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Posts Tagged ‘contemporary fiction’

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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England’s Lane
Emma Woolf
Three Hares Publishing

A review by Maggie Humm

Emma Woolf’s debut novel England’s Lane is a love story with a difference. Starting with a bang – an ingenious twist of the Hollywood cliche of a half-dressed male lover exiting a torrid sex scene when his lover’s husband returns unexpectedly- here the heroine Lily is the departing lover. Immediately sympathetic as she reports to sister Cassie ‘I’m standing on the platform at Gerrard’s Cross wearing a man’s shirt tucked into skinny jeans,’ Lily’s hands closed around a packet of cigarettes in Harry’s shirt pocket. ‘Hallelujah’.

The set up will please writers and publishers. Lily, 24, works with Harry, 47, Strategic Director of Higher Education Press and ‘that first kiss was deadly serious at the Frankfurt Book Fair’. The progress of their increasingly tense love affair flows in and out of multiple perspectives: Pippa, Harry’s wife’s blog, Harry at his psychiatrist, and Lily, and constitutes the first half of the novel.

Woolf handles multiple characters with insouciance – Lily’s siblings Cassie, Olivia, James and their mother Celia, and Harry’s family.

As Harry’s guilt grows so does his drinking, jealous stalking of Lily, and eventual breakdown. To say more would give away the plot’s key moment. Woolf pulls off a writer’s toughest trick – switching mid-stream from one expected narrative – adultery- to another – Lily’s life as a single mother in England’s Lane, Belsize Park, north London. Contacting her long departed father David, Lily’s life begins afresh with his second wife’s family, particularly with Julian.

Beautifully constructed, England’s Lane rushes us through to an unexpected happy ending (for everyone except Harry).

How could we not like Lily – intelligent, thoughtful, beautifully slim, with her JBrand skinny jeans, casual cashmere sweaters and Hunter’s wellies? In my only attempt to wear JBrand jeans my knees wouldn’t bend, but fiction identifications can happen between unlikely readers and central characters. Product placements proliferate: Fortnum’s hampers, crocodile Smythson notebooks, St. Lucie’s monogrammed bath robes, but love stories need obligatory reader pleasures.

The novel is at its strongest when Lily begins to parallel Harry’s wife Pippa’s fears of being an older mother.

Emma Woolf is Leonard Woolf’s great-niece but I found traces of Virginia Woolf in Emma’s evocative scenes. Virginia Woolf is one of the twentieth century’s pre-eminent visual writers and England’s Lane carries some of Virginia’s illustrative quality. It would be an ideal Sunday evening TV serial. I simply could not put it down.

Maggie Humm is the author of Talland House and the editor of The Edinburgh Companion to Virginia Woolf and the Arts.

Emma Woolf with her father Cecil Woolf

 

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Lynnette Beers is a Woolf scholar and enthusiast who teaches British literature and creative writing at Santiago Canyon College in Orange, Calif. So it’s no surprise that Virginia Woolf would make an appearance in Lynnette’s first novel, Just Beyond the Shining River

Woolf introductions

The protagonist, Gemma Oldfield, discovers a cache of letters spanning six decades at the cottage of her recently-deceased grandmother in the East Midlands village of Moulton. The letters disclose family secrets with ever-widening ramifications across generations. The story balances between the past, as revealed by Gemma in the letters, and the present, as she grapples with crises and discoveries in her own life.

Epigraphs from Moments of Being and The Waves introduce each of three sections and help to establish themes of remembrance and change, resolve and renewal. Within the letters themselves, Mary, their author, tells Emily, Gemma’s grandmother, that “I find myself one of the lucky ones to have actually met Mrs. Woolf years ago.” In another Mary writes about an article she’s researching about suicides by drowning, specifically Mary Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf.

Sense of place

What I enjoyed most, though, was an ever-present sense of place. Lynnette brings London to life throughout the novel. As in Woolf’s own work, I was able to visualize so many scenes and sites, the Chelsea neighborhood of Gemma’s friend, their walks along the Embankment, back lanes of Soho, and more. But it was the story’s frequent surprises, its twists and turns—both Gemma’s and her grandmother’s—that kept me turning the pages.

