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Posts Tagged ‘Virginia Woolf in contemporary fiction’

Cape Ann, Massachusetts, 1928. Bea is on the porch reading the book her cousin Rose has handed her, The President’s Daughter, which Bea describes as the trashiest book she’s ever read, though she can’t resist it. Rose, in turn, has picked up To the Lighthouse, and admits that she doesn’t understand it.

Bea had finished the book last week and had not stopped thinking about it but she did not think that understanding—the way Rose meant it—was its point. She understood that Mrs. Ramsay was her mother and that she, Bea, was “the sudden silent trout” pinned against the glass (if she read again she would see they were not pinned but “hanging,” but that was the difference between this kind of understanding and Rose’s), and Bea understood that the book as a whole was about her own life and that other people probably understood it to be about theirs. But her understanding in this way was vague—the book had stayed with her through the week like a glowing, invisible pet she could not risk touching. “I think it’s about memory,” she said. “And about how the present is always becoming the past, both in our consciousness of it and in reality. And about the confusion, or maybe the elision, between the two, and also between reality and a person’s vision of reality. Very little happens but a lot is happening. A character can stand with a foot on a threshold and her whole world shifts.”  Bea had not known how good it would feel to talk about the book. The only educated women she spoke with on a regular basis—club women she courted at benefits or after her speeches—talked about Virginia Woolf like Lillian and her friends fawned over Parisian silk. “Also, it’s about women and men,” Bea concluded, starting to worry that she was making little sense. “And whether or not the children will get to the lighthouse.”

Another sign of Anna Solomon’s homage to Woolf in Leaving Lucy Pear is the occasional appearance of references to a Nurse Lugton, who tended Bea when she experienced a mental breakdown. Oh yes, there’s a ceramic lighthouse too….

In an interview on NPR’s “Here and Now,” Anna Solomon said that Woolf was an important influence on her consciousness both as a writer and as a human being, that Woolf helped her find her own voice. She added that it gave her pleasure to have her character reading the work that she herself loved.

Woolf aside, I found this an interesting and well-written novel, an unusual and compelling slice of life.

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Andrea Barrett is one of my favorite contemporary writers. Her science-infused stories are extraordinary, but until recently I hadn’t read her early work from before the 1996 National Book Award winning Ship Fever.

Recently I came across Barrett’s 2015 essay in the literary journal Agni, “The Years and The Years.” Barrett starts by noting that while The Years isn’t considered one of Woolf’s finest novels, for her it “made possible the first I would publish.” I was thrilled to find this connection between Woolf and Barrett.

Crafting her first novel in the mid-eighties Barrett had her themes, her time and place. To fill them she had characters and relationships spanning three decades. But after writing hundreds of pages and discarding most of it, she couldn’t find a satisfactory way to shape the material. Then she read The Years. She describes the opening scene as an overture—“technically brilliant, profoundly moving”— in the way it introduced the characters and their lives with “ripples that reinforce each other as they intersect  …. Everything, it turns out, changes everything. Everything repeats and reverberates.”

Barrett went to Woolf’s diary, to where she sets out her ideas for The Years: “I want to give the whole of the present society …. with the most powerful and agile leaps, like a chamois, across precipices from 1880 to here and now.”

The structural elements of The Years became a framework from which Barrett was able to give shape to her story. She discovered that, like Woolf, she could skip over portions of time, “shining a beam on one moment and then, years later, on another, suggesting swiftly by thought and conversation what had happened in the space between.”

The result was Lucid Stars, published in 1988. Each of four sections is broken down into dated chapters, and each part’s block of years has a different central character with her own voice. Each section stands apart from the whole while at the same time knitting it together. Like The Years.

Woolf continued to influence Barrett. She tells how Orlando, Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves all showed her the intricacies of writing about biography, history, politics, and war in fiction. Barrett did all of this, in her own voice and style, in the stories and novels that followed Lucid Stars.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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