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Archive for the ‘Virginia Woolf’ Category

In 2009 I posted a review of Stephanie Barron’s The White Garden, and a year later about discovering Virginia Woolf’s socks (on Julian Bell) in bed with infamous spy Anthony Blunt. In exploring spy connections, I’d somehow I’d overlooked—until now—the 1983 novel by Ellen Hawkes and Peter Manso, The Shadow of the Moth: A Novel of Espionage with Virginia Woolf.

It’s 1917, mid-World War I, and Woolf’s curiosity is aroused by the report of a young Belgian woman’s suicide. One thing leads to another, as Woolf and an American journalist uncover a clandestine attempt to pass English military secrets to the Germans. Spies and double agents, aristocrats and industrial magnates, MI5 and Scotland yard—all the greedy, power-hungry men; even Maynard Keynes and Clive Bell; even Leonard Woolf by his overprotectiveness of Virginia.

At the end she realizes that “The war might alter everyone’s values but her personal fight had to be on her own terms. She wouldn’t wage it by adopting men’s ways.” Back at work on her novel in progress, what would become Night and Day, she creates the character of Mary Datchet, a spirited, determined, independent woman, to balance the conventional Katharine Hilbery.

I enjoyed this portrait of a spirited, determined, and independent Virginia, but most striking was the authors’ epilogue:

“In 1937, with war once again threatening Europe, Virginia Woolf wrote Three Guineas, her indictment of masculine aggression, German fascism and incipient totalitarianism at home. Four years later, in 1941, her body was found in the river Ouse behind Monk’s House, her home in Sussex. To this day, her death is commonly believed to have been a suicide.”

Here, as in The White Garden, is the supposition that there were other possibilities. In an email exchange, I asked Stephanie Barron (real name Francine Mathews) how she came to question the cause of Woolf’s death. She said her research uncovered what for her were surprises: Leonard announcing Virginia’s death the day after she disappeared; the lack of a full-blown police investigation; Leonard’s identification of her remains alone; the swiftness of cremation; his burial of the ashes by himself.

“It all seemed highly irregular, almost furtive. It smacked of a cover-up. Probably that was due to the stigma of mental illness and suicide. But if one chooses to write speculative fiction, it’s rife with possibilities.”

Woolf scholars have accepted the seemingly incontrovertible evidence of her suicide. Still—and not to succumb to the current fetish for conspiracy theories—it’s hard not to wonder….

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In fiction and in verse, Virginia Woolf continues to be recognized, referenced, and revered. How is it that the mention of her name or a subtle allusion to her work conjures instant identification and understanding, not just by writers or scholars, but by readers of all kinds. Here are two recent sightings.

Weather sighting

In Jenny Offill’s latest novel, Weather, she conveys her ideas and story in fragments that merge into a cohesive whole. Here’s her narrator, Lizzie, a university librarian:

“I do have one bookish superstition about my birthday. I like to see what Virginia Woolf said about an age in her diaries before I reach it. Usually it’s inspiring.”

She then quotes from Volume 3 of Woolf’s Diary about life being “if anything, quicker, keener at 44 than 24….”

Zooming in on poetry

A couple of weeks ago I had the good fortune to participate in a Zoom workshop with poet and essayist Natasha Sajé, after which I bought Vivarium, her poetic abecedary teeming with word play.

An entry for the letter “B” is the witty and wise “Beauty Secrets, Revealed by the Queen in Snow White.” The advice includes “Pace yourself for 35-55” and “Brace yourself for 55-85,” and this:

“Embrace a stash and a place, Virginia wrote, 80 years ago.”

Happy reading to all who are hunkered down in this time of sheltering at home.

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Congratulations to Kristin Czarnecki, current president of the International Virginia Woolf Society, on the publication of her memoir—The First Kristin: The Story of a Naming. While the book focuses on Kristin’s unique story, the fact that Virginia Woolf is an important part of Kristin’s life makes Woolf germane to her personal narrative as well.

Her parents named their firstborn Kristin for the fictional Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. The child died tragically at age three. Eight years later, after having another daughter and a son, they had a daughter whom they named Kristin.

Her mother told her they loved the name: “We didn’t name you after her.” But the fact of it and the need to understand and adapt to this unusual circumstance have weighed heavily on Kristin throughout her life.

Of bonds and memories

The word necronym refers to a name shared with a dead sibling. A not uncommon occurrence during times of high infant mortality, it’s unusual now, and some believe the second bearer of the name might be haunted by it. Kristin establishes her groundwork early: “Have I been haunted? By the thought of my parents’ grief, yes. By having the name, no.” She adds that she and the first Kristin have shared “a very close conspiracy,” citing Virginia Woolf’s description of her bond with her sister Vanessa.

Kristin explores her motivations and actions and how they relate to the first Kristin. Her speculations—“Who can pinpoint why we are the way we are. And who’s to say our memories bear any relation to the way things actually were?”—recall Woolf in “A Sketch of the Past” when she questions the reliability and volatility of memory.

Woolf writes in “Sketch” of her childhood days at St. Ives: “If life has a base that it stands upon; if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills—then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory.” Kristin in turn recalls happy childhood summers in Rockport, Massachusetts: “In the impact upon us of summers by the sea, Virginia Woolf and I are kindred spirits.”

