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Friday, 16 May 2014

Virginia Woolf's essays: reading& writing

Currently pause the reading of "Orlando" to focus on exams, but in the breaks, I move onto Virginia Woolf's essays (Oxford World Classics: "Selected essays"), believing that some of her ideas on literature are interesting and may very well be used some time.
Once in a while, after reading a writer's works, I read (parts of) their diaries or letters to understand the process of writing, and their essays to see their views on writings and how their ideas and principles are demonstrated in their own works. That can be interesting. Here, whilst discussing fiction in general and other writers- predecessors as well as contemporaries, Virginia Woolf reveals a lot about herself.
For example, in "How it strikes a contemporary", she says time has changed and many things have changed ("We are sharply cut off from our predecessors"), writers of her age can no longer use the tool of their predecessors.
In  "Modern fiction", her view's clearer:
"Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions — trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end."
Then:
"It is, at any rate, in some such fashion as this that we seek to define the quality which distinguishes the work of several young writers, among whom Mr. James Joyce is the most notable, from that of their predecessors. They attempt to come closer to life, and to preserve more sincerely and exactly what interests and moves them, even if to do so they must discard most of the conventions which are commonly observed by the novelist. [...] Any one who has read The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or, what promises to be a far more interesting work, Ulysses, now appearing in the Little Review, will have hazarded some theory of this nature as to Mr. Joyce’s intention. On our part, with such a fragment before us, it is hazarded rather than affirmed; but whatever the intention of the whole, there can be no question but that it is of the utmost sincerity and that the result, difficult or unpleasant as we may judge it, is undeniably important. In contrast with those whom we have called materialists, Mr. Joyce is spiritual; he is concerned at all costs to reveal the flickerings of that innermost flame which flashes its messages through the brain, and in order to preserve it he disregards with complete courage whatever seems to him adventitious, whether it be probability, or coherence, or any other of these signposts which for generations have served to support the imagination of a reader when called upon to imagine what he can neither touch nor see."
I have no comment on James Joyce- but isn't this what she also does? Not really in "Orlando", when writing "Orlando" she already moves onto something else, but one can see that in "Mrs Dalloway", by abandoning plot and other conventions but following the thoughts of her characters, mostly Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith, on 1 day, she's attempting to come closer to life. Her poetic impressionism is such an attempt to capture and explore what goes on in a person's mind, all the impressions and thoughts and memories and emotions.  
I am aware that Virginia Woolf is not for everybody, having seen many people call her dull, boring, overrated (as a novelist though not necessarily as an essayist). But those who deny or fail to see her contribution to literature and modernism, her poetic prose, her experiments in form and method, her stream of consciousness technique and attempt to come closer to life, prove themselves ignoramuses. Whether one likes her personally is, I suppose, personal.
Then she ends her essay with:
"“The proper stuff of fiction” does not exist; everything is the proper stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought; every quality of brain and spirit is drawn upon; no perception comes amiss..."
In "Character in fiction", after saying that the urge to write novels comes when a figure of a man or a woman appears and says "Catch me if you can", she tells a story of sitting near a woman on a train, feeling curious about her and wanting to write about her.
(I've experienced that lots of times. In fact, the last time was on Thursday, I was waiting for the train when 2 men, a rather stout middle-aged Norwegian man and a skinny Thai guy (Vietnamese-looking but apparently Thai) caught my attention, the former speaking English slowly, trying to enunciate every single word, the latter mostly nodding and smiling, apparently knowing very little English and perhaps no Norwegian, now and then turning towards me with an awkward look, perhaps wondering if I came from his country. My curiosity was roused initially by their figures, and then their conversation- or should I call monologue?- and facial expressions. I wanted to know more about them, and write about them (and even though nothing suggested it, I wanted to write that the Thai guy's some sort of gigolo for older, richer men- don't ask me why). But the moment the train stopped at Oslo S and we got off it and walked in different directions, there was no more to it. And I don't have the talent to turn it into a story). 
"The story ends without any point to it. But I have not told you this anecdote to illustrate either my own ingenuity or the pleasure of travelling from Richmond to Waterloo. What I want you to see in it is this. Here is a character imposing itself upon another person. Here is Mrs. Brown making someone begin almost automatically to write a novel about her. I believe that all novels begin with an old lady in the corner opposite. I believe that all novels, that is to say, deal with character, and that it is to express character—not to preach doctrines, sing songs, or celebrate the glories of the British Empire, that the form of the novel, so clumsy, verbose, and undramatic, so rich, elastic, and alive, has been evolved."
Throughout most of the essay, she comments on some contemporary writers, and emphasises again that "the Edwardian tools are the wrong ones for us to use".
And ends her essay beautifully:
"Your part is to insist that writers shall come down off their plinths and pedestals, and describe beautifully if possible, truthfully at any rate, our Mrs. Brown. You should insist that she is an old lady of unlimited capacity and infinite variety; capable of appearing in any place; wearing any dress; saying anything and doing heaven knows what. But the things she says and the things she does and her eyes and her nose and her speech and her silence have an overwhelming fascination, for she is, of course, the spirit we live by, life itself.
