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Where I live, we are lucky to have Nightlight Cinema, a small locally-owned theatre that shows independent films ignored by the big theater complexes that feature blockbusters.

Drawn in by a preview of A Ghost Story, I attended Nightlight’s last showing of the film on Thursday. I was glad I did. Why? Two reasons. It was intriguing. And it pays tribute to Virginia Woolf.

The film, which has received rave reviews, includes the first line of Woolf’s short story “A Haunted House” in the opening credits. It is shown for a few moments on a dark background.

Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting.

Filmmaker David Lowery’s use of the quote was a clue to what I didn’t know but soon learned — that Woolf is one of his favorite authors and her 1921 story helped inspire his film.

My investigation also uncovered the fact that when the ghost knocks several books off a shelf, the open book upon which the camera focuses includes important lines from “A Haunted House,” lines about treasure, buried treasure, “the light in the heart.”

Woolf as guiding light

Orlando is one of my favourite novels,” Lowery told the Irish Times. “I love her letters too. She’s my guiding light. The way she uses time fascinates me. Especially in To the Lighthouse and Orlando. They play with time in this dynamic and fun way. I love the idea of a character existing outside of time in the way that Orlando does.

“So that was certainly on my mind when I was writing the screenplay. And I wanted to pay homage to her in some small regard. And I wondered if she had ever written about ghosts. So I did a Google search. And found A Haunted House. I couldn’t believe that I had never read it before.

“The first sentence begins: ‘Whatever hour you woke there was a door shunting’. [sic] I couldn’t resist extending that to the film. I hope that it encourages somebody somewhere to pick up her work. Because I owe a lot to her.”

Playing with time as Woolf does

The film is a story of a house and its haunting, much like Woolf’s story. And it kept me thinking about its meaning and the message of the film long after I exited the theater, just as Woolf’s writing does long after I finish one of her novels or stories.

What’s more, Lowery plays with time in the film, much as Woolf does. As he noted in an interview with Huffington Post: “Virginia Woolf’s literature really transformed my own ideas about how to formally represent the passage of time and how time affects us. Specifically, the benchmarks are Mrs. DallowayTo the Lighthouse and Orlando, all of which have time as a central conceit.”

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Read here on the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew’s Library Art and Archives blog about the evolution of Virginia Woolf’s iconic short story Kew Gardens from its first edition with Vanessa Bell woodcut prints through the 1927 publication hand illustrated by Bell and on to RBG Kew’s new edition published in 2015 with contemporary illustrations by Livi Mills.

1927 cover

1927 edition of Kew Gardens held in RBG, Kew’s LAA collection

 

 

 

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We all know that Woolf’s works are notably challenging to read and teach because of her unconventional themes and plots, innovative structures, non-traditional narrative forms, historical and literary allusions, and avant-garde techniques.

approaches to woolfjpgAs a community college teacher of literature, one technique I have found to combat the challenges of teaching Woolf is to review, at the start of each semester, some of the pedagogical guides that help teachers of Woolf bring our students closer to the author, such as Approaches to Teaching Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (2009, edited by Eileen Barrett and Ruth O. Saxton).

But at the start of this fall semester I found myself in a new position in my department and my new office brought new duties, new expectations and new stresses. In my past visions, sitting in my office on my first day as a full-time instructor would feel warm, shiny and successful. I would be hopeful. I would be energetic. I would bring Woolf into every class.

Instead, on the first day of school I sat in the academic room of my own and stared at the photo of Woolf that I taped to my wall and then at the calendar filled with meetings, conferences and due dates. I didn’t feel shiny and hopeful; I felt overwhelmed and exhausted. I didn’t need a new teaching technique this semester. I needed a new inspirational technique.

kew gardensI chose to not review pedagogical guides on Woolf. Instead, I turned to my past students’ responses to “Kew Gardens”. My students’ positive reactions to Woolf reminded me of why we work so hard to bring her words to readers, to challenge our students with unconventional literature and to stimulate students’ imaginations; of why we sometimes dedicate a whole class to discussing beauty; of why we go home felling like failures when some don’t seem to “get it.”

