"Modern Fiction" is an essay by Virginia Woolf. The essay was written in 1919 but published in 1921 with a series of short stories called Monday or Tuesday. The essay is a criticism of writers and literature from the previous generation. It also acts as a guide for writers of modern fiction to write what they feel, not what society or publishers want them to write.
In "Modern Fiction", Woolf elucidates upon what she understands modern fiction to be. Woolf states that a writer should write what inspires them and not follow any special method. She believed writers are constrained by the publishing business, by what society believes literature should look like and what society has dictated how literature should be written. Woolf believes it is a writer's job to write the complexities in life, the unknowns, not the unimportant things.
She criticizes H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy of writing about unimportant things and called them materialists. She suggests that it would be better for literature to turn their backs on them so it can move forward, for better or worse. While Woolf criticizes the aforementioned three authors, she praises several other authors for their innovation. This group of writers she names spiritualists, and includes James Joyce who Woolf says writes what interests and moves him.
Woolf wanted writers to focus on the awkwardness of life and craved originality in their work. Woolf's overall hope was to inspire modern fiction writers to write what interested them, wherever it may lead.
Virginia Woolf as critic
Virginia Woolf was known as a critic by her contemporaries and many scholars have attempted to analyse Woolf as a critic. In her essay, "Modern Fiction", she criticizes H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett and John Galsworthy and mentions and praises Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, William Henry Hudson, James Joyce and Anton Chekhov.
As a critic, she does not take an analytical point of view and it is believed to be due to the influences of impressionism at the time that she was able to do so. Her writing and criticism was often done by intuition and feelings rather than by a scientific, analytical or systematic method. Virginia Woolf says of criticism:
Life escapes; and perhaps without life nothing else is worth while. It is a confession of vagueness to have to make use of such a figure as this, but we scarcely better the matter by speaking, as critics are prone to do, of reality. Admitting the vagueness which afflicts all criticism of novels, let us hazard the opinion that for us at this moment the form of fiction most in vogue more often misses than secures the thing we seek. Whether we call it life or spirit, truth or reality, this, the essential thing, has moved off, or on, and refuses to be contained any longer in such ill-fitting vestments as we provide. – Modern Fiction
Woolf speaks of criticism as being vague rather than concrete. In her criticism within "Modern Fiction" of H.G. Wells for instance, she is vague in what is wrong with writings but focuses more on the abstract ideals for his fiction rather his work. Woolf's body of essays offer criticism on a variety and diverse collection of literature in her unsystematic method.
Woolf's analysis of Russian versus British literature
In "Modern Fiction", Woolf takes the time to analyse Anton Chekhov's "Gusev" and in general, how Russians write. Woolf spent time polishing translated Russian texts for a British audience with S.S.Kotelianskii which gave her perspectives she used to analyse the differences between British literature and Russian literature. Woolf says of Russian writers:
"In every great Russian writer we seem to discern the features of a saint, if sympathy for the sufferings for others, love towards them, endeavor to reach some goal worthy of the more exacting demands of the spirit constitute saintliness…The conclusions of the Russian mind, thus comprehensive and compassionate, are inevitably, perhaps, of the utmost sadness. More accurately indeed we might speak of the inconclusive-ness of the Russian mind. It is the sense that there is no answer, that if honestly examined life presents question after question which must be left to sound on and on after the story is over in hopeless interrogation that fills us with a deep, and finally it may be with a resentful, despair."
To Woolf, Russian writers see something entirely different in life than the British. In comparison to Russian writers and authors, Woolf says of British literature:
It is the saint in them [Russian writers] which confounds us with a feeling of our own irreligious triviality, and turns so many of our famous novels to tinsel and trickery...They are right perhaps; unquestionably they see further than we do and without our gross impediments of vision…The voice of protest is the voice of another and an ancient civilization which seems to have bred in us the instinct to enjoy and fight rather to suffer and understand. English fiction from Sterne to Meredith bears witness to our natural delight in humor and comedy, in the beauty of earth, in the activities of the intellect, and in the splendor of the body.
