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Archive for the ‘Woolf in Contemporary Fiction’ Category

The two Lilys have been on my mind for a while, and after rereading To the Lighthouse and House of Mirth, I’ve begun a trail of comparisons and contrasts to which I plan to add some personal reflections and who knows what else for a future essay.

Virginia Woolf reviewed House of Mirth and regarded Lily Bart with sympathy, as having “many of the faults of her surroundings” but also “a capacity for better things which is never to be exercised.” I also found a paper by a Wharton scholar that compares Lily Bart and Clarissa Dalloway, but I don’t think the Lilys have been broached together.

Just to be sure, I googled and found just one reference, to a passage that unites them in a 1990 novel by Roberta Silman, Beginning the World Again: A Novel of Los Alamos. I got the book right away, of course, and soon found myself embroiled in a well-researched account, based on actual events and real as well as fictional characters, of the secret mission to build the atomic bomb in the New Mexico hills during World War II.                

The protagonist is Lily Failka, the wife of a nuclear physicist on the team. This is her story about her time there, her marriage, the families, the project, the secrecy. Before accompanying her new husband to Los Alamos, Lily had been a graduate student in literature and was writing a thesis on Melville. Classic novels come up frequently in her thinking and in analogies she makes. When she has an affair with one of the other scientists, she introduces him to literature. Years later, looking back:

There were often months, then years when I scarcely thought about Jacob, and when I did, I was so detached that I was another person, another Lily—“Lily Bart, Lily Briscoe, Joyce’s Lily in ‘The Dead,’ Lily of the Field?” I could hear Jacob’s low voice asking me. All those Lilys I had told him about. No, none of those, but someone still within me whom I scarcely knew anymore.

I sought out and had an email exchange with Roberta Silman, who proudly claims Grace Paley as her mentor and friend. Her context for the reference was Lily Failka’s introducing her physicist lover to her favorite literature, but Roberta noted characteristics that perhaps all the Lilys share, providing food for thought for my own project. Roberta also took pleasure in casting her Lily in the company of the memorable Lily Bart and Lily Briscoe.

 

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Ali Smith gave a lecture—“Getting Virginia Woolf’s Goat”—at London’s National Portrait Gallery inpublic-library 2014. That also was the year her remarkable novel, How to Be Both, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and acclaimed by a reviewer: “One might reasonably argue that Ali Smith is among Virginia Woolf’s most gifted inheritors.”

Seeing Woolfian influences in the work of the contemporary post-modernist is no surprise, then; nor are Woolf references in Smith’s recent story collection, Public Library. In “The ex-wife,” the narrator is writing to her former partner after a break-up, accusing her of infidelity, or at least inattention, because of her involvement with Katherine Mansfield, the ex-wife in question.

That’s about all I can say about this marvelously convoluted story. While explicating her litany of objections, the narrator brings up Mansfield’s “friend and rival Virginia Woolf” who was, at the time, writing a book “about a plane that all the people in London look up and see…,” adding, “I have a sense that Virginia Woolf always thought your ex-wife a bit flighty.”

Then there’s “The definite article,” a story about Regents Park that begins: “I stepped out of the city and into the park. It was as simple as that.” The narrator’s visions invoke flora and fauna, Shakespeare and Dickens, the Brownings and the Shelleys, Elizabeth Bowen and Sylvia Plath, to name just a handful, “and Virginia Woolf herself, “howling or furious or sad, doesn’t matter which, walking and walking by the flower-beds till it cheers her up, leaves her happily making up phrases.”

Ali Smith makes up some pretty good phrases herself.

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Fire and Stone by Priscilla Long is an outstanding collection of personal essays encompassingfire-stone Priscilla’s life and family, her reflections on being an activist in Boston in the sixties, forays into science, literary influences, and more. Disclosure: In addition to being a remarkable writer, Priscilla is a good friend and my writing mentor.

I enjoyed reading in her essay “Throwing Stones” about how she “entered into the shadowy realm of American rebellion, into the sixties of pickets and protests and street marches and flag burnings … and danced all night and marched against the war and read Gramsci and Marx and Simone de Beauvoir and Virginia Woolf….”

But I was surprised when I found references to Mrs. Dalloway in two more essays in the same section: “The Musician” and “Dressing.” I knew Priscilla admired Woolf’s work, but I didn’t think she’d been a significant influence. So I asked her, “What’s with this?” She replied that she had written the essays at different times, had assembled the collection in a fitting order, but hadn’t realized there were Woolf references in three closely-sequenced essays.

When I delved into Woolf references in contemporary fiction* several years ago, I noted how they often were positioned to identify a time or a milieu in young women’s lives. They do that in Priscilla’s essays, but these aren’t fiction—Priscilla and her feminist cohort were reading A Room of One’s Own; young women were pondering the life and times of Clarissa Dalloway. I still find fictional references, and I read a number of personal essays every week. I frequently come across writers’ tributes to Woolf’s influence, or references to her novels or characters. Posters still hang in dorm rooms; Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse are on many a beside table of many a woman, young and old, in fiction and in life.

