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“Our being for the moment is centred…” #virginiawoolf @RenardPress

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Well, I said yesterday on this very blog that I would spend some time dipping into the words of the wonderful Virginia Woolf – and indeed I did. As I shared on social media, I felt that the lovely little pamphlet of her essay “How Should One Read a Book?”, which arrived recently as part of my Renard Press subscription, would be the ideal choice. And it was – proof, if it ever was needed, that Woolf was a stunning essayist.

Woolf’s essay dates from 1925, and as a note at the front explains, was based on a paper read at a school. It was originally published in “The Common Reader: Second Series” and Renard issued it as a World Book Day Special, which I think is a brilliant idea. What’s equally brilliant, of course, is Woolf’s writing; whenever I return to it, I find it takes my breath away and I can’t believe how her prose soars.

The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.

In the essay, Woolf explores how best to be a reader, advocating following your own path and loving whatever you happen to love, despite the pressure to only read works of which others approve. It’s a credo with which I can wholeheartedly agree – and the essay ends with a much-quoted paragraph that gets my emotions every time (and no, I’m not going to quote it here – you really do need to read this essay yourself if you’re a booklover!

I shan’t go on any more about how brilliant the essay is, because it’s Woolf which in my mind equal genius. Instead, I shall share a couple more sentences and urge you to track down a copy of this (and indeed anything by her). Virginia Woolf left an incredible legacy, and we readers are all the more fortunate because of it.

To read a novel is a difficult and complex art. You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist – the great artist – gives you.

…merely by going from friend to friend, from garden to garden, from house to house, we have passed from one end of English literature to another and wake to find ourselves here again in the present, if we can so differentiate this moment from all that have gone before. This, then, is one of the ways in which we can read these lives and letters; we can make them light up the many windows of the past; we can watch the famous dead in their familiar habits and fancy sometimes that we are very close and can surprise their secrets, and sometimes we may pull out a play or a poem that they have written and see whether it reads differently in the presence of the author.

(on reading biographies)

Four score years… #virginiawoolf

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How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.

Virginia Woolf, The Waves

As I mentioned in my recent review of Alexandra Harris’s excellent little book on Virginia Woolf, I was quite shocked to realise that it’s 80 years today since she took her own life by walking into the River Ouse, fearing another bout of what she called ‘madness’. Woolf has been part of my reading life for half that time, and she’s one of the most important writers to me. I’ve read all of her novels, many of her essays, her diaries and her letters, as well as umpteen books about her and the milieu in which she moved. I can’t imagine my life without her work.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And I get very emotional about her; when I visited a major exhibition based around her life at the National Portrait Gallery back in 2014 (along with Middle Child and my old friend J.), her final letter to Leonard was almost too much. So today I will remember her for her genius, her wit and her truly unique writing; and I will spend a little time dipping into her words, which certainly changed the way I thought of literature.

“…days slipping by unrecorded…” #VirginiaWoolf #AlexandraHarris

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I’ve come to realise that when your TBR is as big a mountain as mine is, a regular reshuffle of the piles is essential to stop coveted arrivals disappearing into the stacks. A case in point is a wonderful book I read recently – “Virginia Woolf” by Alexandra Harris. I first read about this back in 2018 on Simon’s blog and loved the sound of it; I’ve read *a lot* by and about Woolf over the decades and I absolutely love her. I was reassured by Simon’s statement that this was a book even a well-versed Woolf-lover could enjoy, and merrily sent away for a copy. It’s languished in the stacks ever since, to my shame, and when I stumbled upon in during a recent rummage it was exactly the book I was in the mood to read.

Author Alexandra Harris is someone I’ve read before, although I have to say that I was a tiny bit underwhelmed by “Romantic Moderns” when I explored it pre-blog, finding it not quite holding together enough for me. Here, though, her focus is firmly on one woman, the very inspirational Virginia Woolf. In ten relatively short chapters (the book is only 191 pages, including illustrations, notes, appendices etc) she relates clearly Woolf’s life, her work and her legacy in a wonderfully readable tome. Her early life in Hyde Park Gate, holidays in Talland House at St. Ives, the family tragedies, the move to Bloomsbury, the break with convention, the struggles to write, and the successes – all is here, covered brilliantly and evocatively. Also present is the illness – Harris treats Woolf’s breakdowns sensitively and sympathetically, always with a carefully balanced view. And I think it’s this latter element that really stood out for me in the book.

