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Posts Tagged ‘Woolf in Contemporary Fiction’

Well no, but they do hang out together in a novel, along with Sylvia Plath, Paul Auster, Margaret Atwood, W.B. Yeats, and others. It’s Lexicon by Max Barry. “A cerebral thriller,” according to one blurb; “dark and twisted and sweet and humane all at once,” says another.

It starts with two guys grabbing a man named Wil in an airport bathroom and putting a needle in his eye to extract memories and lethal words. And they have to hurry or Wolf will get him first.

On page 46—at last!—one of the guys, Tom, explains that they’re called poets because they’re good with words. They’re quick and smart and persuasive, and when their raw potential is detected, they’re recruited from all over and sent to a special school to learn how to manipulate minds with secret words. Only the best will graduate and be given their names. Wolf is a poet, Wolf who turns out to be Woolf. “Virginia Woolf is trying to kill me?” asks Wil. “Among others. But Woolf is the one to worry about,” replies Tom, who turns out to be Eliot.

It takes a long time to separate the good guys from the bad, and then you got it wrong, or maybe not, and you’re still not sure. Did Woolf kill everyone in an Australian town? Which side is Tom on? Why is Charlotte driving a transport truck straight at them? Where does Wil fit in–he’s not Shakespeare, not a poet. And why am I reading this bizarre novel?

If I wondered to what lengths I’d go to chase down Woolf sightings in contemporary fiction, now I know. If I wondered to what lengths I’d go to make it up to Paula for not posting as often as I should on Blogging Woolf, now I know. The violence was off-putting, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep reading; then I was hooked. People being murdered at close range on one page, thought-provoking gems about the power of language on another. And Woolf.

That’s what I never figured out—why Woolf? All the rest are actual poets or at least, like Bronte and Atwood, have written poetry as well as prose. Max Barry has a Q&A feature on his website, and I asked him about this, but I haven’t gotten a response—I’ll let you know if I do.

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Florence GordonI just read Brian Morton’s latest novel, Florence Gordon, and loved his protagonist, a 75-year-old New York curmudgeon and intellectual, an activist and celebrated feminist author. A Woolf sighting was almost a foregone conclusion.

Florence’s granddaughter, Emily, visits from Seattle and takes a summer literature class at Barnard: “It’s gonna be great. Jane Austen. George Eliot. Virginia Woolf. What could be bad about that?”

Emily assists Florence with research for her memoir and becomes fascinated with her grandmother’s accomplishments. “A few weeks ago she’d read an article that Florence had written about Virginia Woolf. Woolf had said that the task of a woman writer was to kill off the ‘Angel in the House’: the part of oneself that was trained to put the needs of others, in every situation, before one’s own.” Emily later has occasion to reflect on this in a difficult situation of her own and in a personal challenge to her grandmother: “If a woman needs help but she doesn’t ask for it, isn’t she just playing the part of the Angel in the House?”

Morton has invoked Woolf in earlier novels. She appears to have a prominent place in his literary pantheon, as touchstones for his characters. In Starting Out in the Evening, grad student Heather Wolfe (!) wants to write her thesis on fictional author Leonard Schiller. Her advisor ranks Schiller as seventh-rate. “In Bonner’s scale of literary merit, Shakespeare and Tolstoy were first-rate; Dostoevsky and George Eliot and Proust were second-rate; Melville was third-rate; Henry James fourth-rate; Virginia Woolf fifth-rate. To be called seventh-rate was high praise.”

Heather is disappointed to find Schiller’s later work stale and is prepared to dismiss it to his age until she considers: “Certain writers managed to stay fresh, even in old age. Yeats and George Eliot she felt got better, stronger. “D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf may not have gotten better, but they continued to experiment restlessly as long as they lived.”

Virginia Woolf in old age? The implications are frightening, but I guess 59 is old to a 24-year-old grad student…..

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101.Colum-McCan-Trans-AtlanticColum McCann’s latest novel, TransAtlantic, is a fascinating account of the lives of four generations of fictional Irish women woven into recorded history, from Frederick Douglass’ visit to Dublin in 1845 to gain support for the abolitionist cause to Senator George Mitchell’s mediation of Irish peace talks in 1998 on behalf of the Clinton Administration.

