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Archive for the ‘contemporary fiction’ Category

The Years is, of course, Virginia Woolf’s 1937 novel. The Years (Les Années) (2008) is also a memoir by French novelist Annie Ernaux. Intrigued—coincidence or connection?—and enticed by reviews, I read Ernaux’s memoir and was captivated.

She tells her story without using the pronoun “I,” yet her voice is clear and consistent throughout. And her recollections are my own too. Relating her life by means of “we” and “they,” the narrative stands as a collective memoir of a generation, hers and mine. I also found several links, both direct and implied, between Ernaux and Woolf.

I’m grateful to the editors of Bloom, who gave me an enthusiastic go-ahead on this project and provided it with a home. You can read my essay, “The Years by Annie Ernaux: Memoir of a Generation.”

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Well no, but they do hang out together in a novel, along with Sylvia Plath, Paul Auster, Margaret Atwood, W.B. Yeats, and others. It’s Lexicon by Max Barry. “A cerebral thriller,” according to one blurb; “dark and twisted and sweet and humane all at once,” says another.

It starts with two guys grabbing a man named Wil in an airport bathroom and putting a needle in his eye to extract memories and lethal words. And they have to hurry or Wolf will get him first.

On page 46—at last!—one of the guys, Tom, explains that they’re called poets because they’re good with words. They’re quick and smart and persuasive, and when their raw potential is detected, they’re recruited from all over and sent to a special school to learn how to manipulate minds with secret words. Only the best will graduate and be given their names. Wolf is a poet, Wolf who turns out to be Woolf. “Virginia Woolf is trying to kill me?” asks Wil. “Among others. But Woolf is the one to worry about,” replies Tom, who turns out to be Eliot.

It takes a long time to separate the good guys from the bad, and then you got it wrong, or maybe not, and you’re still not sure. Did Woolf kill everyone in an Australian town? Which side is Tom on? Why is Charlotte driving a transport truck straight at them? Where does Wil fit in–he’s not Shakespeare, not a poet. And why am I reading this bizarre novel?

If I wondered to what lengths I’d go to chase down Woolf sightings in contemporary fiction, now I know. If I wondered to what lengths I’d go to make it up to Paula for not posting as often as I should on Blogging Woolf, now I know. The violence was off-putting, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep reading; then I was hooked. People being murdered at close range on one page, thought-provoking gems about the power of language on another. And Woolf.

That’s what I never figured out—why Woolf? All the rest are actual poets or at least, like Bronte and Atwood, have written poetry as well as prose. Max Barry has a Q&A feature on his website, and I asked him about this, but I haven’t gotten a response—I’ll let you know if I do.

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At the 26th Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf, scholar Catherine Hollis Small Backs of Childrenmade the connection between Virginia Woolf and Lidia Yukavitch’s novel The Small Backs of Children in her paper, “Thinking Through Virginia Woolf: Woolf as Portal in Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children.”

Hollis was part of a fascinating panel titled “Woolf’s Legacy to Female Writers,” along with Eva Mendez, who spoke about Alice Munro, and Amy Muse, who spoke about Sarah Ruhl.

Hollis also wrote a review of Yuknavitch’s novel for Public Books in which she connects it to Woolf’s critique of gendered violence. “The Woolf Girl” appears in the December 15 issue of the online review site devoted to interdisciplinary discussion of books and the arts.

For more on the novel’s connections with Woolf, read Alice Lowe’s blog post, “Lidia Yuknavitch novel draws on Woolf.”

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Those of us on this side of the pond, without access to BBC programming, are wishing to the lighthouseand waiting—patiently or impatiently—for the as-yet unannounced release of “Life in Squares” to PBS.

While we wait, why not put the time to good use (and help it pass more quickly) by dipping into an enticing list from the outstanding Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon: “25 women to read before you die.”

“Reading Virginia Woolf is like stepping out onto a veranda, where the entire world unfurls before you in dazzling detail.” So begins an inviting introduction to Woolf and specifically to a recommendation of To the Lighthouse.

Woolf joins an eclectic array of companions, authors of both fiction and nonfiction, ranging from Mary Shelley and George Eliot to contemporary greats Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood, thought-provoking essayists Joan Didion and Rebecca Solnit, cartoonist Alison Bechdel and others.

We would all make some swaps—I’d make room for Mary McCarthy, Alice Munro, Penelope Lively—but there’s something for everyone here, both tried and true favorites and some new discoveries. I’ve been wanting to read Clarice Lispector for years—perhaps this is the sign I’ve been waiting for.

