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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Virginia Woolf, reader

We are reading Hermione Lee's biography, Virginia Woolf. I loved the idea of a chapter on reading (chapter 23, called "Reading") , enjoyed and in many ways agreed with Ellen about it, and yet found myself ultimately disappointed, despite some of the small gems that emerged. This is a chapter as much about writing as reading, about reading as the prelude to or part of the dance with writing. Of course, reading is inevitably always that (except for the rare reader who never writes) but I suppose I had hoped for a chapter that dealt wholly with Woolf as reader and what she read. After all, the book as whole is about the writer.

I say this because you can learn (or end up against a wall of mystery which is informative in its own way) about a person from the books they return to: the touchstone books. I was aware of this in the two figures I've done some intense biographical research on, Dorothy Day and Bonhoeffer. I'll stick to Day in this instance. In reading her journals, which span 50 years, I learned that Day was a great, avid reader. She loved and learned from books and like Woolf and other readers she had a strong emotional response to books: they were real to her. Over and over she returned to certain books: Queechy by Susan Warner (unreadable to us but she loved it), The Brother's Karamazov (she had quotes by memory and leaned into them deeply), even Austen, especially, perhaps, Mansfield Park. These books wove themselves into her soul, along with others. They may not all be to our taste but that only works to reinforce the alterity of other people from other times: they are not us. They receive books differently. We simply can't view them (narcissistically?) as mirrors of ourselves. 

But Lee, frustratingly, never tells us what were Woolf's touchstone books. What books did she return to again and again over the course of her life? She must have had such books or, if not, isn't that striking, notable, worth a mention? But we get no such inventory. ... I am simply bemused that Lee doesn't cover this.

In any case, Lee makes the point that for Woolf books influenced her as much as relationships (of course, that cries out for her to tell us which books were lifelong friends, which fell away, which were passing infatuations etc...). We learn that reading is Woolf's life's pleasure and her life's work ... except when, on the last page of the chapter, it's not. But mostly, it's a "despotic" desire. Woolf reacts to books emotionally--they shock her, they arouse her emotions, make her feel. I know well the emotions a great book can elicit, but also wonder how this connects with Woolf's mental illness, if there is some sort of extra-acuteness in Woolf, but Lee doesn't comment. 

I agreed strongly with Woolf's perception that in a book "we have to possess ... the whole" before we can grasp a single detail. Yes. Not that we can't grasp details as we go along on a first reading, but to really grasp a book, you do have to grasp the whole of it. 

Woolf read widely and diversely, as many of us do, and liked to mix second rate with first rate literature, as it helped her understand the best literature and its context better. The second rate helped "fertilize" her mind for the "great." I also appreciated that she hated that coteries with power in the publishing and literary worlds pushed second rate books, the middlebrow, as better than they are: we see that often in our times, needless to say, and we hear people rave about truly mediocre books that are the "thing." 

Reading can even be sexual for Woolf, and I agree with that. I also understood wanting a day perfectly fit together, like a cabinet with beautiful compartments, and her distress when her best writing time in the morning was interrupted--'wasted the cream of my brain on the telephone" or she had to use her best time to write books reviews to earn money. She could be describing my life: how to hang on to that prime writing time, when the brain is at its best, how to guard it? But this, of course, is about writing, not reading. 

We learn that as a writer, she wants a fiction that moves faster than the Victorian novel, that is more fluid, impressionistic, a shower of atoms. We learn that when she writes, she wants "a wall for the book from oneself." Lee takes this to mean Woolf wanted to write not too autobiographically. 

At the end of the chapter Lee talks about Woolf's belief that women read and write in a particular way about other women's lives. And Lee writes the cryptic last paragraph about Woolf having a moment of frustration with writing and by implication reading, what Lee calls a "moment of despair." I call the last paragraph a way to evade having to draw any conclusions or summation from a diffuse chapter that dances and weaves all too amorphously around Woolf's reading life.


  1. "Wasted the cream of my brain on the phone." Yep. I have to say, that these last few posts have been terrific. Thanks for writing. Don't waste any more cream!

  2. I don't agree on the Lee in the sense that finally I was not disappointed despite feeling grated upon now and again and feeling Lee deliberately avoided going thoroughly into some vital areas -- like Woolf's adult sexuality rather than family life. It was altogether too convenient her thesis that Woolf remained a Victorian-Edwardian in disguise. Why? because I feel I got closer to Woolf than I ever have before despite Lee's own limitations, which I'll list here: her unexamined drive to conformity (so she never approves of the Hogarth Press), her thick-skinned (and probably a matter of luck and hard pride protected her) inability to appreciate the sexual trauma visited upon women in our patriarchal society, her refusal to look at where Woolf learned to cling for protection with any sympathy (the earlier relationship with the self-satisfied until she feel in love with Duncan Grant Vanessa; her marriage to controlled Leonard who
    enabled her) because forsooth it shows vulnerability it's not in good taste to show, much less feel, her conservative politics -- in short her second rate mind. But she has something the other biographers and recent literary critics
    don't: a willingness to use English flexibly, clearly, to close read, to work hard and conscientiously on all the documents and report them.

    I also love literary biography -- in a way to me it's as creative and can be as great and greater than any novel. That list I made out on my blog of "A Year in Books" was like looking at a mirror of myself. I was a little startled at that tiny percentage of male authors -- and in movies that's because they run the films still. I also had 6
    biographies in my first ten books for the year, and one in the second, a book of letters, two literary critical books. The novel doesn't do so well with me -- it does get in the way of deeper statements (as you pointed out Woolf thoughts0 and if written by true genius literary critical books can be more creative (I'm thinking of Roger Frye's famous book on genres). Often I prefer a writer's essays and life-writing to her novels: that's the case for me with much of Atwood's fiction. I'm finding I much prefer Frantumalgia to the first volume of Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet. There's another reason for loving Woolf's works as her life-writing and essays far outnumber her novels of which only 3 are truly conventional (Voyage out, Night and Day, Mrs Dalloway)

    1. Amending: Lee has a first rate mind (I was unfair, too strong); what she is is caught up in that old-fashioned Arnoldian term: philistine. Ellen

  3. Rog, I too love wasted the cream of my brain ...

  4. Ellen,

    I was commenting just on this chapter being disappointing. As a whole, I thought Lee was excellent and learned quite alot from this bio. I should blog on it as a whole, but don't know if I'll have time with the winged chariot of a new semester hurrying near.