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“They have loved reading”. @NottingHillEds #VirginiaWoolf

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Essays on the Self by Virginia Woolf
Introduced by Joanna Kavenna

I guess it was going to be a given that, having been drawn back to Virginia by my wonderful read of “To the River”, I would want to pick up something Woolfian pretty soon. Fortunately, I had this beautiful little collection of essays standing by, courtesy of Notting Hill Editions, and it was just the thing I needed…

The book was actually issued in 2014, and I’m not sure how I managed to miss it at that time, since I do follow the Notting Hill releases keenly. This is one of their Classic Collection volumes, beautifully presented as always with cloth-covered hard boards, high quality printing and production standards, plus a lovely integral bookmark. So an aesthetically pleasing item in its own right!

The most elementary remarks upon modern English fiction can hardly avoid some mention of the Russian influence, and if the Russians are mentioned one runs the risk of feeling that to write of any fiction save theirs is a waste of time. If we want understanding of the soul and heart where else shall we find it of comparable profundity? (Modern Fiction)

As for the contents, well this is Virginia Woolf so it’s going to be good… The collection draws together essays by Woolf that consider the ‘self’ in all its variations: from the self of the artist, the social self, the self behind the mask, how the artist maintains their sense of self in the face of all odds, and so on. Taking this kind of thing as its stepping off point, however, the works featured here range far and wide over the rights of women, modernity, the future of the novel, the art of specific authors and so on. Woolf is never dull, and whether writing novels, short stories, letters, diaries or essays like these, her language is captivating and her linguistic flights unmistakable.

… reading, you know, is rather like opening the door to a horde of rebels who swarm out attacking one in twenty places at once – hit, roused, scraped, bared, swung through the air, so that life seems to flash by; then again blinded, knocked on the head… (A Letter to a Young Poet – Woolf on the effect of a good book…)

I confess I always feel a little inadequate when I’m writing about Virginia Woolf; so much has been written about her, she herself was a peerless author, so whatever can I bring to the table? Nevertheless, I’ll give my thoughts for what it’s worth… And first up I must say that this collection served to remind me just how glittering and brilliant Woolf’s prose really was; I’ve never read anything like it, and I don’t think anyone else could ever write like her. The way she plucks the most unlikely imagery out of the ether and spins a sentence that knocks you sideways is unparalleled. There are so many examples in just this slim collection, and when I think of the body of work she left behind I get quite speechless. When you think of the periods of illness she suffered and the relative shortness of her life, the achievement is even more immense.

The art of writing, and that is perhaps what my malcontent means by ‘beauty’, the art of having at one’s beck and call every word in the language, of knowing their weights, colours, sounds, associations, and thus making them, as is so necessary in English, suggest more than they can state, can be learnt of course to some extent by reading – it is impossible to read too much… (A Letter to a Young Poet)

As usual, I can’t really pick favourites, as each essay is marvellous; I’ve read several before, including “Modern Fiction” and “A Letter to a Young Poet”, and I would say they’re even more of a delight on a return visit. A particular treat, however, was “Evening over Sussex: Reflections in a Motor Car”, where Woolf allows several selves to argue the toss around her, whilst capturing vividly the sensation of driving through the countryside. It was published in “The Death of the Moth”, which I’m sure I have and which I’m sure I’ve read, but this wasn’t that familiar. It was stunning, however!

I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgement dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesman come to receive their awards – their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble – the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when he sees us coming with our books under our arms, ‘Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.’ (How Should One Read a Book?)