Virginia Woolf has attracted an immense amount of scholarship since her untimely death; much of it is partisan, some of it is downright weird. It was only when I read the section entitled “Afterwards” that I realised how much strangeness has been projected on Woolf over the years. To her credit, Harris is measured in her discussion of this (as with everything in the book) and that was really refreshing. It’s a concise book yet tells you everything you need to know about its subject and that’s a real achievement.

Reading was also, quite practically and literally, a means of survival. Virginia learned how to use it to stabilize herself when she felt the ‘agitation’, the ‘fidgets’, and mood swings that were a part of her illness. She learned this out of necessity during these difficult years.

Even though I’m very familiar with the facts of Woolf’s life, I got much from reading this book. Harris is particularly strong on how Woolf’s life fed into her work, and she gives you the essential VW in a clear and balanced form. I have to say that I have one very minor caveat, and that is that I wouldn’t suggest reading this book *before* you’ve read all of Woolf’s works. There are inevitably spoilers when it comes to discussing the books, and one particular one from “To The Lighthouse” which is a particular bugbear of mine. The specific event which I’ve seen spoiled on a number of occasions had a terrific emotional impact on me when I first read “Lighthouse”, and I do feel that you should read that book with no knowledge of what is to come.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Putting that aside, however, I can highly recommend Harris’s book as a great way to explore Woolf and her life once you’ve read the work. It rekindled my love for Woolf (if it ever needed that!), and really brought wonderful insight into the relationship between Virginia’s life and her writing. Harris’s work was originally published by Thames and Hudson in 2011, 70 years after Woolf took her own life in the River Ouse. When I saw the publication date, I suddenly realised that on the 28th of this month, it will be 80 years since then, and it’s also 40 years ago that I first read her work. Time has passed but Woolf’s work is no less brilliant and will endure – a tribute to her genius and her fight against her demons to produce the works she needed to write.

“…death and the photograph as memento mori…” #indexcards #moyradavey @FitzcarraldoEds

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It’s pretty obvious from my blog posts this year, and particularly my involvement in co-hosting with Lizzy the Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight, that I’m a huge fan of the publisher’s output. In fact, I credit their books with my rekindled love of the essay format as so many of their non-fiction works have taken that genre and riffed on it in an individual way. So when I read about their recent release, “Index Cards” by Moyra Davey, I was convinced it would be one for me – I mean, anything slated as weaving into its narrative Mary Wollstonecroft, Jean Genet, Virginia Woolf and Roland Barthes (yes, that man again!), to name but a few, is likely to be a book which appeals to me! 😀

Based in New York, Davey is an acclaimed artist, photographer, writer, and filmmaker; possibly most known for her film “Les Goddesses”, which explores the connections between the artist’s family, and the family of Mary Wollstonecroft (Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley, Claire Clairmont and Fanny Imlay). Certainly that’s the work of hers of which I’d heard, and the Wollstonecroft women *do* make regular appearances in this book. But what, exactly, *is* “Index Cards”?

The book is billed as a collection of essays, and since that form is an elastic one encompassing all manner of structures nowadays, it’s probably the best one to use. The pieces in the book are dated, ranging from the early 2000s up to more modern times, but the subject matter often travels back in time to Davey’s childhood as well as historical times. Some essays, such as the opener “Fifty Minutes”, read more like a film script or written narration; others are more fragmentary, reading like diary entries or indeed jottings on an index card. Because of that loose structure “Index Cards” can be hard to categorise; but it’s never anything less than a bracing and exhilarating read.