Laying things to rest

We read memoirs to learn about others’ lives and to reflect on our own. Two things impressed me from reading this book. One, at a personal level, the question of how I or anyone would have felt in Kristin’s circumstances. The other is my interest in the construction of memoirs.

Conjuring Woolf’s “I now and I then” Kristin has managed to draw from two aspects of herself, the child who grew up under this considerable weight and the curious scholar who explores every nuance. She distances herself when she consults and absorbs the relevant literature, piecing it into the fabric of the story.

Just as Woolf claimed to have laid her parents to rest after writing To the Lighthouse, so Kristin considers her memoir in a similar way. It was something she needed to do, and the process opened up valuable channels of communication with her parents and siblings. She’ll never forget the first Kristin, but now, perhaps, she can move on.

Where to order it

Kristin’s memoir is available from Main Street Rag.

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The New York Times reports that about half the world is in lockdown, due to COVID-19. So is now the time to read Proust? Some say yes. Others say no.

Drew Shannon’s Modern Library set of Proust

One naysayer is Suzanne Moore of The Guardian. She writes, “I never managed Proust in pre-virus days, so don’t saddle me with him now, for God’s sake.”

Others say yes. In fact, a Facebook group formed by Elisa Kay Sparks and dubbed “The Woolf Pack Reads Proust” has taken on Proust as a pandemic reading project. It has 29 members from around the globe.

Woolf on Proust

Woolf herself read Proust. Here’s what she had to say about him:

Last night I started on Vol 2 [Jeunes Filles en Fleurs] of him (the novel) and propose to sink myself in it all day. [. . . ] But Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out the sentence. Oh if I could write like that! I cry. And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation and intensification that he procures?theres something sexual in it?that I feel I can write like that, and seize my pen and then I can’t write like that. Scarcely anyone so stimulates the nerves of language in me: it becomes an obsession. But I must return to Swann” – Letter to Roger Fry, 6 May 1922 (Letters II 525)

My great adventure is really Proust. Well–what remains to be written after that? I’m only in the first volume, and there are, I suppose, faults to be found, but I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes. How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped–and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance?  One has to put the book down and gasp. The pleasure becomes physical–like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined. Far otherwise is it with Ulysses. – Letter to Roger Fry, 3 October 1922 (Letters II 565-6)

Resources for reading Proust

Founding member Benjamin Hagen, who is also heading up the 30th Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf: Profession and Performance, which has been postponed until 2021, has added a number of resources to the group page.

They include:

Hagen, assistant professor of 20th-Century British and Anglophone literature at the University of South Dakota, also posted this drawing and comment to the group page on April 6. He is also blogging about his experience.

Me [Ben Hagen] trying (with not too much success) to map out connections between topics / themes from last week’s reading.

Focusing — or not — on Proust

Hagen has made much more progress than I have, bless him. I must confess that the farthest I have gotten with reading Proust is locating the first volume on my bookshelf and dropping it on my desk. There it sits, unopened and unread.

The inability to focus on the task at hand is common at this time, no matter what we are doing. Here’s a quote shared to the group Facebook page by Gill Lowe, who said of her own reading of Proust: “I started. But I just can’t concentrate…”.

Proust on illness

It is illness that makes us recognise that we do not live in isolation but are chained to a being from a different realm, worlds apart from us and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body. – The Guermantes Way by Marcel Proust

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If you’re not following and reading the posts on the Italian Virginia Woolf Society Facebook page during this time of staying at home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, you are missing out. I know I was.

Virginia Woolf reading at home

I had let many intriguing posts from friend Elisa Bolchi — and former society president — slip through my Facebook feed. So I finally clicked over to her page and on to the Italian Society’s page. There I found some comfort and some inspiration from those whose country is one of the hardest hit during the current pandemic.

Inspiration from Italy

On its page, the society, formed in 2017, has posted inspirational messages from its president, Nadia Fusini, along with those from its founding partners, and another from beloved bookseller Raffaella Musicò.

It has also shared a video of Federica Leuci reading aloud letters from Woolf to various friends like Vita Sackville-West and Clive Bell.

In addition, the society has issued a photo challenge we can meet while staying at home and reading Woolf.

The #Woolfincasa #Woolfathome photo challenge

The challenge posted on Facebook reads: “At this time the right thing to do is stay in the house. What better opportunity to (re)-read a Virginia Woolf book? Take a picture of yourself reading a Woolf book on the couch, the chair, table, bed… wherever you want, as long as you’re home! Then post it and tag us and add the hashtag #Woolfincasa and #Woolfathome, we’ll create the album “The Rooms of Woolf” with all your photos. Good morning 💜 #iorestoacasa #sharingbeauty

A number of followers posted photos of themselves reading Woolf.  A few are shown in the screenshot below of the Italian Virginia Woolf Society’s Facebook page. You might want to post yours on social media as well.

I took mine today when I just happened to be wearing the “Italia” sweatshirt I bought from a street vendor in Rome five years ago. Elisa Bolchi was kind enough to post it for me.

#Woolfincasa and #Woolfathome with Blogging Woolf in Ohio

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