— Modern Fiction, Modern Fiction (essay)
Due to Woolf's work in polishing translations, she was able to see the differences between Russian and British authors. Yet she also knew that "from the comparison of two fictions so immeasurably far apart are futile save indeed as they flood us with a view of infinite possibilities of the art". Woolf's main purpose in comparing the two culturally different writers was to show the possibilities that modern fiction would be able to take in the future.
Woolf, writers and fiction
Woolf's "Modern Fiction" essay focuses on how writers should write or what she hopes for them to write. Woolf does not suggest a specific way to write instead she wants writers to simply write what interests them in any way that they choose to write. Woolf suggests, “Any method is right, every method is right, that expresses what we wish to express, if we are writers; that brings us closer to the novelist's intention if we are readers". Woolf wanted writers to express themselves in such a way that it showed life as it should be seen not as "a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged". She set out to inspire writers of modern fiction by calling for originality, criticizing those who focused on the unimportant things, and comparing the differences of cultural authors, all for the sake of fiction and literature.
- ^ abcdefghGutenburg Project Essays
- ^Woolf, Virginia. "Modern Fiction". The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Twentieth Century and Beyond. Ed. Joseph Black. 2006. 227. Print.
- ^ abFishman, Solomon. "Virginia Woolf on the Novel". The Sewanee Review 51.2 (1943): 321–340. Jstor. Web. 21 February 2012.
- ^Goldman, Mark. "Virginia Woolf and the Critic as Reader". PMLA 80.3 (1965): 275–284. Jstor. Web. 21 February 2012.
- ^ abMadison, Elizabeth C. "The Common Reader and Critical Method in Virginia Woolf". Journal of Aesthetic Education 15.4 (1981): 61–73. Jstor. Web. 21 February 2012.
- ^Beasley, Rebecca. "On Not Knowing Russian: The Translation of Virginia Woolf and S.S. Kotelianskii". Modern Humanities Research Association 108.1 (2013): 1 -29. Jstor. Web. 21 February 2012.
This essay is from an introduction to a new Italian translation, by Anna Nadotti, of “To the Lighthouse,” which will be published later this month by Einaudi.
Here is where the artist Adeline Virginia Stephen was born. She lived in this house, at 22 Hyde Park Gate, in west London, for the first twenty-two years of her life. The whitewashed Victorian façade holds the sunlight brightly when the weather is good. It’s a short walk from here to Yeoman’s Row, and in July, 1902, when she was twenty, she went there to have her portrait taken. She was accompanied, I imagine, by her seventy-year-old father, the noted man of letters Sir Leslie Stephen. I picture them moving side by side: she in the white summer dress worn in the portrait, and he in one of the dark suits he was often cased in, his long, unkempt beard hiding the knot of his black silk necktie. They might have gone around the giant dome of the Royal Albert Hall and into Kensington Gore. Then left on to Princes Consort Road, crossing Exhibition Road, continuing to Princes Gardens, before needling through the quiet back mews till they reach Brompton Road. Second on the right is Yeoman’s Row, where the photographer George Charles Beresford had set up his studio that same year.
It was no doubt an anxious time for Beresford. This was an unexpected turn in his career. After spending four years working as a civil engineer in British India, he had contracted malaria and was forced to return to England. He studied art, and now was hoping to establish himself as a leading photographic portraitist. He would do well. A few days from now, the grand Auguste Rodin would walk through the door and sit facing slightly up, pointing his large temple, with its clump of bulging veins, toward the light. Beresford succeeded in capturing something frivolous and majestic in the French sculptor. The following year, he photographed a somewhat bored and melancholy young Winston Churchill. The year after that, Joseph Conrad sat looking into his lens, unable to altogether conceal his quiet, exile’s anxiety. Between 1902 and 1932, Beresford photographed some of the most noted artists, politicians, intellectuals and socialites of the time. Many of the negatives are now held at the National Portrait Gallery.
What Beresford couldn’t have known that day was that his twenty-year-old sitter, Sir Leslie Stephen’s fourth daughter, was destined to become a writer without whom the pantheon of literature would be incomplete. And certainly it couldn’t have occurred to her, least of all to her father, in the fifteen or twenty minutes it would have taken them to walk from Hyde Park Gate to Yeoman’s Row, that one of the photographs Beresford was to take that afternoon was going to become the most iconic likeness of the artist we would later come to know as Virginia Woolf.