*Editor’s Note: Alice Lowe’s monograph, Beyond the Icon: Virginia Woolf in Contemporary Fiction, is available from Cecil Woolf Publishers. You can also find more posts about Woolf in contemporary fiction.

 

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I don’t read a lot of poetry, but I am partial to the work of Anne Carson and Mary Oliver (and oftencoverstory-blitt-significant-others-847x1200-1477066235 confuse the two). It’s no surprise that both have referenced Virginia Woolf in their poems, no doubt recognizing her as the poet she was even though she never wrote a line of verse as such.

Anne Carson has written very little prose, so her story in this week’s (Oct. 31) New Yorker is a lovely gift. “Back the Way You Went” is exquisite, a tiny gem, as it questions so many aspects of existence in a daughter’s reflections on her mother.

The narrator comments on a dishtowel she’s given her mother-in-law, “printed with cartoon cameos of Bloomsbury celebrities.” She’s thinking about her flawed communication with her own mother, recently deceased, their fear of breaking the silence that’s built up between them. She asks herself, “Are other families like this? I know I’m setting the bar high, but I cannot imagine it was ever the wrong time to talk in, say, Bloomsbury.” And yet Woolf may have seen it otherwise; Carson’s narrator goes on to recall a passage from “A Sketch of the Past”:

“We are sealed vessels afloat upon what is convenient to call reality; at some moments, without a reason, without an effort, the sealing matter cracks; in floods reality….”

She asks, “Was it Virginia Woolf who taught us to adore these floods of reality, without which we merely navigate a sea of convenience with other people?”

Even without Woolf, the story is stunning; with her it’s even more so, and, as always seems to be the case when Woolf is referenced in fiction, so appropriate, leading this Woolfian to think, “Well, yes, of course.”

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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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The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch was accurately described in one review as disturbing and dazzling. The former made me almost close the book a number of Small Backs of Childrentimes, but the latter kept me reading. An early and provocative Woolf sighting kept me going too.

A photographer in war-torn Eastern Europe stuns the world with an image of a girl fleeing an explosion that kills her family and destroys her home. The novel’s aura of brutality isn’t just in the war, however; it’s in the response to the photo in the lives of the photographer and her friends in the U.S.

Yuknavitch tells her story through different points of view, the “voices,” all unnamed. The Writer begins her monologue:

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. What a crock. Virginia, fuck you, old girl, old dead girl.”

She proceeds: “I am not Virginia Woolf. Do you know how many women can’t afford the room, or have no help, or scratch away at things in bars, uses, closets? I prefer a different line of yours, anyway: Arrange whatever pieces come your way. Or this: Someone has to die in order that the rest of us should value life more.”

Woolf’s words are cited again by the photographer”: “Remember what Virginia Woolf said: Give back the awards, should you be cleverly tricked into believing they mean something. Do not forget that the door you are being ushered through has a false reality on the other side. Do not forget that the door is opening only on someone else’s terms, someone else’s definition of open.”

I see echoes of Woolf as well in the reflections of Yuknavitch’s voices. “The Girl,” around whom the novel revolves, muses on an unremarkable image that comes to mind: “It is ordinary because that’s how memory replayed over and over again works—each act of remembering deteriorating the original and creating a memorized copy.”

And when the writer asks herself: “What is the story of a self? What is a chronology? The history of a life?” I flash on Woolf, while in the midst of writing Roger Fry and “A Sketch of the Past,” asking in a letter to Vita Sackville-West, “How does one write a Biography? How can one deal with facts? And what is a life?”

 

 

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What would happen if you took the 37,971 words that make up Woolf’s feminist polemic A Room of One’s Own (1929) and rearranged them into a work of fiction? And what would happen if that text was then turned into a work of visual art?

Kabe Wilson rearranged Woolf’s words into his novella titled Olivia N’Gowfri – Of One Woman or So. Set 80 years after the publication of Woolf’s essay, it tells the story of a young woman’s radical challenge to literary conservatism in the elitist environment of the University of Cambridge, according to The Guardian.

His work has now been turned into a piece of art, a 4 by 13-ft. sheet of paper displaying the novella’s 145 pages, with each word cut out, individually, from a copy of A Room of One’s Own, and reformed to duplicate the novella.

“[T]he real fun” of the project “was in multi-layered wordplay and finding connections between words – linking different meanings across separate historical periods,” Wilson told The Guardian.

Listen to an interview with the author, who spent four years on the project in which he used computer word lists to make sure he used every word in the original text to tell a new story.

And listen to the author’s explanation of the novella and its concept:

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