Monday, January 23, 2012

Virginia Woolf

“I love her strange whirling rhythms,” Truman Capote once said of Virginia Woolf. He claimed not to like her novels—“But I love her criticism and I love her diary.” While I don’t share Capote’s aversion to the novels, among which I would single out To the Lighthouse as Woolf’s masterpiece, I do find those three words “strange whirling rhythms” marvelously apt. For whether in fiction or nonfiction, Woolf’s prose has its own pleasurable, not to say captivating, cadences; the strange whirl of her complex yet always pellucid sentences derives not only from the musicality of her diction and syntax but also from the strange whirl of the ideas beneath the surface, which the prose precisely reflects. “Strange” because the author relentlessly found fresh new angles of approach to her material, which was life, its consciousness and the consciousness of it; “whirling” because in her narrative and rhetorical strategies for both fiction and nonfiction she never stood still, never proceeded in predictable linearity, always whirled in an improbable circle around her subject, within her subject, bringing into the whirl seemingly disparate peripheral subjects, and then, in perfect rhythm, landed with an artful smack onto the dead-center of the target one hadn’t realized she had been after all along, its essence illuminated by her unconventional sweep as it could never otherwise have been. Yes, I too love her strange whirling rhythms.

I appreciate, too, a term that Virginia Woolf used as a genre category: “life-writing”—a useful label for a broad array of work. Woolf applied the term loosely, to biographies, to memoirs and autobiographical essays, and to letters and diaries; and, not surprisingly given her identity as an innovator, the term is suited to a merging of such forms, and seems to imply spontaneity as well. “Life-writing”: direct, intimate attempts at capturing life, and capturing it alive.

This valiant woman, beleaguered by severe mental health crises, once wrote in her diary: “But I will use all my art to keep my head sane.” Part of her greatness stems from her insistent ability to prize and chronicle those moments when, most alive to the reality of beauty, she could revel in the union of language and life, in, for example, a phrase jotted in a journal entry: “A lovely soaring summer day this; winter sent howling home to his arctic.” Or another: “The world swinging round again and bringing its green and blue close to one’s eyes.”

“Art is being rid of all preaching: things in themselves: the sentence in itself beautiful: multitudinous seas…” How perfect, how appealing; yet in place of the “preaching” there are of course silent selections of values, choices; and even when she did wish to “preach” (I’m thinking here of A Room of One’s Own, that most gorgeous lecture-argument), she could make rhetorical magnificence—in a word, art—of the entire proceedings, and finish with four paragraphs (“and please attend, for the peroration is beginning”) that hold a place of honor among my favorite passages in literature.

It wasn’t Virginia Woolf but Colette who said: “Be happy. It’s one way of being wise.” —but Woolf did her best, in regard to both happiness and wisdom, despite ghastly obstacles stacked against her. Literature provided a lifeline again and again. Through her voluminous writings her inspirations are thoroughly documented, her love of English poetry and of Shakespeare and of biographies and histories—and then there is this:
My great adventure is really Proust. … I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes. How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped—and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp. The pleasure becomes physical—like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined.
They were kindred spirits in several ways. She hailed in Proust “his combination of the utmost sensibility with the utmost tenacity. He searches out these butterfly shades to the last grain. He is as tough as catgut and as evanescent as a butterfly’s bloom.” In these sentences she might as well have been describing her own best efforts. Yet her sensibility, her strategies, her preoccupations and special lyricism, remain entirely her own.

Contemporary editions of her books sometimes quote, on their back covers, a few words of tribute from her friend E. M. Forster: “She pushed the light of the English language a little further against darkness.” In the essay from which that phrase is taken, Forster also noted, in the very same sentence, that “she gave acute pleasure in new ways”—all of which I mention because it’s easy to forget that art at its best is both a remarkable pleasure and a heroic act; in the midst of its wit, insight, and delectability it almost inevitably advances the energies of the truly human.

Virginia Woolf’s birthday is January 25—this Wednesday. I recommend you curl up with at least a few paragraphs of her strange whirling rhythms today or sometime this week.