Davey’s main artistic medium is obviously the visual and many of her writings focus on the art of photography, with the changes which have taken place in that discpline over the years. She takes several deep dives into the theory of photography and its changing focus; the morals and ethics of street photography; and looks closely at the work in this field of Barthes and Sontag. Her contemplation of her own films and those of her contemporaries is also fascinating. Davey is honest in these writings; she’s not afraid to interrogate her art and her motivations, discussing her period in analysis, her health issues, her friendships and her emotions about the loss of her son as he grows up and moves on in his life. I felt she revealed an underlying sense of uncertainty about her arts, constantly questioning herself, and her honesty in revealing her doubts was refreshing.

The other major theme which struck me in “Index Cards” was that of reading and writing. On the second page of the book Davey finds herself in a situation which will be familiar to most readers:

I spend most of my time trolling through half a dozen or so books, all the while imagining there’s another one out there I should be reading instead, if I could only just put my finger on it. Often I find the spark where I least expect it, in a book I may have been reading casually, lazily, wondering why I am even bothering to read it. Sometimes I persist with the book, even just through inertia, and it can happen that the writing will suddenly open itself up to me.

Personally, I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been in that position… Davey quotes freely from the writers who inspire her, and the list is impressive (with many oddly familiar to me…): Bowen, Akhmatova, Benjamin, Sontag, Janet Malcolm, Barthes, Perec, Calvino, Robert Walser, Jean Genet, Jane Bowles and Violette Leduc are just some of the names making an appearance. Virginia Woolf’s flaneurie of reading is something of a touchstone, and even Larkin and his destroyed diaries appear in passing. Later on in the book she goes on to consider the problem of reading in the modern world, with so much available and distracting our attention from focusing on just one work at a time. Her reading is obviously wide-ranging, with the authors quoted having a particular resonance for her.

I found, and still find the letters oddly comforting for the way they translate thorny life problems into Gertrude-Stein like, droning-on prose. I’ve often thought that diaries and letters are the real modernism: stream of consciousness without the contrivance. (On Jane Bowles’ letters)

At one point in “Index Cards”, while Davey is discussing Sontag’s writings on photography, she comments on its “epigrammatic structure, where ideas, indented with dingbats, accumulate, and indeed follow one another with a sort of loose, fragmentary randomness.” Although Davey she says never connected emotionally with Sontag, intriguingly I felt her own work could well have been described in the same way. In many ways “Index Cards” reads as a Commonplace Book (albeit a very brilliant one) with the randomness and immediacy of a journal; however, despite its apparently disparate nature, there are elements which run through the book; including the constant theme of the drawing of resonances between the life of herself and her family, and those who inspire her. Stories and recollections reappear like a thread running through the narrative of the essays, and the repetition of these elements serves to emphasise their importance to Davey. She quotes Barthes at one point as saying “Note-taking gives me a form of security“, and certainly I can empathise with the need to record events in order to make sense of life itself.

Lots of post-its… maybe I should have made notes on index cards…

Even after reading it and writing about it, I still find “Index Cards” a book which is impossible to pin down and categorise (which is maybe why I loved it so much). It could perhaps be considered a sum of its parts, a book rich with references and full of provocations which throws up many questions which linger in the mind long after finishing it (as can be seen from the sheaf of post-its sticking out of my copy). Davey’s blurring of lines between art forms is fascinating, and I was left with the impression of an artist taking stock of her work in various formats, wanting to leave behind her something which might inspire artists, writers and readers to come in the same way she had been inspired by others. “Index Cards” is a stunning book in all senses of the world, one which resonated with me throughout and a work I will no doubt be drawn back to again and again.

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

On My Book Table… 8 – what next?

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May has been an odd sort of reading month for me. I’ve read fewer books than I might have expected, given the amount of extra time I’ve got through not going out, paying visits to London and the like. I must admit to feeling a little bit twitchy after about 10 weeks of lockdown, with the only places I go to being the post office and the occasional nip into the local Co-op for veg. Browsing the local charity shops was one of my great pleasures and I’ve no idea when I’ll do that again. But I’m trying not to be too ungrateful, as I can work from home and safety is the main thing. Nevertheless, books *have* still made their way into the house, and I have been having a little bit of a shuffle of the book table, trying to decide what to read next – never an easy task for me… 😀 Here’s what’s been attracting my attention recently!

