism, and connects with NOTHING that might draw a reader to a novel - but, after perhaps another thousand words, this section climaxes with:

"The light struck upon the trees in the garden, making one leaf transparent and then another. One bird chirped high up; there was a pause; another chirped lower down. The sun sharpened the walls of the house, and rested like the tip of a fan upon a white blind and made a blue finger-print of shadow under the leaf by the bedroom window. The blind stirred slightly, but all within was dim and unsubstantial. The birds sang their blank melody outside."

Now we are onto something! One leaf becomes transparent. Then another, A bird chirps. A second bird chirps. This only requires about a hundred words (including a lazy, hazy and commonplace figure of speech - light does not "strike" trees).

Virginia Woolf was, I am assured, abused as a child. You have to wonder whether the abuse took the form of dialogues such as this:

‘I see a ring,’ said Bernard, ‘hanging above me. It quivers and hangs in a loop of light.’

‘I see a slab of pale yellow,’ said Susan, ‘spreading away until it meets a purple stripe.’

‘I hear a sound,’ said Rhoda, ‘cheep, chirp; cheep chirp; going up and down.’

‘I see a globe,’ said Neville, ‘hanging down in a drop against the enormous flanks of some hill.’

‘I see a crimson tassel,’ said Jinny, ‘twisted with gold threads.’

I mean…I believe it about the abuse - children who talk this way either have been abused, or should be.

Virginia Woolf has long been an icon of Early Modernism and remains, more than many, sorta popular. There IS a certain way to like this kinda thing:

You are nineteen, and in your second year at university, and holding your own in the English curriculum. It is five in the afternoon, in spring or in fall, and after forcing down a chapter or two of this twaddle (as much, or as little, as you can stand) you gaze out the window on a landscape of secure employment with laid-back managers, lawns well-kept by the grounds crew, and an endless supply of willowy coeds as anorexic and beautiful as Virginia herself in the Author Portrait…and you feel you are a part of Something!

And you are - an Academia as removed and artificial as anything since the peasants marched on Versailles.

Sure, 19th Century ladies used to swoon over Shelley…and not even the good Shelley (there is some), but the blowsiest bullshit he ever put his pen to.

But, what the hell, this Academy is a wordy sort of place and, in a sense, you get paid by the word.

And you are only nineteen this once, and this might be the year you have your best love affair. You are going to cling to that, just as a struggling family will remember the one trip abroad fondly…even if everything went wrong.

Believe me, when your Prof switched you onto Virginia Woolf, something went wrong.



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