Posted tagged ‘Virginia Woolf’

latest recovery read

April 3, 2019

I mentioned recently that I was working my way through To the Lighthouse because I had re-read Mrs. Dalloway last year and really enjoyed it. But I knew I needed to put a little distance betwixt my Woolf readings, so I waited this long to pick her up again. (I did, however, buy a nice reading copy of Orlando over the weekend.) Her stream-of-consciousness, Modernist sentences took some effort, and I often had to re-read a given sentence, either because I didn’t understand who was talking/what was being said or because I just wanted to savor it again. So it was slow going, getting to that lighthouse.

When I finished it, I grabbed a novel called The Book of Joe, by Jonathan Tropper. The jacket blurb mentioned something about a troubled relationship between the protagonist and his father (plus the obvious Old Testament reference), so I was interested. It turned out to have less to do with that (the father dies pretty early in the story) and more to do with the protagonist becoming less of a dick.

It was a quick read, not demanding and not making any deep literary or philosophical allusions (that I spotted anyway), and when I was done I wanted to read something with a little more substance.

So I picked up Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. I’d read at least two of his other novels years ago in a book discussion group I was in. (I miss those guys!) Our Souls at Night is a short book, and the copy I have is a small book, so even the “few” 179 pages are misleading since the physical page is undersized enuf that each page contains fewer words than a regular book would. I finished it in two days.

Haruf is perhaps as far from Woolf as a writer can get. I think he would make Hemingway seem verbose (if I were ever going to read a Hemingway novel again to compare, which I won’t). His sentences are spare. His descriptions are minimal. He comes directly to his points without a lot of verbiage or scene setting. He assumes that a lot of the story corollary is going to happen inside the reader’s head, so he doesn’t throw a lot of stuff at you.

Yet even so, his characters are believable and easily visible (though in my mind I did not picture the two main characters as Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, as they were cast in the movie made of the novel).

All of Haruf’s half dozen novels (I intend to read them all) are set in a fictional town called Holt, Colorado, on the Front Range. It’s a good setting for such spare writing since it is a spare country. He makes reference in each of his novels to characters who appear in his other novels, even touching on those plots. I’m fine with that (Elizabeth Strout does this sometimes, too), but what happens in Chapter 34 of Our Souls at Night is something I’ve never seen another writer do.

I won’t tell you what this is since the novel is such a short read. You could indulge yourself if interested, no?

A Room of One’s Own

April 27, 2009

Virginia Woolf famously wrote that a woman who wished to be a writer needed a room of her own and a sufficient income to be free to do so. (Her essay, born of a series of lectures she gave, asked whether a woman could write works comparable to Shakespeare, but I have to ask if any men have since written works comparable to Shakespeare. Her point stands, though. A woman of sufficient gifts in Shakespeare’s time would not have had the opportunity to develop her talents.)

For a long time I felt ambivalent about Woolf’s assertion. Most writers I know, and know of, have to steal time from all of their other responsibilities of living to write. I know that I do. Yet writing gets done. Woolf would sensibly counter that women of her age, and much more so in Shakespeare’s age, would not have even had the opportunity to steal time for writing. It’s not just for writing that we can be glad our society has changed.

Still, I often wondered just how much difference financial and social independence made for a writer. Then I came upon a revealing anecdote.

It seems that a young woman was working menial jobs in New York and lamented to friends that she could not get her writing done because she didn’t have the unbroken opportunity to concentrate on it properly. One Christmas her friends surprised her with a check in an amount equivalent to what she earned in an entire year. They told her she was now free to write, and so she did. At the end of the year she came forth with a manuscript entitled Go Set a Watchman. After a couple of title changes (and two and half years of work with her editor) the woman’s novel was published: To Kill a Mockingbird.

Of course it isn’t merely the opportunity to write that brings forth works like To Kill a Mockingbird. There has to be a story to tell, and there has to be sufficient talent to tell it well. Nonetheless, I became a believer after hearing this story.

There is a similar story about comedienne Carol Burnett and how she was given sufficient money to travel to New York and begin her singing and acting career. Author Michael Pollan explores this need for a room of one’s own quite literally in his nonfiction book A Place of My Own, which is an account of the construction of his writing cabin. (Pollan has since gone down a tangent in his writing to explore food, and while I’m sure it’s as well written as his earlier works, it doesn’t interest me much.)

I intend to use Woolf’s feminist theme of women lacking the opportunity to cultivate their creativity in my own novel Finnegans Deciphered. I continue to make extensive notes about it, but I want to be sure I’m ready to write it before I steal the time to do so. Means is just as important as motive and opportunity when it comes to writing.