The selections in this lovely volume range from 1919 to December 1940 – so not long before Woolf’s tragic death; that last piece, a short extract from her diary where she reiterates her individuality, is particularly moving (but then nowadays I tend to find everything about Woolf moving). And reading this collection certainly makes me feel like immersing myself in her peerless prose for a while. Poignantly enough, I found that as I was making my way through the essays I could hear them in my head; I have a copy of the surviving recording of Woolf and her tone and inflection had obviously lodged in my mind so that the words I was reading were being replayed as if in her voice. It was a very odd experience, but added to the joy of reading this.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There are a lot of collections of Virginia Woolf’s essays available (including some Complete volumes which I am gradually collecting…) However, they can be a little overwhelming, and I can recommend this lovely Notting Hill Editions book as a great way to start with her non-fiction. It contains some of her most important essays, gives a real sense of the variety and range of her writing, and the erudite introduction by Joanna Kavenna is a fascinating adjunct to the essays. I really don’t know how I missed this one first time round, but I’m so glad I caught up with it now! 😀

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher – for which many thanks!

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“… One population will replace another in this world until the jig is up and the weeds cease to bloom.” #totheriver # olivialaing

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To the River by Olivia Laing

Normally, I don’t tend to jump straight into a gift book as I’ll be enmeshed in either a review book or something which has called to me strongly or just whatever happens to have taken my fancy at the time. However, Mr. Kaggsy’s inspired choice of “To the River” as a Valentine’s Day gift just had to be the next book I picked up. It’s one I’ve been aware of for ages, pretty sure that I wanted to read it but somehow I just never got round to picking up a copy. The draw, of course, is the setting and the luminous presence of Virginia Woolf in the narrative; but there’s so much more than that in this marvellous work.

The premise of the book is quite straightforward: in the wake of a major relationship breakdown, Laing decides to the walk the course of the river Ouse from its source to its outlet at the sea. The choice is significant, as her love of the area is so strong that her inability to leave it actually contributes to the break up with her partner. So Laing sets out on the Summer Solstice (a significant date for me, as it’s my wedding anniversary), with a backpack, some unsuitable sandals, and some oatcakes and cheese, to spend a week walking the route. Her state of mind is an emotional one, understandably, and escaping the everyday routines is cathartic (as is possibly the water itself, with its symbolic and actual action of washing clean), allowing her mind to focus on simply living in the natural world.

So we follow Laing on her journey as she traces the Ouse from an unimpressive trickle to the sea, and accompany her travels into herself, the area’s past and the strong and vivid presence of the English countryside. Although the book is rooted in Laing’s experiences and her reactions to her surroundings, it is in fact a book that works on so many levels. It’s an extended meditation on what it means to be human; how we should live our life as it is, in the here and now, as there certainly won’t be another; on life, death, our poor suffering planet and the nature of the Ouse area; and the history, both recent and ancient, which made it what it is and how it will change in times to come. Laing draws on myth, predominantly that of Thomas the Rhymer/Tam Lin, and at times in the narrative she seems to almost be straddling the boundaries between this world and some chimerical other. The book is also informed by the fascinating stories of the people who lived in and shaped the area, from Simon de Montfort to Piltdown Man – and, of course, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, whose lives are threads running through the whole book and informing the narrative.

The past is not behind us but beneath, and the ground we walk on is nothing more than a pit of bones, from which the grass unstinting grows.

Although I found the whole book compelling and brilliant, Laing’s meditations on the Woolfs were particularly illuminating, and often so moving. Laing, of course, passes the point at which Virginia’s body was found after her suicide; it was in the Ouse that she chose to take her own life, after walking out one morning and filling her pocket with stones. Laing’s understanding of Woolf is acute, and her thoughts on the latter’s work extremely enlightening. She draws out threads from Woolf’s work which come from the Sussex setting, most particularly “Between the Acts”, which was set in that landscape and, as an antidote to WW2 raging around her, searched back into the past for sustenance. Again, there are resonances in Woolf’s “Orlando”, which hops over centuries and encompasses so many changes in British history. That sense of the past recurs in the writing of both Woolf and Laing, allowing each woman perspective on her current life and rooting her into the world around her. She also wisely warns against applying hindsight to Woolf’s life and eventual fate, resisting the temptation to look for signs and portents of what was to come, which can be read into any life but aren’t necessarily the case and weren’t seen that way by the person living through that life.

