Friday, November 19, 2010

Virginia Woolf the essayist

Many's the reader who has been put off by Virginia Woolf's fiction. Her style--in one sense like a looser, more deliberately experimental Henry James--is simultaneously occluded and jumbled, James's reticence and obsessive circumspection replaced with a sort of jumble-sale approach to consciousness that relies on the reader to pluck from a flowing stream the burning brand that will show forth the point. Patrick Kurp--not one to pull punches--has called her fiction "effete, self-regarding, and beside the point." Cyril Connolly called her characters,
lifeless anatomical slices, conceived in all the same mood, unreal creatures of genteel despair.
Anthony Powell, in his journals, called The Waves "twaddle," writing that it had
all the artificiality of a Compton-Burnett background, without any of the wit, willingness to grapple with real human problems, general grasp of novel-writing material
Having filled that side of the balance to overflowing, I will put on the positive side of the ledger merely my own appreciation of Woolf's fiction, which, exercising the host's prerogative, I will deem sufficient. Like the aforementioned Henry James, she is not for every day, but there are times--when one is feeling introspective, quiet, uncertain, even slightly fuddled, say---when no one else will do.

What is odd (and what is, ridiculously deep into this post, the point) is that her voice in her essays is utterly different, so straightforward, clear, and declarative--a point that even her detractors would, I suspect, have to concede. (As, to his credit, Patrick Kurp has graciously done.) Woolf's essays, the majority of which, it seems, were written as book reviews, and thus to some extent in the moment and on deadline, are remarkable for their clarity and authority. Woolf displays a quality that I greatly prize--perhaps to my peril--in an essayist: an ability to make a declarative aesthetic statement about a writer that one can't help but nod along to, even if somewhere in the mother board of one's brain the logic circuits are screaming.

Take this passage, from a piece on De Quincey from the September 16th issue of the Times Literary Supplement:
A prose writer may dream dreams and see visions, but they cannot be allowed to lie scattered, single, solitary upon the page. So spaced out they die. For prose has neither the intensity nor the self-sufficiency of poetry. It rises slowly off the ground; it must be connected on this side and on that. There must be some medium in which its ardours and ecstasies can float without incongruity, from which they receive support and impetus.
To which the attentive reader finds himself insisting upon exception after exception . . . but only on reflection, for at first blush--and in some sense forever--Woolf is right and pithily apt there.

Or this, less questionable, on Jane Austen:
She knew exactly what her powers were, and what material they were fitted to deal with as material should be dealt with by a writer whose standard of finality was high. There were impressions that lay outside her province; emotions that by no stretch or artifice could be properly coated and covered by her own resources.

Lest I simply go on forever drawing out examples of Woolf's acuity, I'll turn to my old favorite Thomas Hardy and declare him the home stretch of this post. Woolf writes:
Some writers are born conscious of everything; others are unconscious of many things Some, like Henry James and Flaubert, are able not merely to make the best use of the spoil their gifts bring in, but control their genius in the act of creation; they are aware of all the possibilities of every situation, and are never taken by surprise. The unconscious writers, on the other hand, like Dickens and Scott, seem suddenly and without their own consent to be lifted up and swept onwards. The wave sinks and they cannot say what has happened or why. Among them--it is the source of his strength and of his weakness--we must place Hardy. His own word, "moments of vision," exactly describes those passages of astonishing beauty and force which are to be found in every book that he wrote.
Having been primed to question Woolf's assertions, I expect you found plenty at least to raise an eyebrow at in that passage. (Dickens unconscious of his effects? Really?) At the same time, however, I think Woolf is basically right; the more one learns about Hardy, specifically, the more his successes begin to seem like the product of an alchemy that was likely unfathomable even to him.

To close, I can't resist sharing a passage from Woolf's diary about her first meeting with Hardy (outside, that is, her natal crib, as Hardy was acquainted with her father), collected in the indispensable Thomas Hardy Remembered:
There was not a trace anywhere of deference to editors, or respect for rank, an extreme simplicity: What impressed me was his freedom, ease, & vitality. He seemed very "Great Victorian" doing the whole thing with a sweep of his hand (they are ordinary smallish, curled up hands) & setting no great stock by literature; but immensely interested in facts; incidents; & and somehow, one could imagine, naturally swept off into imagining & and creating without a thought of its being difficult or remarkable; becoming obsessed; & living in imagination.
Hardy signed a copy of Life's Little Ironies for Woolf . . . though he spelled her name "Wolff," "wh. I daresay had given him some anxiety."

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