Some beautiful Elizabeth Bowen titles…

I have been shouting a bit recently on social media about Elizabeth Bowen; and the random discovery that there were some enticing-looking editions from Edinburgh University Press, bringing together uncollected short stories, essays, broadcasts and the like, was just too much to resist. They arrived, together with two other, older collections, as well as a book of Bowen and Charles Ritchie’s love letters. As I’ve said, I really could go on a Bowen Binge right now.

Classics, chunky and slimmer…

I’m also a huge fan of classics (fairly obviously) and there are a lot vying for attention right now. Carlyle and Chateaubriand have been lurking for a while, with Huysmans and Barbellion more recent arrivals. However, Ruskin has been someone I’ve always intended to read (so I really *should* get round to it before I get any older). The little hardback about why Ruskin matters turned up somewhere in my online browsing, and so I picked up some selected writings of Ruskin himself while I was at it. A new copy of Woolf’s “The Waves” may have fallen into my basket at the same time – I quite fancy a re-read and my original copy (which is nearly 40 years old) is just too crumbly and fragile to be comfortable with.

Some slightly more sombre volumes

One thing I *have* been taking advantage of during these strange times is online bookish stuff; by which I mean mainly the festivals. The Charleston Festival moved online and there was a marvellous broadcast of an interview with Virago’s Lennie Goodings by Joan Bakewell – what a pair of inspirational women! However, one author has been very much in my sightline, from the Charleston Festival and also the Hay Online Festival, and that’s Philippe Sands. I’d previously read his short work on the city of Lvov/Lemberg and “East West Street” had been on my wishlist for ages; so stumbling across it just before lockdown in a charity shop was a treat. Sands is a notable human rights lawyer, and his most recent book “Ratline” deals with the life (and afterlife) of prominent Nazis. His talks for Charleston and Hay were sobering and fascinating, and had me gathering together a number of titles covering difficult WW2 and post-War topics. Arendt, West and Czapski are all authors who’ve considered the inhumanity of our race, and bearing in mind the fragile stage of many countries at the moment, any of these books could be timely reading. It’s ironic that I’ve never attended either festival in person, but this current crisis has given me the chance to…

Books about books and books about authors are always a good thing, and there are plenty lurking on the TBR. One of the Nabokovs I’ve had for a while, the other arrived recently; as did the Steiner. The Very Short Introduction to Russian Literature takes an intrguing angle, and might be well matched with Isaiah Berlin (and indeed Nabokov). This could be another wormhole…

Or, indeed, I could just go down a British Library Crime Classics wormhole!! This is quite a nice pile of their titles, though nowhere near as impressive as the one Simon from Stuck in a Book shared on Twitter! These are a mixture of review copies and ones procured by my dear friend J., who seems to come across them in charity shops more than I do. They’re such a wonderful comforting distraction to read – and there are two Lorac titles in there which are *very* tempting!

Random books…

Finally, a little random pile of various enticing titles! I have been dipping into Mollie Panter-Downes’ “London War Notes”, which has been distracting and surprisingly cathartic. Since I’m not likely to be at the beach any time soon, “A Fortnight in September” by R. C. Sherriff is also very appealing – I do love a Persephone. Bachelard is another book which have been lurking for a while, and since reading “Malicroix” I’m keener than ever to get to it. The two white cover Fitzcarraldos are the last two I have unread, and both appeal strongly. And last, but certainly not least, is a lovely collection of essays by Joseph Brodsky, into which I’ve also been dipping. They’re marvellous, but best read slowly with time to digest in between – such a good writer.

So – an *awful* lot of choices and I find myself very undecided about what to actually read next. Have you read any of these? Which would take *your* fancy?????

