Monday, March 14, 2011

Woolf the critic

I’ve embarked on a slow read through Virginia Woolf’s essays, a task that I expect will take a long, pleasant time. The essays consist mostly of book reviews, primarily written for the Times Literary Supplement, but Woolf was not one to confine herself to writing in a straightforward fashion about the book at hand: rather, the best of her reviews are miniature studies or appreciations of the writer at hand, drawing on (and expecting at least passing familiarity with) the broader intellectual, cultural, and literary context in which the writer worked. Lest that make them seem rarified, I pass on, in agreement, this assessment from Andrew McNeillie’s introduction to the first volume:
[S]he made of the personal essay, the review, the biographical study, the commemorative article, an art of her own. That art is characteristically brilliant and robust. . . . If it is also an art tending to presuppose an acquaintance with literature that the majority could not begin to have had time to acquire, it is none the less democratic in spirit: uncanonical, inquisitive, open, and unacademic. . . . What is more, it is an art expressed in a fluent, witty and unwaveringly demotic prose.
Woolf the critic is so generous, close-grained, and attentive to even the smallest successes or achievements that it’s hard for me to see how any serious writer on literature could fail to take her as a model; if we all wrote with even half of Woolf’s sympathetic attention, the world of books would be a better place.

Beginning critics can take from Woolf not just an approach, but also heart: her first published piece, written for the Guardian, a clerical paper, shows none of her individuality and soon-to-be-characteristic broad perceptiveness. A review of William Dean Howells’s The Son of Royal Langbrith, published in 1904 when Woolf was but twenty-three, it consists almost entirely of a run-through of the novel’s plot, like this:
But the son has contrived to make a hero of the father, and a church and a village library are proofs of the munificence of the dead man. We are soon let into the secret, however, which is the property of the widow, one Dr Anther, and two others—that the public-spirited Royal Langbrith is a grotesque myth; he was in reality a scoundrel who got his wealth by appropriating the inventions of another.
And so forth. It’s all clearly and concisely laid out—which any reviewer who’s tried to explain a plot knows is not an easy task—but like nearly all plot summaries it’s essentially inert, revealing enough information to ruin the drama of the book without conveying any of that drama to the reader.

And yet, within a few years, Woolf would routinely be offering readers such incidental gems at this consideration of the value of literary biography, from a review of a life of Laurence Sterne:
It is the custom to draw a distinction between a man and his works and to add that, although the world has a claim to read every line of his writing, it must not ask questions about the author. The distinction has arisen, we may believe, because the art of biography has fallen very low, and people of good taste infer that a "life" will merely gratify a base curiosity, or will set up a respectable figure of sawdust. It is therefor a wise precaution to limit one's study of a writer to the study of his works; but, like other precautions, it implies some loss. We sacrifice an aesthetic pleasure, possibly of first-rate value—a life of Johnson, for example—and we raise boundaries where there should be none. A writer is a writer from his cradle; in his dealings with the world,in his affections, in his attitude to the thousand small things that happen between dawn and sunset, he shows the same point of view as that which he elaborates afterwards with a pen in his hand. It is more fragmentary and incoherent, but it is also more intense. To this, which one may call the aesthetic interest of his character, there are added the various interests of circumstance—here and how he was born and bred and educated—which all men share, but which are of greater interset as they affect a more original talent.
The voice has emerged, confident and memorable, and Woolf would keep writing in that style for the rest of her life, even as her fiction became more impressionistic and inward-looking. It makes six volumes of essays seem not a challenge, but a gift.

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