…some bout of poetry after dinner, half read, half lived, as if the flesh were dissolved & through it the flowers burst red & white. (Virginia Woolf)

Inevitably, those parts of the book dealing with Virginia and Leonard were particularly moving; and I was pleased to see Laing writing about the latter, as despite the fact he sometimes gets bad press I have a warmth and a sympathy for Leonard who loved Virginia and, I feel, was often responsible for her surviving as far as she did. Some of the quotes Laing uses are amazing (and make me want to run off and read Virginia instantly); but one which fairly devastated me was a short, heartbreaking piece of writing by Leonard about still expecting to see Virginia walking across the garden towards him after her death. I confess that I blubbed.

What is this world, really? We are told we have infinite choice and yet there’s so much that occurs beyond the perimeter of our command. We do not know why we’re set down here and though we may choose the moment when we leave, not a single one of us can shift the position we’ve been assigned in time, nor bring back those we love once they have ceased to breathe.

But back to the river… The draw of water, which of course features strongly in the book, perhaps shouldn’t be surprising; after all, humans are made up of 60% of the stuff (I always thought it was 90% but apparently not…); and as an island nation we’re used to being surrounded by it and having to navigate it (well, at least since the time when it became impossible to negotiate the Channel by foot any more). Personally, I have a huge love for the sea (particularly a wild North Sea) which I put down to the fact that my maternal grandfather was a merchant seaman; his ship was one of the first merchant vessels to be sunk in WW2, and so I never knew him, but I always feel like the sea is in my blood. But I digress…

Simon Carey / River Ouse – via Wikimedia Commons

Laing brings much botanical knowledge to her travels, identifying and enjoying the wild flora and fauna that flourish in the marshy areas alongside the Ouse, connecting with the land beneath her feet and ruing the destruction left in the wake of humans carving chunks out of the countryside. She is, however, realistic enough to acknowledge that a landscape is never static and that the world is constantly changing and evolving, however slowly and invisibly to the human eye. We can just hope that our fragile planet, made up of so much water, can survive what our race is currently doing to it. The book is also something of a paean to solitude and its replenishing nature, as well as reflecting on how impossible it is to really *know* other human beings.

It struck me as curious then, the idea of a whole town of people attending to their business, a whole town of people driving cars or walking the streets, the face is only partially betraying the magic lantern show that flares utter privacy within the confines of the skull.

At the end of the book, Laing collides with the reality of civilization, having spent a happy week away from it communing with herself and nature, with an almost palpable and jarring crash; and that coming back to reality is not pleasant (at least, it wasn’t for me! )

Why does the past do this? Why does it linger instead of receding? Why does it return with such force sometimes that the real place in which one stands or sits or lies, the place in which one’s corporeal body most undeniably exists, dissolves as if it were nothing more than a mirage? The past cannot be grasped; it is not possible to return in time, to re-gather what was lost or carelessly shrugged off, so why these sudden ambushes, these flourishes of memory?

“To the River” is profound and compelling reading, and I found that once I’d embarked with Laing on her journey, I just couldn’t put the book down. Her writing is beautiful, with her evocative descriptions capturing brilliantly the atmosphere of hot English countryside, with the silence smothered by the climate and just the noise of insects. She tells her tale wonderfully, weaving together all the threads of her narrative (from ancient battles to dinosaur fossils to the aftermath of Woolf’s death) into a dazzling tapestry of a book that never fails to delight. I’ve seen Laing’s book described as Sebaldian, presumably as it mixes history and personal memoir and landscape; however, it’s a book that I think stands apart from labels and I prefer to think of it as Laingian! The success of any kind of work involving a personal narrative depends very much on your willingness to take a step into the author’s world and make a connection; I clicked with Laing straight away, happy to spend hours in her company, walking by her side and following her travels. “To the River” is a wonderful, memorable and stand out book, one which is always going to remain on my shelves and will very likely end up amongst my books of the year. Good choice, Mr. Kaggsy! 😀