#1920club – “Let us wash the roofs of our eyes in colour; let us dive till the deep seas close above our heads.” #virginiawoolf

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While I was digging about for Virginia Woolf stories to read for 1920, it occurred to me that there might well be some essays from that year which I could read; which then caused a bit of rummaging through the books of Woolf essays I have! As well as a variety of collections (including both Common Readers), I also have the first three volumes of her collected essays; they’re chunky books, and I’m gradually collecting them when I come across a reasonably-priced copy as the completist in me *needs* to have them, but they’re not cheap and I’ve no idea when I’ll get round to reading them! However, luckily Volume 3 covers 1920, so I had a bit of an explore to see what it contained.

This is probably the first time I’ve had a good look at the books, and interestingly it appears that many of these ‘essays’ are actually reviews of books, exhibitions and the like. Which is not a problem, but perhaps made it a little harder to pick out what to read! The books are beautifully presented, though, with notes and sources for each entry, so quite a triumph of scholarship by editor Andrew McNeillie. Woolf was obviously busy in 1920, with 31 entries showing in the contents list for that year, and the subject range was wide – from Kipling to Chekhov, Woolf had an enquiring mind. In the end, I settled on two pieces: “Gorky on Tolstoy” and “Pictures and Portraits“.

I chose to read “Pictures and Portraits” for the simple reason that its opening paragraphs resonated so strongly with me. Woolf describes the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery in London, relating in her usual beautiful sentences how easy it is to visit, gaining access to all manner of wonders inside. Both are places I love and visit on a regular basis whenever I’m in London, and it really hit me hard to realise how long it will be before I can go through those doors again… Her words evoked my visits to both Galleries and reminded me how lucky we are to have the arts in this country; it also made me worry about the arts going forward after this particular crisis. Anyway, the essay itself is a meditation on an exhibition of the works of Edmond X. Kapp, of whom I’d never heard, but I have to say that Woolf’s prose does convince me I should look him up!

National Portrait Gallery by Wei-Te Wong from Taipei City, Taiwan, Republic of China / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

As for “Gorky on Tolstoy”, I guess it’s no surprise that I should choose that one! This is a review of Gorky’s reminiscences of the great Russian author, and it reminds you of how taken the Bloomsberries were with the Russian authors, as well as instrumental in bringing them to an English audience. It’s a short but fascinating review, pulling out some intriguing pieces from Gorky’s book and musing on how well we know or see another person.

So Gorky shocks us at first by showing us that Tolstoy was no different from other men in being sometimes conceited, intolerant, insincere, and in allowing his private fortunes to make him vindictive in his judgements.

Woolf the journalist is a little different from Woolf the writer of fiction; a little more formal, a little more traditional perhaps; but still with those wonderful flights of fancy and unexpected turns of phrase we expect from her. I can see that the best way to read these essays might be to take a dipping approach, even if a chronological one, reading one or two at a time so as to savour them and get the most out of them. Now there’s an idea for a lockdown reading project if ever I heard one! 😀

#1920club “… the human face at the top of the fullest page of print holds more, withholds more…” – Woolf’s short stories

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First up today, I need to confess about a rather foolish faux pas I made when I was trailing possible reads for 1920 (and if you read the post you may well know what I mean!) For some unknown reason, I got it into my head that Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” was published in 1920, which is of course rubbish – the book came out in 1925! Nevertheless, there it is in the picture I shared of possibles, so silly me!

I’m not sure if I had actually intended a re-read however; but this did make me wonder what Woolf there *was* from 1920, and a little researching revealed a couple of short stories which I decided to revisit. Both are in a collection of “Selected Short Stories” I posted about a while back, but I thought I would look at these in more detail.

The stories are “Solid Objects” and “An Unwritten Novel“; the latter appeared in “Monday or Tuesday”, and both were issues posthumously in the “A Haunted House” collection. Although written in the same year, these stories have very different subject matter and a very different feel, but both are haunting.

“Solid Objects” is more of what you might call a traditional story, telling of two young men, Charles and John, whose lives diverge in unexpected ways after John finds a stone on the beach which he takes home with him. His fascination with objects becomes a consuming passion and overtakes everything else in his life in a quite chilling fashion. In just over six pages, Woolf weaves a narrative that captures a man’s obsession in beautiful prose.