Just Beyond the Shining River grew out of Lynnette’s MFA thesis, and involved extensive time and research in England. It has been selected as a finalist in the debut novel category for the “Goldie” awards of the Golden Crown Literary Society, which recognizes and promotes lesbian literature. Congratulations to Lynnette Beers!

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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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Mendocino FireElizabeth Tallent’s new story collection, Mendocino Fire, deserves the praise it’s received in reviews. The stories, all set along the northern California coast where she lives, are imaginative, innovative and compelling explorations into the human condition.

As it’s her first book of fiction in more than twenty years, I dove into her stories with glee and found a happy surprise in “Eros 101.” Opening with a faculty dinner, we learn that:

“The evening’s covert (and mistaken: you’ll see) premise is that the newly hired Woolf scholar will, from her angelic professional height and as homage to VW, scheme to advance all female futures….”

Written in an essay question format, the responses disclose the encounter of said Woolf scholar, Clio Mirsak, with tenure-seeking junior faculty member Nadia, whom she refers to as “the Beloved.” The attraction is immediate and consuming but not reciprocated. The story, with its challenging construction, is clever, funny and touching. Woolf pops in and out of the narrative both directly and covertly.

A phrase from Woolf: “’Reality’ … beside which nothing matters.” (Help—can someone tell me the source of this quote?)

Unwelcome thoughts of her mother interject themselves into Clio’s fantasy: “The memory stamps out several little wildfires of desire … Just try thinking back through this woman.”

In a recent interview Tallent cites Woolf as one of her influences and among the novelists she teaches in her fiction writing classes at Stanford, so it’s no surprise that she would evoke Woolf for her feminist scholar protagonist. It was a great addition (number 86) to my ongoing list of Woolf sightings in fiction and a marvelous story collection from start to finish.

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When new fiction disappoints me, as it often does, I go back to old favorites. My summer reading has consisted of rereading a few books I’ve threatened to give a second or third go. A couple of them surprised me with mentions of Virginia Woolf that I’d forgotten.

I started with Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, which I wrote about here with great Rules of Civilityenthusiasm a few years ago. It’s still one of my all-time favorite contemporary novels, and I appreciated, once again, his references to Woolf as a contemporary icon for his 1930s characters.

Mary Wesley is one of those late-blooming authors I return to for “it’s never too late” inspiration. Her first novel was published in 1983 when she was 70, and she followed with nine more over the next 14 years; two were adapted for BBC television movies. They’re witty and wise, sometimes just plain silly—perfect summer reading.

I started with her first novel, my favorite, Jumping the Queue, in which Matilda, tired of life, and Hugh, a hunted “Matricide,” are planning separate suicides in Devon waters when they accidentally meet. If you thought Gone Girl was special with its Woolf jumping the queuesuicide reference, Mary Wesley was there first.

Hugh: “I was going to fill my pockets with stones and go into the river like Virginia Woolf.”

Matilda: “I’d forgotten about Virginia Woolf and the stones. I must remember.”

I saw the film “Learning to Drive,” thrilled to see a personal essay adapted to film, even if it bore only slight resemblance to its source. I decided to reread Katha Pollitt’s real story, the title piece in her excellent 2007 collection, and the rest of the essays in it too. In “Memoir of a Shy Pornographer” (the lengths writers will go to in order to make a living from words!) she’s just out of college and takes a job as a freelance copy editor and proofreader of porn novels. She talks about the tedium of reading drawn-out sex scenes:

The Beeline writers had hit upon the very techniques pioneered by the giants of high modernism: stream of consciousness, internal monologue, indirect discourse, dream sequences, disruptions of time, and far too many adjectives. Sometimes, when I saw a single sentence throbbing and thrusting down a whole page and maybe the next one too, I would cheat a bit and just kind of sweep over it with my eyes. I did the same thing with The Sound and the Fury and The Waves.

 And so it goes….

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magnifying-glassFor her latest research project, Alice Lowe of San Diego, Calif., is searching for references to Virginia Woolf in contemporary fiction.

While she says she finds them “with surprising frequency” while doing her own reading, she asks common readers and scholars everywhere to contact her directly to share a favorite sighting or a new discovery.

You can e-mail the reference, with the specific citation if possible, to Lowe at  alicelowe88@yahoo.com.

Feel free to share your find with  Blogging Woolf at bloggingwoolf@yahoo.com as well, and we will post it on our Woolf sightings page.

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