Thursday, May 20, 2010

Leonard, Lev, and the servants

After Tuesday's post about Lev Grossman's Believer article about Leonard Woolf, fantasy, and modernism, Ed Park (who was Grossman's editor for the piece) sent me to a post on Grossman's new blog where he offers some background to the article. It's worth reading the whole post, in which, among other things, Grossman reveals that the article's origin lies in a conversation with his mother from nearly twenty years ago. But what stood out for me was this admission:
I’m pretty tired of writing these truncated little 650-word nuglets for Time. It felt good to type knowing that I didn’t have to stop when I came to the end of the little box.
I've always wondered about that, about how someone as talented and well-read as Grossman adapts to hammering out the briefest of summaries week after week.There's an art to it, unquestionably; writing short and on deadline can in its way be as difficult as writing long. But I'm not surprised to find that it can also be frustrating, especially as more and more online options emerge, with their--theoretically--unlimited word counts.

Grossman's adept use of the material of Leonard Woolf's volumes of memoir having tempted me to seek them out, I returned to my bookshelves to see what I could learn about them. Anthony Powell, no friend of Bloomsbury, wrote of the first volume, Sowing, for the Daily Telegraph in 1966 (when, almost unbelievably, Woolf was still alive), that
The narrative of the early years which culminated in Cambridge is extraordinarily well done. . . . Woolf writes in an incisive, rigorous rose, suited to his own uncompromising view of life. He gives the reader a clear idea of his own upbringing and what he was like as a boy. . . . At the same time one has the feeling that the author's at times almost brutal directness conceals a good deal of sensitiveness that has suffered in the past some hard blows.
From there he moves to analysis of Bloomsbury that seems indisputable even for a reader who, like me, is more inclined to appreciate the circle:
Accordingly, like others of the group, he found, in what was perhaps a certain basic lack of self-confidence, support in becoming a member of Bloomsbury; that community which had about it something of a small religious sect in the attitude of its adherents towards each other and to the outside world.
All of which, in the disjointed way that blogs are, with the reader's forbearance, on occasion allowed to be, leads me to share a moment from Alison Light's book Mrs. Woolf and the Servants (2008). The whole book is fascinating--I can't recommend it too highly--but the moment that most stood out for me came in this account of the summer of 1929, when the Woolfs had just purchased a rural cottage:
With Nellie away, Annie came in the mornings and made lunch, often leaving a pie for Virginia to cook for dinner. By three o'clock the Woolfs were alone--a complete and utter novelty. It is worth emphasizing. They had never been alone before in their own home. Thus the life of the British modern couple was inaugurated.
They had been married for seventeen years at that point.

As I washed the dishes tonight after a long day at the office, I'll admit to having temporarily dreamed of a life with servants, but Light reminds me that such a life is far, far from the right one for me.

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