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Posts Tagged ‘Woolf and contemporary fiction’

I’m not a literary snob—well, maybe a bit—but I’ve never had any interest in John Grisham’s blockbuster novels. I’d heard they’re page-turners, well written even though formulaic, good distractions if that’s what you’re after.

Then a friend told me that his new novel, Camino Island, wasn’t his typical corporate/legal skullduggery, that it was summer fun—a beach read—about the theft of Scott Fitzgerald’s manuscripts from the Princeton Library. The story focuses on a novelist and a bookseller in a Florida island community. Sounded promising, and the deal-maker was a Virginia Woolf reference.

Grant, a bookstore owner and collector of rare books, is showing some of his favorite acquisitions to Mercer, whom he’s trying to seduce and who is a plant, hired by Princeton’s insurer to spy on Grant for any possible connection to the stolen manuscripts. He extracts his most valuable book from safekeeping, a signed first edition of Catcher in the Rye (prized because Salinger seldom signed his books). Mercer mentions that she taught it once but that it’s not a favorite. She prefers female writers. He then brings out the rarest book he has by a woman, A Room of One’s Own.

 Mercer: “I love this book. I read it in high school and it inspired me to become a writer, or at least give it a shot.” She recites the key line: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” They discuss Woolf—“so brave,” “a tortured soul”—and writers’ sufferings and destructive behaviors.

Mercer has been struggling to write a second novel, several years after the success of her first. Now, with free time and the windfall she’s getting from the insurance company, the narrator observes: “With a room of her own and some money in her pocket, perhaps she could settle in and write some fiction.”

The beginning grabbed me—the heist—but it was disappointing after that, with a bit of punch at the end. I tried to enjoy it, but I found Mercer a not very interesting and not very convincing protagonist. It was a quick read, and I did stick with it until the end to find out what happened to the manuscripts. But, like Mercer, I prefer to read women authors.

Still, there was Woolf—existing in the lofty presence of Fitzgerald and Salinger, Hemingway and Faulkner, holding her own with all that testosterone.

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archivistMeandering through the bounteous bookshelves of a writer friend in Seattle for whom I was recently house-sitting, I zeroed in on The Archivist, a 1998 novel by Martha Cooley.

The story revolves around a cache of letters from T.S. Eliot to Emily Hale that Hale bequeathed to a university library (unnamed in the novel) in 1965, with the stipulation that they not be opened until 2020. This is true; the letters are at Princeton, sealed until 2020. The archivist’s wife is a poet, and they share an interest in Eliot. After her death he takes the university position right around the time of the bequest and meets a graduate student who is interested in the letters.

Eliot’s work weaves in and out, as do issues of Jewishness, war atrocities, conversion, and identity. Eliot’s life with and abandonment of his first wife Vivienne comes into it but not so much their London milieu, with a few exceptions, including this:

Roberta (the student) to Matthias (the archivist):

I was just remembering how Virginia Woolf once said Eliot was sordid and intense. Did you know that when he was still married to Vivienne, he occasionally wore face powder when they went to dinner parties? Can you imagine? I guess he couldn’t resist the temptation to dramatize his suffering—God knows Vivienne wore hers on her sleeve.

English: T. S. Eliot, photographed one Sunday ...

English: T. S. Eliot, photographed one Sunday afternoon in 1923 by Lady Ottoline Morrell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course I had to see if that was accurate (Woolf’s description, not the face powder) and found it in Woolf’s Diary, Nov. 12, 1934, about a performance of Eliot’s uncompleted verse drama, “Sweeney Agonistes”: “The acting made more sense than the reading but I doubt that Tom has enough of a body & brain to bring off a whole play: certainly he conveys an emotion, an atmosphere: which is more than most: something peculiar to himself; sordid, emotional, intense—a kind of Crippen, in a mask: modernity & poetry locked together.”

Seems to me she’s talking more about the play and his approach to it than Eliot himself. While she does implicate Eliot’s character and craft with her curt observations, the quote, out of context, strikes me as a bit too convenient for Cooley, the Woolf citation too dishy to resist. Still, it was a fascinating novel.

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