Arrivals and depatures – an update on the state of the book piles! :D

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Those of you who follow me on social media may have noticed the odd image or two recently which might just have indicated the continuing arrival of books at the Ramblings. I cannot lie – they have been creeping in the door when Mr. Kaggsy’s guard is down (or in some cases getting delivered at work). And in the interests of full disclosure and more Gratuitous Book Pictures, it’s only fitting that I share them with you… ;D

Charity shops, of course, making things impossible for the book lover – I guess I should just stop going in them. However, even being as stringent and selective as I have been lately, these have made it past my barriers! The DeWitt is one I’ve wanted to read for ages, so a cheap copy in the Oxfam was irresistible. And Clive James’s essays cover all manner of topics of interest to me. The Finn book is another one riffing on “Three Men in a Boat” – well, I adore the original and so anything that takes that as a starting point is going to be interesting. And Mark Steel’s humourous take on the French Revolution sounds like it might have hidden depths – most intriguing.  As for “New Writings in SF” – well, thereby hangs a tale…

Lurid cover or what!!!!

In the Oxfam yesterday they’d obviously had a donation of a good number of vintage sci-fi titles including lots of “New Writings in SF”; so of course I had to check these out to see if there were any authors I was particularly interested in. If I’m honest, I was looking for uncollected M. John Harrison, as many of his early stories were in these volumes, and I wasn’t disappointed. One book had a story which reappeared in “The Machine in Shaft 10” so I left that behind, alas; but volume 14 had a story called “Green Five Renegade” and I was pretty sure it was new to me. Thank goodness for the ISFDB and a phone with data; a quick search revealed that the story has only been in anthologies so I snapped it up, particularly as it’s an early one. It cost a little more than I would usually pay which I guess reflects its rarity, but it *is* in really good nick. I would’ve liked to bring them all home – so many interesting authors! – but I had to draw the line somewhere…

There there is Verso and their rotten end of year 50% off sale. Quite impossible to resist and I settled on these two titles:

The Benjamin/Baudelaire combo is a no-brainer of course; and I borrowed the Adorno from the library and was intrigued, so was happy to get my own, Reasonably Priced, copy.

Has there been online buying? Yes, I’m afraid so, in the form of these:

A couple of books about Dostoevsky; Rousseau on walking; Proust short works; and a novel of the French Revolution. What’s not to love??

This also came from an online purchase:

I’m always happy to support indie publishers, and Salt are one of the best so I decided to splash out on another of their poetry titles. Why this one? No idea – I liked the sound of it and I liked the cover! I’ll report back on the contents….

And finally, I’ve been spoiled by some review books from a couple of lovely publishers:

Notting Hill Editions, who produce the loveliest essay collections and intriguing titles, sent me a volume I’d somehow missed of Virginia Woolf’s “Essays on the Self”; I can’t wait. “Mentored by a Madman” is a new title which draws on the influence of William S. Burroughs. I read *a lot* by the latter back in the day, so I’m very interested to see what this one is about.

And the three titles by or about Jozef Czapski are from NYRB; another author new to me but one whose work sounds absolutely fascinating. Thank you, lovely publishers.

That’s quite a number of books, isn’t it? Lest you imagine the Ramblings to be collapsing under the weight of printed paper, however, I should reassure you that I *am* being sensible and pruning books I’m never going to read or revisit; a process that’s surprisingly a bit easier than I expected. Here’s just a couple of boxes of books which will be winging their way to the Samaritans Book Cave soon. So hopefully the house won’t collapse any time soon! ;D

A few quick literary links…. @lithub @parisreview @guardian

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A lot of lovely blogs tend to have regular features with links to all the exciting posts, articles and features that pop up on the InterWeb. It’s not a thing I generally do, but today’s newsletter from LitHub had some links I just felt I had to share!

By Ginny from USA (book sale loot) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Feminize Your Canon – a really interesting initiative from The Paris Review (which has been widely shared on Twitter today). It’s a new monthly column celebrating neglected woman writers, starting with Olivia Manning, and deserves to be read and applauded. You can subscribe to receive daily updates from the PR which are always worth reading as well.