In all the four portraits Beresford took, he had the author sitting and looking away from the camera. He was obviously inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites. Or perhaps, what with the strong and abundant hair tied loosely in a bun, and the jaw running in an uninterrupted arc from the careful chin to the over-attentive ear, it was his sitter’s profile that brought to mind those Victorian painters. It’s the first of these pictures—I suspect it was the first because it lacks the self-consciousness of the other three—that was to be the most successful. In it she is looking away more naturally than in the others, as if a private thought had caught her attention. There is determination in the neck. The open shell of the ear is unusually large, tensing the rim. It hints at the great danger of listening, as if acknowledging that ears cannot choose not to hear what is directed at them. More than most, she would have known the danger of that, the lasting stain of language. She seems to be concerned with this, trying to accept the vulnerability. Her cheek, occupying the central space in the photograph, seems full with utterance. Those shut lips are concealing an ocean of words. What Beresford managed to capture, and what eludes him in the following three portraits, is depth and its promise; an instinctive devotion to reality, to what Woolf was to later call “the white light of truth.”
One cannot help but read in the portrait signs of the conflicting forces the author was to contend with for the remainder of her life: the discrepancy between the reality of men and women; the need as an artist to be veiled yet available, attentive to her individual potential yet resistant to public prescriptions and constraints; and one’s exposure to history and madness. Seen from our time, the photograph is a classical representation of the artist at the dawn of the twentieth century—the century of two world wars—where death and horror threatened to obliterate art and poetry. Here is the fragile, androgynous figure of a great novelist silently and only obliquely aware of the arsenal of her gifts and the demands of her time. It is as if Beresford had shone a light into a psychological space rather than onto a body. His lens is looking down into the depth, from which a light bounces back. It brings to mind a sentence about Mrs. Ramsay, one of many extraordinary sentences in “To the Lighthouse”:
It could not last, she knew, but at the moment her eyes were so clear that they seemed to go round the table unveiling each of these people, and their thoughts and their feelings, without effort like a light stealing under water so that its ripples and the reeds in it and the minnows balancing themselves, and the sudden silent trout are all lit up hanging, trembling.
In “To the Lighthouse,” Woolf’s fifth novel, she mastered a sort of sentence that she had been edging toward, a sentence we can now call her own: a freely progressing, long, fractured series of observations and insights, unburdened and unhurried by the need to tell the “story,” yet moving with the unrelenting progression of a scalpel. It steals away, like “a light stealing under water,” revealing not merely information but the cadence and temper of inner lives, and how they resonate against the images and sensations of the physical world. It has a precise power that is disinterested in overpowering reality. The momentum sweeps you away till that last word, “trembling,” and the echo it sends back. That earlier “at the moment” hinges it to the subjective, freeing it from any claim of authority. Yet the result is superbly authoritative. The acoustic quality of Woolf’s prose in “To the Lighthouse” reverberates, and therefore her sentences are not easy to drop or leave behind. They mark indelibly.
The book tells of a family, very much like Woolf’s own, vacationing at their summer home by the sea in the Scottish Hebrides. Mr. Ramsay is a London professor, much admired; and Mrs. Ramsay is beautiful but no longer young. Along with their eight children and servants, the Ramsays are joined by a number of guests: friends and several young devotees of the professor. Among the guests is Lily Briscoe, a painter. She conceives of color as “the light of a butterfly’s wing lying upon the arches of a cathedral.” Trying to explain her painterly intentions to the widower and botanist William Bankes, she says, “A light here required a shadow there,” a statement that could apply to every human enterprise. It is echoed later, when Mrs. Ramsay notes, “Wherever they put the light (and James could not sleep without a light) there was always a shadow somewhere.” James is “her youngest, her cherished” six-year-old son. Reading to him, Mrs. Ramsay notices that “it was getting late. The light in the garden told her that; and the whitening of the flowers and something grey in the leaves conspired together, to rouse in her a feeling of anxiety.” Later, when Lily Briscoe suspects what Mrs. Ramsay was thinking—that Lily would marry Mr. Banks—the painter feels exposed and, observing the others, perceives that “for one moment, there was a sense of things having been blown apart, of space, of irresponsibility as the ball soared high, and they followed it and lost it and saw the one star and the draped branches. In the failing light they all looked sharp-edged and ethereal and divided by great distances.” Light is a reoccurring motif in the book. It flutters and is impermanent. Concealing and revealing. It is the unpredictable and forever changing temperament of the physical world. Light, in “To the Lighthouse,” is what history is to human life. Indeed, the entire novel is like a flash of lightening that momentarily floods the forest. Instead of disbanding the dark, it leaves an unforgettable recognition of it.
