Archive for July, 2010

A Life of One’s OwnA while back, Virginia Woolf was my therapist. At least I thought it was Woolf. But maybe it was really Ilana Simons.

My confusion came from the fact that I was immersed in the Woolfian therapy found in Simons’  A Life of One’s Own: A Guide to Better Living Through the Wit and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf.

Thanks to kind friends who know what I like, I had two copies. That meant I was able to sneak in a dose of therapy whether I was upstairs or down, reading in bed or ensconced in my favorite chair.

And I found myself applying the wise words contained within — whether they were Woolf’s own or Simons’ interpretation of them — to my daily life.

When I felt annoyed by my husband, I remembered Simons’ discussion of the wisdom of Mrs. Ramsay, for example.

Now Simons has an interesting post on the Psychology Today blog about the benefits storytelling has for therapy. As she puts it, both literature and psychology must “try to organize the mess of human emotion and motivation into a narrative” and both “[w]riters and therapists need to be good storytellers, because they have to build stories that organize emotion.”

In her piece, she credits several writers, including Woolf, for giving her “new images or narratives to live by.” In the case of Woolf, Simons says the author helped reframe her feminist thinking and stand her ground as a strong woman.

Perhaps it is this ability to help us think differently about some aspect of our daily lives that has helped Woolf earn her iconic status.

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Time is running out to see “A Room of Their Own: The Bloomsbury Artists in American Collections” exhibit. The largest collection of Bloomsbury art to have been shown in the states for almost a decade, the exhibit will be in the U.S.  through Sept. 26.

Here are the details:

What: A Room of Their Own: The Bloomsbury Artists in American Collections
Where: Palmer Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pa.
What: An exhibition of paintings, watercolors, drawings and books from the Hogarth Press and decorative works and designs from the Bloomsbury Group

Special events are planned as part of this exhibition. They include:

  • Bloomsbury guided tours of the exhibition
  • gallery talks by co-curator Christopher Reed and others
  • furniture-painting workshop a la Bloomsbury for adults
  • T-shirt and box painting and collage workshops for children
  • discussion of A Room of One’s Own
  • a film series, including “Carrington,” “The Hours,” “Maurice” and “A Passage to India.”

Read Benjamin Harvey’s review. Get the exhibit catalogue, the cover of which is pictured above.

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Back in December 2008, I asked Blogging Woolf readers if they would send me references to Woolf that they come across in fiction. I didn’t realize at the time just how many of these literary allusions I would find or how fascinating and absorbing my research would be.

This exploration was initially for my paper at the 2009 Virginia Woolf Conference, and from that evolved a recently-published monograph, Beyond the Icon: Virginia Woolf in Contemporary Fiction, part of the Bloomsbury Heritage Series from Cecil Woolf Publishers.

In this work, I discuss more than thirty such references, exploring context and intertextuality, and coming to the conclusion that Woolf is alive and well in the minds of contemporary authors. Their use of her life and work as points of reference is more than just name-dropping and more, as my title indicates, than part of the Woolf as icon phenomenon.

While it’s time to move on to other projects, my interest in Woolf “sightings” in fiction doesn’t show any signs of abating, and the references continue to accumulate. I’m not sure what I will do with them, but that’s not going to stop me from following up on leads and hunting them down.

Since my monograph was finalized, I’ve already found another dozen or so references, a couple of which I’ve posted here, including one on Jane Gardam and another on Olivia Manning. The newest finds represent an amazing array of work, ranging from the elegant prose of Penelope Lively, to a quirky story in The New Yorker (June 7, 2010) by Jeffrey Eugenides, to a romp of a “beach read,” Literacy and Longing in L.A. by Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack.

I just came across a new novel with three epigraphs, one from Woolf’s diary, another from Mrs. Dalloway, and the third from the character portrayed by James Coburn in the movie Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: “Comes an age in a man’s life when he don’t want to spend time figuring what comes next.”

My curiosity is piqued—I’ll have to read Next by James Hynes to see what he’s trying to evoke with these quotations. And perhaps I’ll start collecting Woolf epigraphs too (there’s already one in Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood).

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It’s summertime, and the reading should be easy. At least once in a while.

In the past few days, while sitting lakeside, I read three books, a luxury for me.