Top 10 lost women’s classics – an interesting piece from the always-interesting Guardian newspaper in a similar vein, which has some very intriguing books featured.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Penelope Lively on Virginia Woolf – on LitHub this time, a fascinating extract from Lively’s book, “Life in the Garden”.

If you don’t subscribe to LitHub’s daily newsletter, I’d suggest signing up. A daily dose of literary links can be just what the doctor ordered – although always potentially bad for the wishlist and TBR…. 🙂

 

#1977club – some previous reads

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Well, we’re halfway through our week of reading from 1977, and I thought I would take a look at some previous reads – both on the blog and off. Interestingly, I don’t seem to have covered many books from 1977 here on the Ramblings, but I don’t record the publication dates so I may have missed some. Anyways, as they say, here are a few I’ve written about before:

Interestingly, I guess you could possibly say that these are what might be called ‘difficult’ books; Clarice Lispector, who I wrote about here, definitely has a reputation as not being a straightforward read. The Strugatskys wrote some marvellous speculative and sci-fi books – this one is a wonderfully twisty tale and you can read my thoughts on it here. And the Lem was one of a series of re-issues by Penguin. Again writing under a Soviet regime, so lots of subtexts, I covered it for Shiny New Books here.

However, in pre-blog times I’ve read some substantial books from 1977, including these:

I went through a phase of reading Diana Wynne Jones in the 1980s (and was lucky enough to meet her once). She was a marvellous author (much better than a certain HP writer, in my view…) and this is one of her Chrestomanci books. She always twisted reality rather wonderfully. The Tolkien came out not long after I had discovered The Lord of the Rings , and I was keen to read anything by the author; although I’ve never found anything that matched up to the trilogy.

The very fat Agatha book was essential reading for any fan of the great Christie and I read it back in the day although if you asked me for specifics I would collapse in a heap of poor memory. As for the Woolf diaries – well, I came upon these in the early 1980s (which is when I think they first appeared in paperback). I had a daily train commute at the time and I immersed myself in Woolf’s diaries and letters and all the wonder and strangeness of Bloomsbury – developed a real obsession with the group, in fact. I would love to read them all again – maybe in retirement – but time isn’t going to permit that during this week.

I also recall that I once owned and read a copy of “In Patagonia” and I think I rather enjoyed it – but it, and my memories of it, have I’m afraid flown off in the wind…

So – some previous reads on and off the blog. I’m still planning a mix of new and old reads this week, and it’s actually nice that our club reads give me what I feel is an excuse to re-read. What are you enjoying from 1977 this week?

Reclaiming the Streets

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Flaneuse by Lauren Elkin

As an inveterate walker (I don’t drive…) I was naturally going to be attracted to a book that covered women and walking; especially one that promised a psychogeographical look, rather than marching around in trainers to get fit! (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course). Lauren Elkin’s book takes the concept of a flaneur (defined as “a man who saunters around observing society”) and applies a specifically female experience to this, creating the idea of a flaneuse – and the idea is fascinating.

Elkin is an American abroad in the world, self-exiled from her country of birth, and her concept of flaneuserie is filtered through her own experience. Using a mixture of memoir, herstory and social commentary, Elkin presents an intriguing look about the limitations placed on women’s lives and how transgressive it is (and still can be) for women to simply wander the streets.

Most of the chapters focus on a specific city (Paris more than once, obviously) taking a look at individual women who’ve made the landscape their own. So of course Virginia Woolf stalks the streets of London; George Sand haunts Paris in the grip of revolution; and Sophie Calle pursues her prey through Venice. The books also references cultural media such as the film “Lost in Translation” which features a very specific situation of a woman left to her own devices in Tokyo, a situation mirrored in Elkin’s own life.

The world is less scary when you have some control over where you go in it.