* * *
Several flashes preceded the lightening. Woolf’s first book, “The Voyage Out,” published in 1915, when the author was thirty-three, tells of the misunderstandings and mismatched yearnings of a group of Edwardians aboard a ship for South America. It has traces of what will come to interest Woolf in later books, such as the distance that exists between what is thought and what is spoken; the tragic lack of correspondence between intention and expression; and what these reveal about the nature of love. As we are told of Helen, one of the characters aboard the ship: “She tried to console herself with the reflection that one never knows how far other people feel the things they might be supposed to feel.” The consolation is that of truth. In the opening pages, there is a vivid description of the ship pulling away from the coast, dislodging itself from London through the River Thames till it leaks naked into the open sea. It is a fitting image of what Virginia Woolf helped do to the novel, stripping it from convention. One of the characteristics of modernism, in which she played a central role, is the detachment from the subject, the cleaving away from a sense of unitary existence. From this first book, you can see her interest in discontinuities and consciousness. Embedded in it is the melancholic acknowledgment of the impossibility of ever having a complete view. Like the fall of Adam and Eve, modernism is a loss of innocence. It doesn’t accept only that God’s view of things is unattainable; it doesn’t believe such a view exists. It refuses to ignore the rupture.
In 1919, four years after “The Voyage Out,” Woolf published her second novel, “Night and Day.” Again, Edwardian society, class, love, marriage, and the uncertainty of emotional intentions are among the themes developed further in this long novel, which, in length at least, contradicts its author’s later advice that “women’s books should be shorter, more concentrated, than those of men.” Modelled loosely on the author’s family and their circle, the novel tells of the intertwining loves and affections of four main characters: Katharine Hilbery, Mary Datchet, Ralph Denham, and William Rodney. It takes literature’s old interest in the misapprehensions and unrequited sentiments of lovers and turns them into a meditation on the question of whether it is ever possible to know anyone’s true feelings; whether love and marriage can be trusted to mean what we think they mean; and the curious discrepancies between the body and the heart. Although, like “The Voyage Out,” “Night and Day” remains, in its structure, its scenes and dialogues, a conventional narrative, reading it you get the sense of the modern novel jarring against its romantic antecedent. In this exchange between Katharine Hilbery and William Rodney, you can almost hear the author thinking about the subject:
“What is this romance?” she mused.
“Ah, that’s the question. I’ve never come across a definition that satisfied me, though there are some very good ones”—he glanced in the direction of his books.
“It’s not altogether knowing the other person, perhaps—it’s ignorance,” she hazarded.
“Some authorities say it’s a question of distance—romance in literature, that is—”
“Possibly, in the case of art. But in the case of people it may be—” she hesitated.
Katharine Hilbery never finished her sentence. It hangs suspended for eternity. Perhaps to hesitate is the most appropriate modern gesture. Perhaps, in the face of our inequality, in the face of our unknowability, and in the absence of God, everything is infused with doubt.