The first was a heavy-hitter. I stumbled across War in Val D’Orcia: An Italian War Diary 1943-1944, while browsing in The Lion Bookshop on Rome’s Via dei Greci. It was written by Iris Origo, an Anglo-American who came from privilege to marry an Italian landowner in the 1920s and settle into a new agrarian life on the family’s Tuscan estate.

After years spent cultivating the land and setting up a health center and school for the local farmers and their families, Iris and her husband Antonio found themselves caught up in deadly conflict. Her diary, meticulously kept during two of the worst years of World War II, tells the story of how everyday Italians helped protect refugees from their own country — and soldiers from the countries of their “enemies” — from both the Germans and the fascists. 

Duomo Baptistry in Firenze

Having just returned from Italy, where we spent a week in Tuscany, I found Origo’s war diary particularly compelling. I could picture the settings she described and recognized some places she mentioned. When she writes of the massive bronze doors of the Duomo’s Baptistry being removed and hidden far from Florence to save them from wartime damage, I remembered their golden beauty. When she speaks of the battles at Monte Cassino, I recalled my husband pointing out the ancient Italian monastery as we zipped along the autostrade on our way to Sorrento.

The best thing about Origo’s wartime diary is that it gives us a woman’s view of war, which is a rare thing. We often hear the accounts of generals and commanders and even foot soldiers. But the voice of average civilians, especially women, is usually silent. In Origo’s diary, we get her first-hand account “in real time,” as we say nowadays. She wrote her story as it happened, finding enough stolen moments to convey the facts and the feelings of her own wartime experience as a mother, a humanitarian and a citizen of the world.  

The message her story conveyed to me is that civilians are the most damaged by war. It is civilians who are the oft-ignored victims.

That is a fact that Virginia Woolf certainly recognized. As I type this post, I recall her words from Three Guineas, words that haunt because they, too, convey images of war.

Woolf describes a photograph of the Spanish Civil War sent by the government that shows “dead bodies for the most part … a man’s body, or a woman’s; it is so mutilitated that it might, on the other hand, be the body of a pig. But those certainly are dead children, and that undoubtedly is the section of a house” (14).

A sobering subject for a summer read, which wasn’t my intention today. But Woolf’s influence will prevail. And my brief, airy reviews of the other  books I read this week will have to wait for another day.

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Knowing of my continued pursuit of Woolf references in fiction, Stuart Clarke of the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain pointed me to Olivia Manning’s The Great Fortune, the first book in the Balkan Trilogy, which, combined with the Levant Trilogy, is called Fortunes of War.

With a sky-high stack of reading for summer and beyond, it wasn’t my intention to take on six volumes of fictionalized Eastern European political and cultural history during World War II. But I checked out the first volume to get the reference in context, started at the beginning, and now I’m hooked. My world atlas and the “R” volume of my encyclopedia are open on the floor for quick reference, and I’m steeped in Romania’s complicated and convoluted history from its early Ottoman days through the period covered in the novels, to its Communist takeover and subsequent revolution in 1989.

Romania’s wartime occupation and shifting allegiance are balanced by a fascinating cast of characters and their relationships, primarily newlyweds Harriet and Guy Pringle—he’s there to teach English at the University of Bucharest—and the questionably charming but shifty Prince Yakimov.

Harriet is the anchor, observing and absorbing daily life and the players, mostly male, mostly enthralled with war. At one point Guy and some of his non-combatant colleagues are drawn into a plan to commit illicit actions, which the organizer tells them will be “lots of fun.”

Woolf comes into a literary discussion that Harriet has with another English resident of Bucharest. Seeing that she’s reading D.H. Lawrence, he dismisses “These modern novelists…. Why is it that not one of them is really good enough?”

A one-time aspiring writer, Clarence says that if one can’t be a Tolstoy, Flaubert or Stendhal, then why try to be a writer. Harriet asks him about Woolf, and he replies: “I think Orlando almost the worst book of the century.” To the Lighthouse is “all right—but all her writing is so diffused, so feminine, so sticky.”

So what is Manning saying here? And why Woolf? Harriet defends the writers that Clarence attacks, noting that “So much creative effort has gone into their work,” so perhaps it’s a way of differentiating Harriet from her milieu, adding to her sense of being an outsider.