Reading the reactions my community college students in Las Vegas had upon their first encounter with Woolf revived my passion for teaching this challenging author:

I think Woolf is a beautiful writer. Her work is filled with passion, love, beauty and the depth seems to draw in hungry intelligent minds. I appreciate any writer who challenges her readers to think outside of the mundane society around them and see the beauty in their surroundings. -Erica

Virginia Woolf’s writing is so unconventional and brave. It is admirable that she had the courage to break out of formal conventions. All the while, she managed to capture the assortment of everyday interactions in one short story. -Ian

I quite like Kew Gardens! The unconventional plot and intimate look into each character’s conversations not only makes for an interesting read, but made me ponder as to what one might hear if they were to listen in on any one of my personal conversations at any given time. Additionally, while reading Kew Garden’s I couldn’t help but imagine that the brief glimpses of narration must be something like what God hears as he checks in on our lives. –Sara

Where does your passion for Woolf come from?

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Here is some news via the Facebook page of the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain:

The RateMyWords Virginia Woolf Competition has awarded first prize and £200 to Gabriella Patanè for her story “The Pawmark on the Page,” a tribute to Virginia Woolf. Here is her opening line:

‘Perhaps it was the end of September 1930 that Virginia Woolf first saw the pawmark on the page.’

Here’s the original from Woolf’s “The Mark on the Wall”:

‘Perhaps it was the middle of January in the present that I first looked up and saw the mark on the wall.’

According to the society, Gabriella’s story combines ‘The Mark on the Wall’ with Flush, featuring Pinker theFlush spaniel, the real-life model for Flush, given to Virginia by Vita Sackville-West. Virginia and Leonard are included in the story, and even Nelly gets a namecheck.

Read the full story.

RateMyWords also made a generous donation to the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain.

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Screen Shot 2013-08-22 at 9.00.04 PMRun, don’t walk, to the nearest newsstand to purchase the September issue of Harper’s Bazaar, UK edition. The reason is Woolf. The magazine will include a reprint of her short story “Lappin and Lapinova,” which she wrote exclusively for the magazine in 1939.

To introduce it, Woolf biographer Alexandra Harris recalls her literary love affair with Woolf and describes the true story behind the short story.

The link to Harris’s recollection was shared on the VWoolf Listserv. Here is what readers had to say:

my enchantment was triggered by `Lappin and Lapinova’ when I was a senior in college. I was mesmerized by the fairy tale of a failed marriage and then ended up writing my final paper forand `Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown. And the rest is history.”

“I was in graduate school in Madison at the University of Wisconsin, working on  Renaissance (as we called it then) literature.  I had never even heard  of Virginia Woolf.  A woman to whom I was entirely attracted asked me if I read her and I tried not to answer. I went right to the library and got To the Lighthouse because the object of my crush had mentioned that title.  I was completely stunned and amazed and just kept reading. As soon as I had a little wiggle room as a professor, I began teaching her to other young people who didn’t know who she was. The relationship with the woman only lasted 7 years, but my connection to Virginia continues to grow as I continue to age.”

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Roy Johnson of Mantex Information Design wrote Blogging Woolf to say he has added a new section to his site that is devoted to individual tutorials and study guides on Virginia Woolf’s short stories.

Cover of "Monday or Tuesday (Hesperus Cla...

Cover of Monday or Tuesday (Hesperus Classics)

Here is what he has added so far:

Visit the Virginia Woolf at Mantex page. Woolf study guides on the site include:

Find more Bloomsbury Group materials, as well as biographical notes, study guides and literary criticism on twentieth century authors, including Woolf and other Bloomsbury Group members.

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Robert Stanley Martin offers a review of Virginia Woolf’s story “The Mark on the Wall” on his blog, Pol Culture. In it, he says Woolf builds on Wordsworth’s use of nature imagery, but that’s where the similarity ends.