But here Virginia Woolf is at the border, yet to achieve the required transformation. Her first encounter with James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which took place at the time of writing “Night and Day,” perturbed her. She reacted to the book even before she’d had a chance to read it. Watching her husband Leonard reading it, she noted in her diary: “[He] is already 30 pages deep. I look, and sip, and shudder.” This animalistic fear, which only a novelist knows, that sets in when sensing some other’s pen edging toward a glorious prey, is a sickness but also an augury. She admitted that she was “bewildered and befogged” by Joyce, who was “about a fortnight younger than I am.” (In fact, he was only a week younger.) She noted that her friend T. S. Eliot, the other protagonist in the modernist revolution, “was for the first time in my knowledge, rapt, enthusiastic,” on reading “Ulysses.” Later, she tried in her diary to protect herself. Turning to a common English reflex, snobbery, she pretended to have arrived at a conclusion about the Irishman’s magnum opus: “I bought the blue paper book, & read it here one summer I think with spasms of wonder, of discovery, & then again with long lapses of intense boredom.” “Genius it has I think; but of the inferior water… . It is underbred, not only in the obvious sense, but in the literary sense.”
But it was “Ulysses,” and the bewilderment caused by “Ulysses,” a novel that restricts itself to a day in the lives of two characters, that showed Woolf a new path. Whatever she professed to think of it, everything she was to write from then on owes if not debts of influence then debts of provocation to James Joyce. It was engaging with his work that helped her write, in the essay “Modern Fiction,” what is possibly one of the most lucid and passionate advocacies for fiction:
If a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible? We are not pleading merely for courage and sincerity; we are suggesting that the proper stuff of fiction is a little other than custom would have us believe it.
So one does not need the epic. You can do as much, perhaps more, with as little as two characters and a day. And you no longer cast your net in order to catch the whole sea. Instead, you angle for the one perfect fish.
* * *
The industrious intellect and imagination of a novelist might at times be superficially motivated by a fervor for recognition, or the desire to compete with an admired contemporary, but few works of any worth were sustained by vanity alone. What is required is the persistent need to envisage the world anew, to remake the self, or reorientate her, like a sitter adjusting her posture in order to gain a different view. Once ego’s noise subsides, the old obsessions return. One of the most persistent of these was the political and private life of women. She revealed with savage accuracy the patronizing tactics of men. The effect is not only the result of her talent for social satire—shown in abundance in her earlier fiction—but also of the rebellious instinct of a curious and unsentimental consciousness trapped inside the confines of feminine domesticity. How would she have written if she were not a member of the sex, as she tells us in “A Room of One’s Own,” that had to sit “indoors all these millions of years”? In the same essay, Woolf offers her recommendations for what a woman writer needs: “Five hundred a year and a room with a lock on the door.” A poignant and pragmatic conclusion, but a domestic one, a private remedy to a public problem.
In the end, what transformed the place of women in Britain was not “five hundred a year and a room with a lock on the door” but the most cataclysmic event of the time, the First World War. The war exposed the extent and danger of social inequalities. Forty per cent of the men who volunteered for military service were not physically fit to serve. The dire state of the health of the nation was revealed, and suddenly the collective well-being of society began to gain precedence over individual liberty. It paved the way toward a nationalized health service. And the men who went to fight left behind their jobs. No less than a third of the male workforce joined the Army. Women filled the gap. As the suffragette Ray Strachey, Woolf’s sister-in-law, put it: “Middle-aged women who had been quiet mothers of families were suddenly transformed into efficient plumbers, chimney sweeps, or grave diggers; flighty and giggling young girls turned into house-painters and electricians; ladies whose lives had been spent in the hunting-field turned into canal boatmen and ploughmen.” Nearly a million of them went into engineering. After the war, it became no longer acceptable to have half of the population indoors. It was women’s extraordinary contribution to the war that granted them the vote. When the men returned, male resentment in the workplace grew. Feminism became necessary to secure and advance the gains made by women. Virginia Woolf was one of its most eloquent exponents. In fact, “A Room of One’s Own,” what is still today a necessary and powerful argument for women’s rights, would not have been possible were it not for the historical transformations the war forced through. Her referring to the war as a “preposterous masculine fiction” was a tactic to elevate and distinguish feminine reason. The war killed nine hundred and fifty thousand men from Britain and the Empire and left 1.5 million wounded. The economic and military might of the British Empire was no longer supreme.