“Flaneuse” is an interesting read; Elkin wears her erudition lightly but references everything from Marina Warner’s “Monuments and Maidens” through any number of novelists to the situationists and surrealists. She makes important points about the marginalisation of women’s experiences and it’s frightening to be reminded how recently women’s lives were constrained (even by something as essential to them as the clothing they wore).

Sand’s trouser-wearing was in its way an act of revolution; at the very least, it was illegal. In the year 1800, a law had been passed forbidding women to wear them in public. This law is still in effect today, though of course ignored; but even in 1969 an attempt to overturn it failed…A culture struggling to redefine itself against the blood-soaked Place de la Revolution fixated on the female body as a tool for instilling certain values in the heart of the new Republic.

I was reminded when reading Elkin’s book of the “Reclaim the Night” campaign which came into existence in the 1970s, during the second wave of feminism and when I was just discovering the movement; and which is still in existence today. To a certain extent Elkin’s book doesn’t engage with the real issues of violence which can come a woman’s way if she’s out and about in the city; and ignores the streetwalking aspect of women’s lives when women are out there not just for the pleasure of ambling through the streets but as sex workers. It’s perhaps a middle-class conceit to wander the city streets to get to know a location when some of us would like just to be out there safely allowed to get from place to place without being hassled (or worse).

So, much as I enjoyed reading “Flaneuse”, I did have a few issues with it. There is a slight sense of the narrative flagging towards the end of the book and if I’m honest, although I loved the chapter on Martha Gellhorn (because she fascinates me) I felt that it did sit slightly anachronistically alongside the rest of the book. It read more as a case of someone flaneusing the world rather than a city, and the lack of focus tended to dilute the effect of Elkin’s story. Additionally, there were occasions when I would have found an index useful as the book has so many cultural references that there were times I wanted to go back and check them.

What do we see of a revolution after it’s gone? A better, world perhaps. Some changes in the structure of society. But not always – sometimes there’s no change at all.

However, parts of the book were fascinating; particularly the sections on Paris, one of which focused on the various revolutions which have shaken its streets over the centuries. That city is Elkin’s adopted home nowadays and her love for it certainly shone through in her narrative. It was also instructive to be reminded just how radical it can actually be to walk in some cities (mainly American), which seem to have been constructed solely for the use of the car.

…. it’s the centre of cities where women have been empowered, by plunging into the heart of them, and walking where they’re not meant to. Walking where other people (men) walk without eliciting comment. That is the transgressive act. You don’t need to crunch around in Gore-Tex to be subversive, if you’re a woman. Just walk out your front door.

“Flaneuse” is an interesting book which makes interesting points about women’s presence on the streets. I think it ultimately fails to go far enough in its discussion of the issues they’ve faced in the past and still face now, and whether this was a deliberate decision by the author or not I can’t tell. It’s certainly set me thinking about our relationship to our environment and also appreciate certain freedoms modern women have, compared with Sand and her ilk. However, the more I considered it and let it settle in my brain after I’d read it, the more I ended up feeling that it falls short of its intended aim. With more structure, more historical narrative and more focus on the very real issues women can face while out on the streets attempting to flaneuse, and perhaps a little less personal memoir, the book would have been much stronger. I’ve ended up sounding a bit more negative than I expected here, but I did enjoy reading “Flaneuse”; and if your local library stocks it that might be the best way to check it out and see how it works for you

This Unseizable Force

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Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf

As we limp towards the end of this rotten year, we’re also getting to the end of HeavenAli’s wonderful #Woolfalong. I’ve dipped in when I can, and I was very keen to get at least one more Woolf title in before December finished. In the end, I chose her third novel “Jacob’s Room”, a book I haven’t read in 35 years, and so in many ways this was like coming to it anew – and what a wonderful experience it was.

jacob

JR is usually cited as the book where Woolf’s writing really took off and it’s not difficult to see why. Her previous novels, though they contained hints of what was to come, had been quite traditional. Here, Woolf threw away the rule book and began to weave stories in her own unique way. In simple terms, the book tells the story of a life, that of Jacob Flanders; we follow him from his childhood in Scarborough, playing on the beach with his widowed mother and siblings; through his school and university years; to his time travelling Europe on a small legacy and visiting Greece, which leads to his final, very understated fate.