I’d rather be watching Life in Squares, but what can you do?

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Florence GordonI just read Brian Morton’s latest novel, Florence Gordon, and loved his protagonist, a 75-year-old New York curmudgeon and intellectual, an activist and celebrated feminist author. A Woolf sighting was almost a foregone conclusion.

Florence’s granddaughter, Emily, visits from Seattle and takes a summer literature class at Barnard: “It’s gonna be great. Jane Austen. George Eliot. Virginia Woolf. What could be bad about that?”

Emily assists Florence with research for her memoir and becomes fascinated with her grandmother’s accomplishments. “A few weeks ago she’d read an article that Florence had written about Virginia Woolf. Woolf had said that the task of a woman writer was to kill off the ‘Angel in the House’: the part of oneself that was trained to put the needs of others, in every situation, before one’s own.” Emily later has occasion to reflect on this in a difficult situation of her own and in a personal challenge to her grandmother: “If a woman needs help but she doesn’t ask for it, isn’t she just playing the part of the Angel in the House?”

Morton has invoked Woolf in earlier novels. She appears to have a prominent place in his literary pantheon, as touchstones for his characters. In Starting Out in the Evening, grad student Heather Wolfe (!) wants to write her thesis on fictional author Leonard Schiller. Her advisor ranks Schiller as seventh-rate. “In Bonner’s scale of literary merit, Shakespeare and Tolstoy were first-rate; Dostoevsky and George Eliot and Proust were second-rate; Melville was third-rate; Henry James fourth-rate; Virginia Woolf fifth-rate. To be called seventh-rate was high praise.”

Heather is disappointed to find Schiller’s later work stale and is prepared to dismiss it to his age until she considers: “Certain writers managed to stay fresh, even in old age. Yeats and George Eliot she felt got better, stronger. “D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf may not have gotten better, but they continued to experiment restlessly as long as they lived.”

Virginia Woolf in old age? The implications are frightening, but I guess 59 is old to a 24-year-old grad student…..

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The Things They CarriedWho’d have figured? Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” is a classic, the title story in a collection of linked pieces that I’ve long heard is a “must read” for writers. So it caught my attention when I noticed it at the library recently, and I plucked it off the shelf. Finally, I thought.

Virginia Woolf wasn’t on my mind when I opened the book—for obvious reasons, I’d say—but there she was, on the first page:

First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha…. More than anything, he wanted Martha to love him as he loved her, but the letters were mostly chatty, elusive on the matter of love. She was a virgin, he was almost sure. She was an English major at Mount Sebastian, and she wrote beautifully about her professors and roommates and midterm exams, about her respect for Chaucer and her great affection for Virginia Woolf.

The surprising Woolf sighting made me think about Septimus Smith and his wartime experiences, the horrors that haunted him for the rest of his brief life. Different war, same horrors—it never ends. I read a few more stories—they’re compelling and well written—but soon I’d had enough and returned the book to the library.

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Two years ago I wrote here about Meg Wolitzer’s Woolf-citing in The Uncoupling. To my surprise and delight, Meg commented on the post, saying that Woolf would appear in her next novel too.

The InterestingsThat next novel is now out to fantastic reviews, and no wonder. The Interestings is interesting; it’s also riveting and thought-provoking. Meg had me on the first page when she said of her wonderfully-flawed protagonist, Jules: “Irony was new to her and tasted oddly good, like a previously unavailable summer fruit.”

I’ve always enjoyed Meg’s novels for a lighter touch, lots of wit and whimsy. This one’s bigger and deeper. She introduces six teenagers who meet at an artsy summer camp in New England and follows them into their 50s, through ups and downs, sickness and health, fame and fortune, failure and envy. There’s wit and whimsy and a whole lot more—irony isn’t new to Meg Wolitzer; she’s a master at it.

Through it all—the mainstay of the book—is the deep friendship between Jules and Ash, and Woolf shows up in a scene between them:

 Once, looking through a women’s magazine together, they saw an article about a legendary sex toy emporium in New York for women called Eve’s Garden. It wasn’t that their marriages weren’t sexually satisfying to them—both of them had confided that they were—but they got into a discussion about how maybe it was a good idea to have “a vibrator of one’s own, to paraphrase the late, great Virginia Woolf,” Jules said. Then, to amuse Ash, she went off on a Woolf sex riff, saying, suggestively, “Are those rocks in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”

The success of The Interestings is well-deserved. Meg, if you’re reading this, thanks for a terrific reading experience.

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