Yet the war offered Woolf the novelist an opportunity to turn the restrictions of her gender to an unexpected advantage. She did not have the option to write directly about the war: the story of its conflicts and the drama of its battles. Instead, in her next novel,” Jacob’s Room,” she becomes a miniaturist: interested in the tremors of the war on the intimate lives of men and women. Gearing up for the challenge, she wrote in her diary, “I figure the approach will be entirely different this time: No scaffolding; scarcely a brick to be seen; all crepuscular, but the heart, the passion, the humour, everything as bright as fire in the mist.” The word “crepuscular” brings to mind a line from Samuel Beckett, when Pozzo tells Vladimir, in “Waiting for Godot,” “But I see what it is, you are not from these parts, you don’t know what our twilights can do.” “Jacob’s Room” inhabits the twilight. It tells the early life of Jacob Flanders through the women who knew him. He later dies in the war, but we don’t follow him there. It’s Woolf’s first modernist novel, a Joycean experiment in how much one can exclude.
When your power is limited, when you cannot vote, when your opinions and contributions are dismissed solely because of your gender, then the disgrace of witnessing your own people butcher and be butchered must not only cause you to revisit everything you assumed about human nature but also asks you to view it from the distance of the outsider. The war, like a flame eating moths, annihilated those presumptions. It delivered Woolf, perhaps more vividly and abruptly than her male contemporaries, to the hard face of the truth, of what we are capable of doing. It is hard not to in part attribute her sobriety and keenness of vision to her marginal status as a woman. Her prose becomes more sharply invested with the visual and material world. It fills up with shifting and precise, unfixed and yet vivid resonances. Her writing comes to have the double effect of heightening our sense of reality and making that reality seem questionable or impermanent. This is the departure that “Jacob’s Room” achieves. It does not do away entirely, as was Woolf’s intention, with conventional narrative structure—scenes are set with relatively familiar descriptive modes of places, objects, how people are seated—but her doubts mature into a sort of existential uncertainty. The scalpel grows sharper.
This method of hinting obliquely and only through suggestion at horror has influenced the course of the novel. The profound works of W. G. Sebald, for example, a German writer burdened with the question of how to address the ruination of the Second World War, is a literary event made in some way possible by Virginia Woolf. She helped show him how direct documentation is not necessarily the best course to follow. In the last interview he gave before his untimely death, in 2001, Sebald credited the insight to reading Virginia Woolf, and particularly her essay “The Death of the Moth,”
the wonderful example of her description of a moth coming to its end on a windowpane somewhere in Sussex, and this is a passage of some two pages only, I think. And it’s written somewhere, chronologically speaking, between the battlefields of the Somme and the concentration camps erected by my compatriots. There is no reference made to the battlefields of the Somme in this passage, but one knows as a reader of Virginia Woolf that she was greatly perturbed by the First World War, by its aftermath, by the damage it did to people’s souls—the souls of those who got away and, naturally, of those who perished. I think that a subject which at first glance seems quite far removed from the undeclared concern of a book can encapsulate that concern.
Sebald was an inheritor of a dark history, interested in the shame of the progeny. Like the South African author J. M. Coetzee, his contemporary, Sebald was concerned with how to convey not savagery and guilt but their inheritance. Woolf, excluded from the vote and therefore from politics and the decisions that lead countries to war and peace, shared with them the condition of being implicated in the actions of others. It seems every great novelist is conscious of being both implicated in and subject to history. The war helped Woolf understand this. Still, she was heavily criticized for what was perceived as an evasion. She was subjected to passionate calls by noted figures, such as her esteemed friend Katherine Mansfield, to write directly about the war. She kept her poise. Hers is a singular example of literary independence. And now we can see that her decision of expressing the tremors of the masculine epic of war through domestic life was poignantly subversive, true, and truly free.
As a sentence in “Jacob’s Room” puts it, “There is something absolute in us which despises qualification.”