The second piece, “An Unwritten Novel” is a little more unusual as despite being described as fiction, the reader can’t help but regarding this as a glimpse of Woolf’s mind at play. The narrator is travelling by train to the south coast, just as would have Woolf, and on her journey spins stories around a fellow passenger, inventing a whole life for her based on her appearance alone and what she can read from this and the woman’s face. She gives her a name, a family, a whole background, and these flights of fancy are the unwritten novel of the title. These illusions may be shattered, but for a while the character of Minnie Marsh, developed by Woolf’s genius, exists.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s an intriguing and again beautifully written work, and as it portrays a novelist at work it’s impossible not to conflate it with Virginia Woolf herself. The story seems to arrest Woolf at the moment of creation, allowing us an insight into how her mind works and how her art is formed, which is utterly fascinating.

Woolf’s writing is always stunning and both of these stories reminded me how much I love her prose, her vivid imagination, the fertility of her imagery and her way of sliding off at tangents but never losing her point. Even though the novels which are regarded as her finest were still ahead of her, Woolf was obviously already exploring different ways to write and tell stories, with wonderful results. I’m so glad our reading club made me focus on these two works and I’m getting the itch to start up some kind of Woolf re-reading project – if only there were more hours in the day! 😀

On My Book Table…6 – a bit of a shuffle!

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The world is a little bit scarier than usual at the moment, as we’re all quite aware, and so I’m trying personally to balance keeping my awareness of what’s happening at a sensible level and trying to keep myself on an even keel. Books have always been my go-to in times of stress and frankly are being a little bit of a lifeline right now. Anyway, after all the recent excitement of the #fitzcarraldofortnight, plus a number of new arrivals, I thought it was time to take stock and reorganise a little. Reading from one publisher is a lovely experience, but as I have so many other books lurking I wanted to try to clarify what I planned to pick up next. Of course, I never stick to reading plans, but it’s always fun to spend time shuffling books, as well as being very therapeutic… 😀

After spending some time digging among the stacks and moving books about, I ended up with a few piles I currently want to focus on and here’s the first:

This rather chunky pile has some of the weightier books (intellectually and literally!) that are calling right now. Some of these were in my last book table post, but some have snuck in when I wasn’t looking. There’s a lot of French writing there and both the Existentialist Cafe and Left Bank books sound excellent. Barthes is of course still hanging about in the wings even though I haven’t added him to the pile. I could go for a Barthes fortnight (or longer…) quite easily, but that might a bit brain-straining. Some of the volumes *are* reasonably slim so I might be able to slip them into my reading between bigger books – we shall see! 😀

Next up, some of the review books I have pending:

These are only *some* of the review books lurking, but if I put them all in a pile it looks scary and I panic, so I thought a modest selection would do. There are some beauties from the British Library Crime Classics and Science Fiction Classics range, as well as Camus and a classic Russian play and Frankenstein! They all sound so marvellous….

And this is the pile of recent finds or other titles I really want to read at the moment:

More French writing. The top two are books about French authors – I’ve read the start of each and they’re marvellous. The Queneau is short but essential (and another play! I’m reading more drama!!), the Hitchens and the Christiansen arrived recently, as did the beautiful Persephone (which I think I might well pick up soon). And the Makioka Sisters is there because there’s a readalong going on. I doubt I’ll get to it – I’ve failed every one so far this year, getting nowhere near either Proust or Musil. But it’s there just in case.

However, there *is* another pile of interest lurking. Coming up in April, Simon and I will be hosting the #1920club, the next in our themed weeks of reading from a particular year. I’ve been thinking ahead about which books I’d like to spend time with, and there really are some wonderful titles from 1920. I always try to read from the stacks and a quick dig revealed I had these books on the shelves:

All of them are beautiful titles, and most of them would be re-reads – which is not really what I want to do with the reading clubs. I have another new title lurking digitally which I am definitely going to overcome my aversion to e-reading and get to; but with the re-reads I shall have to be picky so that I can perhaps focus on unread books. Though it *would* be nice just to spend the week re-reading Agatha, Virginia and Colette…

And of course, just after I had finished writing this post, a lovely collection of review books popped through the door looking like this:

There are some wonderfully exciting titles there, including a new Crime Classic from the British Library; two editions from their new imprint focusing on Women Writers (which is being curated by Simon – well done, that man!); and a fascinating book on Artemisia Gentileschi with an introduction by Susan Sontag – how timely!

