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Posts Tagged ‘essays’

Ane Thon Knutsen in her home printshop

Editor’s Note: Today marks the 79th anniversary of Virginia Woolf’s death, and as this post shows, she and her work continue to inspire artists and writers across the globe.

Virginia Woolf’s numerous experiences with illness led her to write the essay On Being Ill, published in 1930 by the Hogarth Press. Inspired by this work and the current coronavirus, Norwegian typesetter Ane Thon Knutsen, who has two projects focused on Woolf under her belt — A Printing Press of One’s Own and The Mark on the Wall — has now begun a third.

Woolf’s exploration of the consequences of illness

“Due to Covid-19 I have cast my eyes upon On Being Ill,” Knutsen explained. “This felt like something to get me through.

“The essay is about the consequence of illness; loneliness, isolation and vulnerability. But when we are forced to stop and slow down, we may notice the beauty in the small details of the world around us, and that our everyday, ordinary life is what we miss the most,” she said.

Working from home under quarantine in a printshop of her own

Ane Thon Knutsen’s letterpress

Knutsen, mother of a four-year-old, says her project allows her to combine motherhood with work under Norway’s self-imposed quarantine. The country made the move, which is in place at least until Easter, to stop the rapid spread of the coronavirus.

“I like being alone working, and I am blessed with a workshop at home. So I contemplated a Quarantine project that works with the circumstances,” she said.

Her project: using her printing press to print one sentence on one sheet of paper every day from On Being Ill “until we can go back to normal. I hope I will not make it through, as we’re counting about 140 sentences, and the paper is restricted to leftovers from my stock,” Knutsen explained.

Published on Instagram

Five days ago, she began posting a photo of each page on her Instagram account, @anethonknutsen. As of today, she is on sentence number six. The project, she says, “will present a very slow reading of the story.

“In the end (when that will be, who knows), I will make a box with all the sheets — like a calendar of sorts. Hopefully I will exhibit it as a wall piece in the future,” she said.

The project is set in 10-point Goudy Old Style. For the ink, Knutsen has “mixed a rich gray ink… inspired by the dust jacket by Vanessa Bell, and the colour of the lead type. It softens the appearance of the words on the page,” she explained on Instagram.

She hopes to print 20 copies, in a 208 mm x 135 mm format, the same as Woolf’s 1930 edition.

Sentence two from Virginia Woolf’s “On Being Ill”

Sentence one from Virginia Woolf’s “On Being Ill”

A tray filled with type set for Ane Thon Knutsen’s letterpress

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“Shakespeare’s Sisters” is an essay in Rachel Cusk’s 2019 collection, Coventry (and the first one I turned to, for obvious reasons). She begins by asking, “Can we, in the twenty-first century, identify something that could be called ‘women’s writing’?”

In that context she discusses The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. “Between them,” she says, “they shaped the discourse of twentieth-century women’s writing,”

War vs. feelings

Eighty years later, as Cusk sees it, “a book about war is still judged more important than a book about ‘the feelings of women.’ Most significantly, when a woman writes a book about war she is lauded: she has eschewed the vast unlit chamber and the serpentine caves; there is the sense that she has made proper use of her room and her money, her new rights of property.

The woman writer who confines herself to her female ‘reality’ is by the same token often criticized. She appears to have squandered her room, her money.”

Just another women’s novel

Men have always written about the female experience–Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina come immediately to mind, as well as a number of novels by contemporary authors. I’ve seen some of these works praised to the skies, touted as the latest incarnation of the great American novel. Yet, still, too frequently, the women creating these novels are dismissed as writing just another woman’s novel.

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I often begin an essay without any thought of Virginia Woolf. I have an idea I want to explore—from personal experience, perhaps, a time or episode or person in my life, or something that’s caught my attention. I do research, both online and in the library, before I start writing, and map out my thoughts, how I want to proceed, what I want to say.

And then, out of the blue, she pops up. Threads I’m pursuing—about punctuation, baseball, and food, to name a few—evoke some connection to Woolf. I recall a passage, an incident, something from her life or work that relates to what I’m writing. Now it’s practically second nature to stop and think, what has Woolf said about this?

Two essays published last year—one about science, the other about maps and flanerie—wouldn’t have been complete without recourse to Woolf’s wit and wisdom:

More of my essays, including a trilogy about my Woolf pilgrimage, are on my blog.

 

 

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Virginia Woolf’s entreaties in A Room of One’s Own were directed to women, urging them to write. To write all kinds of books, to write whatever they wish. She said: “When I ask you to write more books I am urging you to do what will be for your good and for the good of the world at large.”

The authors of two recent essay collections are living Woolf’s legacy. Jericho Parms and Durga Chew-Bose acknowledge the footprints that precede them, and their successful debuts are a gift to today’s readers.

I was struck repeatedly in Jericho Parms’s collection, Lost Wax, by word constructions and rhythms that brought Woolf to mind, especially in her contemplations of memory and the self. It was no surprise to read in an interview: “I first fell in love with the essay and the unending possibility of the form from reading the works of Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, James Baldwin, and Virginia Woolf.” She mentions Moments of Being as a major influence, and it’s evident in reflections about her own life.

The final essay in Lost Wax is “Immortal Wound,” in which Parms ponders a dead luna moth and relates it to human mortality, to the recognition that one can expire “in a moment unobserved, as if it never came to pass.” Woolf had witnessed her moth’s death, and Parms says, “I envied Woolf her day moth zigzagging against a windowpane.”

The title of Durga Chew-Bose’s book of essays, Too Much and Not the Mood, comes from Woolf’s diary entry of April 11, 1931. Woolf is bogged down in making corrections to a number of her articles. She’s working with a faulty pen, for starters, “And not much to say, or rather too much & not the mood.”

The prose in these essays evokes Woolf’s interiority and love of language. I underlined phrase after phrase, passage after passage, as Chew-Bose, like a moth herself, lights here and there, pausing on family and friendship, on James Baldwin and Nina Simone and the young Al Pacino, on her name and her voice and her skin color.

The opening essay, “Heart Museum,” is a 90-page abstract meditation, in which she likens writing to body language, to “a woman narrowing her eyes to express incredulity,” to “an elbow propped on the edge of a table when you’re wrapping up an argument,” to “a closed pistachio shell.” In which she describes her version of happiness as “curling up inside the bends of parentheses,” and in which the odds and ends on a friend’s dressing table represent “a parish of miscellany,” “a village of items.”

The essay is alive and well, and women’s writing in all genres is more wide-ranging and abundant than even Virginia Woolf might have imagined.

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