Woolf makes an unexpected appearance well into the novel in the story of Emily and Lottie Ehrlich, mother and daughter, journalist/poet and photographer, on a transatlantic journey from their home in Newfoundland to Great Britain in 1929.

They had packed as little as possible in their wooden trunk in the hope that they would be able to move easily from place to place. A few changes of clothes, some weather gear, two copies of the same Virginia Woolf novel [Jacob’s Room], notebooks, photographic film, some medicine for Emily’s arthritis.

The days were lengthy. The hours drifted. The sea stretched a round majestic gray. In the distance the horizon curved. Mother and daughter sat on the deck and looked backwards as the evening sun flared red.

They read the Woolf novel in tandem, matched each other almost page for page. “The voice had an extraordinary sadness. Pure from all body, pure from all passion, going out into the world, solitary, unanswered, breaking against rocks—so it sounded.” What Emily liked most of all was the appearance of ease that Woolf brought. The words slid so easily into one another. There was a sense of a full life being translated. It was, in Woolf’s hands, a display of humility.

She envied the young Woolf. The command and promise the Englishwoman showed. Her profusion of voices. The ability to live in several different bodies.

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Two years ago I wrote here about Meg Wolitzer’s Woolf-citing in The Uncoupling. To my surprise and delight, Meg commented on the post, saying that Woolf would appear in her next novel too.

The InterestingsThat next novel is now out to fantastic reviews, and no wonder. The Interestings is interesting; it’s also riveting and thought-provoking. Meg had me on the first page when she said of her wonderfully-flawed protagonist, Jules: “Irony was new to her and tasted oddly good, like a previously unavailable summer fruit.”

I’ve always enjoyed Meg’s novels for a lighter touch, lots of wit and whimsy. This one’s bigger and deeper. She introduces six teenagers who meet at an artsy summer camp in New England and follows them into their 50s, through ups and downs, sickness and health, fame and fortune, failure and envy. There’s wit and whimsy and a whole lot more—irony isn’t new to Meg Wolitzer; she’s a master at it.

Through it all—the mainstay of the book—is the deep friendship between Jules and Ash, and Woolf shows up in a scene between them:

 Once, looking through a women’s magazine together, they saw an article about a legendary sex toy emporium in New York for women called Eve’s Garden. It wasn’t that their marriages weren’t sexually satisfying to them—both of them had confided that they were—but they got into a discussion about how maybe it was a good idea to have “a vibrator of one’s own, to paraphrase the late, great Virginia Woolf,” Jules said. Then, to amuse Ash, she went off on a Woolf sex riff, saying, suggestively, “Are those rocks in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”

The success of The Interestings is well-deserved. Meg, if you’re reading this, thanks for a terrific reading experience.

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Cover of "Life Class: A Novel"

Pat Barker’s new novel, Toby’s Room, hasn’t been released in the States yet, but I’m looking forward to it eagerly, with its allusions to Jacob’s Room. Instead, I found the 2008 Life Class at the library and snapped it up. Only later did I recall having heard that Toby’s Room is a sequel to Life Class; my reading it first is purely serendipitous.

Barker is in her most familiar territory, World War I, in this story about Paul and Elinor, who meet as painting students at the Slade. When the war starts, Paul leaves his studies to serve as an ambulance driver in France. Toby is Elinor’s brother, a medical student, and he too enlists. Elinor and Paul correspond regularly, and she writes to him about an exciting encounter:

“I’ve been to tea with Lady Ottoline Morrell! I never thought I’d live to see the day. I met her at the Camden Street Gallery and she looked at me very intently for a long time and then she said in that vague way of hers, wafting a jeweled hand about above her head, You must come to tea sometime. Do come to tea….” Elinor is prepared to dismiss this as idle chatter until she receives a written invitation, which she accepts. She describes the encounter to Paul: “She’s not easy to talk to, though she is interested in everything you say. You feel she’s listening, not just waiting for the chance to make some clever remark her self like most of that Bloomsbury crowd….”