So there we go. The state of the books at the moment. I have just finished reading Lennie Goodings’ wonderful book about her life in the book trade and with Virago which I will eventually get to reviewing (I’m very behind…) – I highly recommend it. And I confess to being unsure as to what I’ll pick up next, although it may have to be escapism in the form of Golden Age crime. As usual, watch this space! 😀

A sublime account of some pioneering womens’ lives over @ShinyNewBooks #squarehaunting @francescawade @FaberBooks

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In between reading some absolutely marvellous books for our #fitzcarraldofortnight, I spent many happy hours this month reading a fantastic new books from Faber and Faber – “Square Haunting”, by Francesca Wade.

The book is a look at the lives of five inspirational and pioneering women at a point where they intersect; all five spent time living in Mecklenburgh Square, Bloomsbury and all had varied and wonderful lives. The book was highly anticipated, and didn’t let me down – it will be one of my books of the year, for sure, and it’s hard not to just turn into a gushing idiot when writing about it! 😀

The women concerned are H.D., Dorothy L. Sayers, Jane Harrison, Eileen Power and Virginia Woolf; and the book is a triumph. You can read my full review here!

#1930Club – a great writer contemplates being poorly… ;D

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On Being Ill by Virginia Woolf

It’s no secret that Virginia Woolf is a favourite writer of mine; I’ve rambled on enough about her on the blog to make that abundantly clear. So whenever we have a club, I do cast around to see if there are any of her works that I can revisit (or indeed read for the first time!) as part of our reading week. Oddly, I don’t think I’ve managed this in previous club weeks, but when I did a little research about 1930, I discovered that an essay she first published in 1926 was issued as a standalone volume by Hogarth Press in 1930. I don’t currently own it, but was able to find a digital version of the original online (as it appeared ion T.S. Eliot’s “New Criterion”) – and fascinating reading it makes.

Woolf was, of course, well placed to discussed the pros and cons of being ill, having suffered recurring bouts of numerous ailments (both mental and physical) over the years. But any piece of work by her is never going to be straightforward, and her essay considers all manner of things relating to the problem of illness. In particular, she finds herself surprised that the subject is not dealt with seriously in literature, a thing she considers a failing. Certainly, the topic was one she featured in her own fiction, and I could name a number of novels and characters for whom illness is pivotal to their actions and indeed their lives in her books.

Parties, he said, bored him – such were English aristocrats before marriage with intellect had adulterated the fine singularity of their minds. Parties bore them; they are off to Iceland…

Woolf being Woolf, the prose ricochets off on all manner of tangents, which is part of the joy of reading her, and she considers the relationships between human beings, the tendency of people to behave so differently when ill, and how poetry is the ideal reading when one is poorly and a chunky novel is too taxing. She considers the effect of the physical body on the mind, and how we do not always get the sympathy we expect.

That illusion of a world so shaped that it echoes every groan, of human beings so tied together by common needs and fears that a twitch at one wrist jerks another, where however strange your experience other people have had it too, where however far you travel in your own mind someone has been there before you – is all an illusion. We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others.

Watching Woolf’s mind at play, ranging over all manner of topics, is always a pure delight, and reading this reminded me that I have several volumes of her essays crying out for my attention. Her prose is unique, completely individual, and her authorial voice unmistakable. Although I read her for the insights she brings, I also read her for the sheer joy of watching what she can do with the English language. “On Being Ill” was apparently a little neglected, although in recent year a new edition was brought out (which is now rather expensive….). Proof, if it was ever needed, that as well as being a genius of a prose writer, Woolf was also a stellar essayist. I really *should* dig out those essays… ;D

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