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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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On Pol Culture, Robert Stanley Martin reviews “Kew Gardens,” a Virginia Woolf short story published in the volume Monday or Tuesday: Eight Stories.

In his review, Martin says Woolf’s story, originally published privately in 1919, “may be the greatest of her short stories.” Read his review.

You can read his other posts discussing Woolf’s writings at the links below:

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mrs dalloway's partyIf you live in the Bay Area, you can go to Mrs. Dalloway’s party. It’s an evening of short stories written by Virginia Woolf and performed by an ensemble of actors at St. Mary’s College of California.

According to the school’s Web site, “Wry observations and elegant prose come to life onstage through some of Woolf’s most amusing characters-ordinary women and men whose anxious thoughts and social predicaments make this party a night to remember.”

The production is directed by guest artist Delia MacDougall, a founding member of Word for Word Performing Arts Company in San Francisco.

Performances are scheduled on:

  • Thursday, Nov. 12, 8 p.m.
  • Friday, Nov. 13, 8 p.m.
  • Saturday, Nov. 14, 8 p.m.
  • Friday, Nov. 20, 8 p.m.
  • Saturday, Nov. 21, 8 p.m.
  • Sunday, Nov.15 & 22, at 2 p.m.

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London Sign PostWe have all speculated about what Virginia Woolf would do if she were alive today.

I once wondered whether she would surf if she still summered at St. Ives.

Now I am wondering whether she would wear the designs of Nicole Farhi, who is said to be a favorite of the “British intelligentsia,” a group to which Woolf definitely belonged.

An article in the Telegraph thinks so. And since it notes that French fashion designer Farhi “creates clothing that women who don’t want to think about fashion don’t have to think about,” I may agree.

After all, Woolf  felt quite insecure about her own sense of style. She ascribes this sort of insecurity to the character of Mabel in the short story, “The New Dress.” Woolf writes, “of course, she [Mabel] could not be fashionable. It was absurd to pretend it even — fashion meant cut, meant style, meant thirty guineas at least.”

If Woolf felt the same way about herself, she may have been eager to wear one of Farhi’s designs, even though it would set her back more than thirty guineas.

This is my personal Nicole Farhi fashion pick for Virginia. It seems the perfect outfit for her to wear while exploring the London scene on a chilly December day.

Check out Farhi’s fall fashions and see which of them you think Virginia would wear. Then take the poll.

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