A group at Garsington Manor, country home of L...

A group at Garsington Manor, country home of Lady Ottoline Morrell, near Oxford. Left to right: Lady Ottoline Morrell, Mrs. Aldous Huxley, Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant, and Vanessa Bell. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The acquaintanceship continues. Elinor isn’t totally comfortable; she feels that Lady Ott wants something from her—”She seems to be drawing your soul out of your body … a kind of cannibalism”—but she’s swept up in the milieu. She writes to Paul about a party at which Ott holds up a purple feather boa and hands it to “a tall etiolated man with a straggly beard who wrapped it around his neck and immediately started to dance a minuet….” What do you think—Lytton? Later, Elinor is “seized by a man who looked like a highly intelligent teddy bear and spoke with dry, devouring passion about how the war must stop, now, at once, this instant, keeping his gaze fixed on my bosom the while…” Clive?

Woolf isn’t mentioned, but you sense her in the shadows, perhaps in deep conversation with someone or other on a velvet covered settee. And apparently Elinor will meet her in Toby’s Room.

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In addition to our regular Woolf sightings, we offer a number of references to “Woolf in Pop Culture” shared via the VWoolf Listserv.

Contributors include Keri Barber, Vara Neverow, Helen E. Southworth, Cheryl Hindrichs and Blogging Woolf’s very own Alice Lowe, who has been collecting references to Woolf in contemporary fiction for years — and has lived to write a monograph about it. Alice’s Beyond the Icon: Virginia Woolf in Contemporary Fiction is part of Cecil Woolf Publishers’ Bloomsbury Heritage Series.

  • Jane Gardam slips Woolf into her work. In her 2008 novel Faith Fox, a major character is Thomasina Fox. A confused woman refers to her as Thomasina Woolf, remarking that “She wrote The Waves, you know.” Woolf also appears as a glimpsed character in Crusoe’s Daughter and in Gardam’s stories “The Last Reunion” and “The People on Privilege Hill.”
  • Woolf shows up in Alison Bechdel‘s graphic memoir Are You My Mother? Reviews of the memoir often include this fact, as mentioned in numerous Woolf sightings.
  • Woolf makes a quick appearance in Gillian Flynn‘s new novel, Gone Girl. Here is the quote: “I will drink a giant ice-wet shaker of gin, and I will swallow sleeping pills, and when no one is looking, I’ll drop silently over the side [of the Mississippi], my pockets full of Virginia Woolf rocks. It requires discipline.”

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That’s what Carol Anshaw said when I asked her about the reference to Woolf in her newest novel, Carry the One. The story weaves in and out of the lives of several people for 25 years following a momentous event that had a great and lasting impact on each of them.

I found the book to be an engrossing and rewarding read, deserving its praise in reviews, including those of the New York Times and NPR.

So, the scene in question: Alice is talking to her sister Carmen about her volatile on-and-off relationship with Maude, who also happens to be Carmen’s sister-in-law. Alice says: “‘She can try all the men she wants. She’ll come back to women. She’s a bloodhound who’s been given the scent of the glove.’”

“Carmen was always a little startled (and titillated) when Alice said things like this. She wasn’t sure if this was her sister’s way of being shocking, or if lesbians all talked this way among themselves. It always tripped her up. She used to imagine love between women as a languid extension of friendship. Something Virginia Woolf-ish involving tea and conversation and sofas and afternoon eliding into evening, a small lamp needing to be turned on, but left unlit.”

Carol Anshaw added to the above response about Woolf: “when I read her letters maybe 30 years ago, I loved seeing her get swept off her feet by Vita. Then I read Victoria Glendinning’s biography of Vita and fell in love with her big, arrogant, blundering passage through life.” So we see how fitting this particular name-dropping is.

Screen shot of Carol Anshaw’s Vita Sackville-West Project page on her website

But Carol’s fascination with Vita has taken on a life of its own in a series of paintings (she’s multi-talented), the Vita Sackville-West project. Several are posted on her website.

 

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