But this is no straightforward telling, and Jacob himself, though the focal point of the story, is often a shadowy figure. We see him through the eyes of others – his mother, family friends, potential loves, actual lovers, colleagues – until the multifaceted viewpoint brings up as nuanced a portrait of someone else as we can have. Woolf seems to be saying that we can never really know another person, only some element of him, and that life itself is an unseizable force that a novelist can never capture. Certainly the elusive Jacob presents a different face to everyone around him, depending on his relationship with them, their own individual personalities and quirks; and Woolf uses these viewpoints to build up her portrait of her main character.

Nobody sees any one as he is, let alone an elderly lady sitting opposite a strange young man in a railway carriage, They see a whole – they see all sorts of things – they see themselves…

Writing about the plot of “Jacob’s Room” somehow seems irrelevant, because in many ways that doesn’t matter. It’s the story of a life, and a life cut short, and the book reads in places as an elegy for someone who was just passing through. The book was, of course, inspired by the life of Thoby Stephen, Woolf’s brother, who contracted typhoid while travelling through Greece, and died from it; so it’s hard not to read it without being constantly aware of that underlying tragedy.

thoby-stephen

But what remains with me most vividly from revisiting “Jacob’s Room” is the strong sense of place; the locations and settings are painted so evocatively that they seem more real than the characters. London, of course, was a particular love of Woolf’s and she writes about it like no other author; here, she conjures it in all its complexity, from lovely Lambs Conduit Street where Jacob has rooms, to the ABC cafes where a single woman can dine alone respectably. Similarly, the heat and scenery of Greece leaps off the page, and the coasts and seas of England are evoked brilliantly.

Jacob’s room had a round table and two low chairs. There were yellow flags in a jar on the mantelpiece; a photograph of his mother; cards from societies with little raised crescents, coats of arms, and initials; notes and pipes; on the table lay paper ruled with a red margin – an essay, no doubt – ‘Does History consist of the Biographies of Great men?’ There were books enough; very few French books, but then anyone who’s worth anything reads just what he likes, as the mood takes him, with extravagant enthusiasm. …. Listless is the air in an empty room, just swelling the curtain; the flowers in the jar shift. One fibre in the wicker armchair creaks, though no-one sits there.

And of course singing out is Woolf’s wonderful, luminous prose, capturing moments of being, emotions, and fragments of other lives which are contiguous to Jacob’s. The tropes she used so well in “Mrs. Dalloway”, such as ranging over places and people in a wonderful impressionistic sequence, are all here and beautifully executed. I always love the way she pins a character down in just a few sentences, and those running through the life of Jacob are memorable; from his doting mother, to Clara Durrant who loves him hopelessly through his friend Bonamy to Sandra Wentworth Williams, his married paramour, they all spring from the pages. I could go on and on about how wonderful Woolf’s writing is, but really you need to experience it; and interestingly I find myself thinking that this would be a very good book to begin to explore her work, as it’s short, beautiful and very readable.

It seems that a profound, impartial, and absolutely just opinion of our fellow-creatures is utterly unknown. Either we are men, or we are women. Either we are cold, or we are sentimental. Either we are young, or growing old. In any case life is but a procession of shadows, and God knows why it is that we embrace them so eagerly, and see them depart with such anguish, being shadows.

This is not so much a review as a reaction to a book, I realise, but as so much has been written about Woolf I sometimes feel a little intimidated when sitting down to do a post about her. And what I can say is that I am never disappointed when I pick up something by Virginia Woolf; there is a reason she’s regarded as one of the 20th century’s best authors and that’s because she is. If you haven’t yet experienced her writing, do yourself a favour by trying one of her books – and “Jacob’s Room” is an excellent place to start!

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