When new fiction disappoints me, as it often does, I go back to old favorites. My summer reading has consisted of rereading a few books I’ve threatened to give a second or third go. A couple of them surprised me with mentions of Virginia Woolf that I’d forgotten.
I started with Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, which I wrote about here with great enthusiasm a few years ago. It’s still one of my all-time favorite contemporary novels, and I appreciated, once again, his references to Woolf as a contemporary icon for his 1930s characters.
Mary Wesley is one of those late-blooming authors I return to for “it’s never too late” inspiration. Her first novel was published in 1983 when she was 70, and she followed with nine more over the next 14 years; two were adapted for BBC television movies. They’re witty and wise, sometimes just plain silly—perfect summer reading.
I started with her first novel, my favorite, Jumping the Queue, in which Matilda, tired of life, and Hugh, a hunted “Matricide,” are planning separate suicides in Devon waters when they accidentally meet. If you thought Gone Girl was special with its Woolf suicide reference, Mary Wesley was there first.
Hugh: “I was going to fill my pockets with stones and go into the river like Virginia Woolf.”
Matilda: “I’d forgotten about Virginia Woolf and the stones. I must remember.”
I saw the film “Learning to Drive,” thrilled to see a personal essay adapted to film, even if it bore only slight resemblance to its source. I decided to reread Katha Pollitt’s real story, the title piece in her excellent 2007 collection, and the rest of the essays in it too. In “Memoir of a Shy Pornographer” (the lengths writers will go to in order to make a living from words!) she’s just out of college and takes a job as a freelance copy editor and proofreader of porn novels. She talks about the tedium of reading drawn-out sex scenes:
The Beeline writers had hit upon the very techniques pioneered by the giants of high modernism: stream of consciousness, internal monologue, indirect discourse, dream sequences, disruptions of time, and far too many adjectives. Sometimes, when I saw a single sentence throbbing and thrusting down a whole page and maybe the next one too, I would cheat a bit and just kind of sweep over it with my eyes. I did the same thing with The Sound and the Fury and The Waves.
And so it goes….