Manning (1908-1980) published her first book in 1937, overlapping with Woolf’s Three Guineas and The Years, though Fortunes of War wasn’t written until the 1960s and ‘70s. I haven’t discovered yet if Woolf and Manning had any personal contact or what influence Woolf had on Manning, although they almost certainly had shared acquaintances in literary London and seem to have held similar views about war and those who perpetuate it.

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Clarissa Dalloway’s comeback

While writing in graduate school about the role of geographical citation in the novels of Virginia Woolf and Arnold Bennett, I found myself praising Bennett’s approach to recording the history of women much more than I assumed I would have. Despite my praise for Bennett, I do prefer the approach Woolf takes to record the history of contemporary women.

In Anna of the Five Towns, Anna Tellwright is a shell of a character.  She is missing a lot of the characterization and background which theorists like Ian Watt believes is required for the novel. Most of what we know about Anna can be summed up in the title: she is Anna, and she is from the Five Towns.

The reader is allowed minimal access into the inner workings of Anna’s mind or actions.  The narrator’s voice does not allow for anything resembling a voice for Anna.  Our perspective as readers comes from a patriarchal narrator who tells us what we need to know about her, what she is thinking, and how she reacts.  Anna’s thoughts are not available or possibly even in existence. 

Near the end of Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, Woolf offers a call to arms for us to rescue Mrs. Brown from the clutches of people like Arnold Bennett.  She writes “Mrs. Brown must be rescued, expressed, and set in her high relations to the world before the train stopped and she disappeared for ever.” 

In Epic & Novel, Bakhtin writes about the epic hero, arguing that the epic hero “sees and knows in himself only the things that others see and know in him.” I am reminded of Anna when I read this.  Much like Anna, the epic hero is a means to an end. The only thoughts and reactions that we as readers know are Anna’s are those that the narrator allows us to view.  Bakhtin continues:

There is nothing to seek for in him, nothing to guess at, he can neither be exposed nor provoked; he is all of a piece, he has no shell, there is no nucleus within.  Furthermore, the epic hero lacks any idealogical initiative.  The epic world knows only a single and unified world view.

This should sound pretty familiar to readers of Anna Of The Five Towns.  Anna has no nucleus; she is but a pawn for the narrator to use in a story.  While Bennett’s novel does say some interesting things about social structures and how patriarchy continues to drag women down and force them into conforming roles, there is still a sense of incompleteness to the text. 

Perhaps Clarissa Dalloway is the one who has to rescue Anna and Mrs. Brown.  Unlike the tragic hero, “who, by his very nature, must perish” Clarissa is reborn and lives on to see another day.  For thirty years she lived the life of a shell, Mrs. Richard Dalloway, without a nucleus.

It is at that dinner party one June night in London where she ceases to be Mrs. Richard Dalloway and becomes Clarissa again.  “For there she was.” She is no longer a means to an end, the perfect hostess, “at the top of the stairs,” which Peter warned her she would eventually become, hiding in her room.  Clarissa defies being another shell, another character whose only worth is told through narration.  Her story is told through a multifaceted life filled with dreary conformity and near-death illness, but also with radical thoughts, literature, and lesbian kisses. 

Still, while certainly an advancement for the novel, there are problems with Mrs. Dalloway.  Much as the patriarchal narrator is the one who tells the reader what Anna is seeing, thinking, and doing at any given time, it is a male figure who is the one to describe Clarissa’s rebirth.  Peter is standing with Sally when he begins a monologue describing what he sees before him.  It fills him with “extraordinary excitement” and “ecstasy” and “terror.”  What does this; Clarissa does.

Why does Woolf have a male figure be the final judge of Clarissa’s rebirth?  How can the reader be completely sure then that she is “back” all the way?  Perhaps Woolf is noting that while the intertextual recording of women’s history is a significant step towards liberation, there are still patriarchal concerns pulling at the strings. Clarissa escapes the epic hero’s death because the novel will live to see another day.

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Alexis Soloski, theatre blogger at The Guardian, argues that novelists cannot write plays.

Virginia Woolf does not escape her criticism. To wit: “And I will freely commiserate with anyone forced to endure Virginia Woolf’s Freshwater; that Woolf never intended it for performance only confirms her great intelligence.”

Reviewers on this side of the pond, however, have praised Woolf’s only play. Cast your vote for or against Woolf’s play as entertainment.

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