But do not expect just at present a complete and satisfactory presentment of her. Tolerate the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure. Your help is invoked in a good cause. For I will make one final and surpassingly rash prediction—we are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature. But it can only be reached if we are determined never, never to desert Mrs. Brown."
I reckon, this is the reason I'm not crazy about "Doctor Zhivago", "The electric kool-aid acid test" or "The French lieutenant's woman" (at least, initially). The 1st book is more about the revolution, the war, the Soviet era, the atmosphere, Pasternak paints the picture very vividly, but is so weak at his characters, their interactions and relationships. The 2nd book is more about the hippie culture, the 60s atmosphere in the US, the Pranksters with their acid tests and existentialism, with Ken Kesey presented like a religious leader. The 3rd one has very pale characters, more like shadows; the brilliance of the novel is in the way John Fowles compares today's society and Victorian one, explores the history of literature and makes fun of some conventions in novel writing. Maybe I shouldn't say that novels must follow certain rules, meet certain requirements, but that I don't fully appreciate these books because of me rather than the books themselves- generally I'm simply more interested in human beings, in individuals than some abstract things like cultures, movements, lifestyles, etc.
Anyhow, let's stop the digressions and go back to Virginia Woolf's essays.
In "How should one read a book?", after discussing the different ways in which Defoe, Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy might describe a beggar, she says:
"Frequent are the complaints that Jane Austen is too prosaic, Thomas Hardy too melodramatic. And we have to remind ourselves that it is necessary to approach every writer very differently to get from him all he can give us. We have to remember that it is one of the qualities of greatness that it brings heaven and earth and human nature into conformity with its own vision. It is by reason of this masterliness of theirs, this uncompromising idiosyncrasy, that great writers often require us to make heroic efforts in order to read them rightly. They bend us and break us. To go from Jane Austen to Hardy, from Peacock to Trollope, from Scott to Meredith, from Richardson to Kipling, is to be wrenched and distorted, thrown this way and then that."
This is an important point. I must slip into a certain mindset to enjoy Jane Austen's novels. 1 of the things that bug me about some extreme Janeites is that, so fond of their no.1 favourite writer, they have the same mindset when approaching every literary work and expect all other writers to write like Jane Austen, which makes them unable to recognise the greatness of writers who have very different styles, methods or temperaments.
Then she adds:
"Besides, everyone is born with a natural bias of his own in one direction rather than in another. He instinctively accepts Hardy's vision rather than Jane Austen's, and, reading with the current and not against it, is carried on easily and swiftly by the impetus of his own bent to the heart of his author's genius. But then Jane Austen is repulsive to him. He can scarcely stagger through the desert of her novels.
Sometimes this natural antagonism is too great to be overcome, but trial is always worth making."
This is true. Some writers I like instantly, like Tolstoy, Salinger, Toni Morrison... some others take more time, like Dostoyevsky, Jane Austen, Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf... It is natural that we more easily accept a writer's vision than another's, but the key point is that one shouldn't impose limits on oneself but should try to expand one's taste.
"Women and fiction" has many arguments and claims that I have seen in "A room of one's own" (opportunities- among the 4 great female novelists of the 19th century, Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, none had a child and 2 were unmarried, I should also add Virginia Woolf's childless; experience, etc.) She says, works by women around this time often have 1 element that reveal the author's sex- anger, which "introduces distortion and is frequently a cause of weakness".
"The desire to plead some personal cause or to make a character the mouthpiece of some personal discontent or grievance always has a distracting effect, as if the spot at which the reader's attention is directed were suddenly twofold instead of single."
Not everyone's like that, of course: "The genius of Jane Austen and Emily Bronte is never more convincing than in their power to ignore such claims and solicitations and to hold on their way unperturbed by scorn or censure. But it needed a very serene or a very powerful mind to resist the temptation to anger."
But then, coming to the next paragraph, I'm not sure if I agree:
"The woman writer is no longer bitter. She is no longer angry. She is no longer pleading and protesting as she writes."
From what I see, Virginia Woolf does escape the tendency to break off from narrative to complain and reach (at least most of the time), as Charlotte Bronte sometimes does in "Jane Eyre", but whether female writers indeed become more aloof and calm, and less bitter, in her time or in my time, I can't say with certainty.
A while ago I saw this article: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1258607/Very-little-wit-jokes-Womens-book-prize-chairwoman-bemoans-abundance-misery-lit.html
I'm rather irritated by some people's tendency to see women always as victims and men as bastards, to call everything examples of gender inequality. Is it because of bitterness and anger that there are not many successful, important female writers even today, when women have more freedom and opportunities? Even if there's no direct rant, it's tiresome and torturous enough to encounter topics such as child abuse and rape and bereavement so often- no wonder men tend to be prejudiced against books by women.
(Off-topic: is this why I prefer "CSI" to "Law& order: SVU"?)

I guess that's all I'd like to say. This post, after all, is not meant to be a review of the book (which consists of 30 essays). Rather, I'm keeping and discussing some ideas I find fascinating. 


[One must agree with James Joyce- her wolfish name is indeed appropriate. Imagine a name like Virginia Stephen attached to such novels and such essays!]

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