Sunday, May 16, 2010

"What strange intoxication was it that he drew from books?"

From "The Pastons and Chaucer," by Virginia Woolf:
[S]ometimes, instead of riding off on his horse to inspect his crops or bargain with his tenants, Sir John would sit, in broad daylight, reading. There, on the hard chair in the comfortless room with the wind lifting the carpet and the smoke stinging his eyes, he would sit reading Chaucer, wasting his time, dreaming--or what strange intoxication was it that he drew from books? Life was rough, cheerless, and disappointing. A whole year of days would pass fruitlessly in dreary business, like dashes of rain on the window-pane. There was no reason in it as there had been for his father; no imperative need to establish a family and acquire an important position for children who were not born, or, if born, had no right to bear their father's name. But Lydgate's poems or Chaucer's, like a mirror in which figures move brightly, silently, and compactly, showed him the very skies, fields, and people whom he knew, but rounded and complete. Instead of waiting listlessly for news from London or piecing out from his mother's gossip some country tragedy of love and jealousy, here, in a few pages, the whole story was laid before him. And then as he rode or sat at table he would remember some description or saying which bore upon the present moment and fixed it, or some string of words would charm him, and putting aside the pressure of the moment, he would hasten home to sit in his chair and learn the end of the story.
I think most people who have briefly encountered Virginia Woolf's novels think of her prose as suffering from a lack of forthrightness, a wispiness--that, trapped by her efforts to reconstruct the tattered patterns of human thought, her writing never quite gets anywhere, leaving us where we started, in the undifferentiated fog of consciousness. And, despite being a Woolf fan and ready to defend her against such charges, I do understand how a reader who makes but casual acquaintance with her work could feel that way: her fiction is far from immediately welcoming, offering few of the comfortable footholds we have come to expect as we ease into a novel.

But her nonfiction, oh, that's a different story. Clear, balanced, precise, full of rich description and memorable scenes, yet, at its best, nearly as surprising in its approaches and conclusions as her fiction. The passage above comes from the opening essay in The Common Reader (1925), and its springboard was a six-volume collection of fifteenth-century letters of the Paston family. The Pastons lived on a manor that had been bought from a son of Chaucer, and from that--and Margaret Paston's continual complaints about her son's neglect of his duties in favor of his reading--Woolf spins out a detailed, lively vision of a lonely existence in "the most desolate part of England," where there is but a single road, with a hole in it "big enough to swallow a carriage," where the chimney smokes and the drafts wail, where
Tom Topcroft, the mad bricklayer, has broken loose again and ranges the country half-naked, threatening to kill any one who approaches him.
The desolation of her scene deliciously set, she brings on Chaucer--and, oh, if we've fallen into a habit of taking for granted the joy and escape found in reading, by the time Sir John is ensconced in his library as if in a fortress Woolf has made it impossible for us to do so any longer.

She moves on to do the same for the charms and surprises and humor of Chaucer:
To learn the end of the story--Chaucer can still make us wish to do that. He has pre-eminently that story-teller's gift, which is almost the rarest gift among writers at the present day. Nothing happens to us as it did to our ancestors; events are seldom important; if we recount them, we do not really believe in them; we have perhaps things of greater interest to say, and for these reasons natural story-tellers like Mr Garnett*, whom we must distinguish from self-conscious story-tellers like Mr Masefield**, have become rare. For the story-teller, besides his indescribable zest for facts, must tell his story craftily, without undue stress or excitement, or we shall swallow it whole and jumble the parts together; he must let us stop, give us time to think and look about us, yet always be persuading us to move on.
Having been myself in the clutches of a great storyteller--Dorothy Dunnett--all weekend, with that I will close this and return to sitting on my back steps with my book. What better way to spend these last few hours of sunny weekend daylight?

1 comment:

  1. I actually think that her memoir/life writing and letters are the best place to start with Virginia Woolf - because her humour and intelligence come through so strongly. Then the fiction is easier to make sense of somehow. Lovely post - thanks for sharing