Instead of looking outward, as Wordsworth does, Woolf looks inward, Martin argues. And he frames that difference in simple terms, as the difference in the world outlook of the Romantic versus the Modernist.

Verbivore, a blogger on Incurable Logophilia, says the story isn’t a story at all, but “a series of thoughts squeezed between the two tiny actions of a woman looking through her cigarette smoke at a blot on the wall” and a man announcing that he is going out to buy a newspaper. (You can also read Verbivore’s other Woolf posts: Woolf’s 1915 Diary and Initial thoughts on The Voyage Out.)

I, on the other hand, just finished reading Marguerite Duras’s The Ravishing of Lol Stein for a class I am teaching. As a result, I see a French connection with Woolf’s story.

The French connections

Let me explain. Duras’s 1964 novel has been called an anti-novel. That is similar to “The Mark on the Wall” being characterized as not “a story at all.” Lol Stein is a series of observations by an omniscient narrator squeezed between the two large actions of a young woman who is jilted by her fiancé and a man who observes her asleep in the rye field outside his hotel window.

But there is a major difference. Duras writes Lol Stein in a purposefully vague and low-energy, melancholic style. She never takes us inside Lol’s head. Woolf, on the other hand, rushes to reveal the thoughts of her main character as she contemplates the black mark on the wall in front of her.

All of which brings me to another French connection, one that has been flitting around the edges of my mind for years. I am talking about Alain Robbe-Grillet’s third and most famous novel Jealousy (1957).

In it, Robbe-Grillet presents five characters in a bungalow overlooking banana plantations. All is seen through the gaze of a faceless, voiceless narrator who counts and measures and minutely describes his surroundings. And in the midst of the story is a squashed centipede that has left a dark stain on a wall.

I just pulled out the yellowed paperback version I read for an undergrad class many years ago. After only a few moments of skimming, I hit on these lines:

  • “and the bare partition where a dark stain … stands out on the pale, dull, even paint” (62).
  • “On the light-colored paint of the partition opposite … a common Scutigera of average size . . . has appeared . . . the orientation of its body indicates a path which cuts across the panel diagonally: coming from the baseboard on the hallway side and heading toward the corner of the ceiling” (64).
  • “About a yard higher, the paint is marked with a dark shape, a tiny arc twisted into a question mark, blurred on one side” (65).
  • “On the bare wall, the traces of the squashed centipede are still perfectly visible. Nothing has been done to clean off the stain” (78).
  • “On the opposite wall, the centipede is there, in its tell-tale spot, right in the middle of the panel” (95).

And from “The Mark on the Wall”:

  • “The mark was a small round mark, black upon the white wall, about six or seven inches above the mantlepiece” (83).
  • “And yet the mark on the wall is not a hole at all. It may even be caused by some round black substance” (84)
  • “In certain lights that mark on the wall seems actually to project from the wall . . . I cannot be sure, but it seems to cast a perceptible shadow, suggesting that if I ran my finger down that strip of the wall it would, at a certain point, mount and descend a small tumulus” (86).
  • “I must jump up and see for myself what that mark on the wall really is — a nail, a rose-leaf, a crack in the wood?” (88)
  • “`All the same, I don’t see why we should have a snail on our wall.’ Ah, the mark on the wall! It was a snail” (89).

Marks on the wall by Woolf and Robbe-Grillet

Both Woolf and Robbe-Grillet use a spot on the wall as a visual marker to which they both return. However, Woolf shares the interior monologue of her narrator, while Robbe-Grillet does not.

Similarly, Woolf’s narrator uses the mark on the wall as an opportunity to conduct mental meanderings. Robbe-Grillet’s narrator uses the mark he observes to keep his mind anchored in objective reality. He does not wander into the subjective.

Robbe-Grillet, who pioneered the New Novel of the 20th century, said he was influenced by Woolf. That is clear when one studies what he believed about writing novels. Like Woolf, he decried the idea of using the novel to narrate a story or support a cause.

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