There was a relationship between Woolf’s mental illness and her writing. Bouts of mental crises hit her between novels. The edges of sanity revealed what seemed to her to be the true workings of the mind. With each book she became more obsessed with language and how when we speak we often fall short of or else exceed what we intended to express. Talking as a betrayal: saying too much, or not enough. The birth of psychoanalysis at the time added to this. Woolf knew of the writings of Sigmund Freud. Her friend Lytton Strachey’s brother, James Strachey, was the Austrian’s translator. To Woolf and her Bloomsbury friends, psychoanalysis must have confirmed what they already suspected, that social norms and accepted forms of behavior were often there to veil the gulf that exists between what is professed and the truth. Perhaps it confirmed Woolf’s instinct, one that persisted from the start, and to which she often attributed her estrangement from the world, that all is not what appears. Woolf was aware of Freud’s proposition that close observation of uncensored thought and speech, the ways in which we reveal and interrupt ourselves, can cause deeply buried truths to arise. She was aware of the danger. She might have agreed with Karoline von Günderrode who, in Christa Wolf’s novel “No Place on Earth,” scans the large room where a party is gathered and thinks, “How fortunate that our thoughts do not dance in visible letters above our heads. If they did, any contact between human beings, even a harmless social gathering such as this, could easily become a convocation of murderers.” But Woolf cannot be reduced to a psychoanalytical novelist. She sort of discards Freud or, as the expression goes, she takes him in her stride. In this way, she is truer to our time where, if we look at Freud at all, then it is perhaps with gratitude but also with that amused affection one pays an eccentric uncle. Nonetheless, Uncle Freud nudged her along a little.
* * *
Three years after “Jacob’s Room,” in 1925, when Virginia Woolf was forty-three, she resurrected Clarissa Dalloway, a character from “The Voyage Out,” and placed her centre stage. It was to be her best novel yet. Instead of the hills where the grass softens the heavens and in the late evening “the flamingo hours fluttered softly through the sky,” in “Mrs. Dalloway” the most passionately described landscape is that of the city. One of the novel’s principle characters is the noisy, rumbling, chaotic, and democratic London. As in ancient Greek drama, and Joyce’s “Ulysses,” the novel takes place in a single day. There’s an inward drive to the narrative. The exceptional sensitivity toward the smallest turns of mind and the piercing perceptions of the most agile twists in moods are illuminated. What takes our breath away in literature is not the new but the encounter with what has been silently known. “Mrs. Dalloway” is extraordinary, but it is not Woolf’s finest novel.
She was right in that “books continue each other, in spite of our habit of judging them separately”; we ought to take the writer in her totality. But in my mind “To the Lighthouse” is the culmination of everything Woolf has been working toward. She spoke about the interdependence of words, how they color and infect one another, that there is no pure meaning, that each word is nudged and changed by those strung to it. Like the words we have invented, we, too, cannot exist outside history. But what also appears here is a new silence. All great writing is infected with silence, but it is very rare indeed to observe a master wielding that vacuum blankness of the unsaid with such elegant precision. Part of the effect is that you feel you are inside a mind, inhabiting another’s interiority. But there also is the register of history, in the vast expanse of the sea welded in a continuous fabric to the sky. Everything out there is unknown, and the lighthouse has no hope to illuminate where we are heading. All it does is call attention to itself and the rock it stands on. It is a perpetual circular warning, a white scream. We are trapped in history, poised between two world wars.
Novelists often find themselves or themselves create situations in which they are obliged to speak about one of their books, a book they are no longer writing. A process of justification and rationalization and remembering ensues. More often than not, this ends up with over-defended stories that attempt to explain motives and intentions that are now long in the past, and therefore might be accurately remembered but are, more often than not, invented under obligation to explain oneself or else to retrospectively attempt to reenter that pure space where one was a servant of and a contributor to, with all one has got, the mechanism of a work of fiction. It is very rare to hear a novelist speak accurately about writing a novel because it is extremely difficult to explain.
Virginia Woolf was a rare example. She wrote well about her writing. She described working on “To the Lighthouse” as a process “without any premeditation.” And I believe her. What she arrived at here was not the outcome of calculated stylistic intent but, rather, the result of a long process of observation and then surrender and fidelity to the outcomes. History—the horrific events of a war that ravished the world with monstrous appetite, and the great social changes that followed—might have accelerated her progress in the form. But mostly it was the unique talent and keenness of vision that made her write some of the most luminous fiction of the twentieth century.