Posts filed under ‘Virginia Woolf’


Kandinsky, ‘Winter Landscape’ (1909)

Orlando, by Virginia Woolf (1928), is about time, desire, and poetry. It is about shifting identities, both personal and national. It is a fairytale with baroque details, a historical novel and a dream. When I read this blurb, how could I resist?

His longing for passion, adventure and fulfillment takes him out of his own time. Chasing a dream through the centuries, he bounds from Elizabethan England and imperial Turkey to the modern world. Will he find happiness with the exotic Russian princess Sasha? Or is the dashing explorer Shelmerdine the ideal man? And what form will Orlando take on the journey – a nobleman, traveller, writer? Man or . . . woman?

It didn’t disappoint. At the beginning it reminded me a bit of Vathek (eighteenth-century orientalist fantasy), but it had a lighter touch than this (it is Woolf, after all). I love the way Woolf can weave a single sentence over a whole page, and you don’t mind. I love the bit where England is hit by a huge frost and the Thames freezes over. The new king turns it into a pleasure park:

Lovers dallied upon divans spread with sables. Frozen roses fell in showers when the Queen and her ladies walked abroad. Coloured balloons hovered motionless in the air. Here and there burnt vast bonfires of cedar and oak, lavishly salted, so that the flames were of green, orange, and purple fire. But however fiercely they burnt, the heat was not enough to melt the ice which, though of singular transparency, was yet of the hardness of steel. So clear was it indeed that there could be seen, congealed at a depth of several feet, here a porpoise, there a flounder. Shoals of eels lay motionless in trance. . .

Isn’t that great! Oh, there is a lot going on in this novel, and it builds to a wonderful, surprising, twisting climax, but it is easy to read, like someone telling you a fairy story. And it’s very funny too. I’ll leave you with this defense of the artistic temperament:

The true length of a person’s life, whatever the Dictionary of National Biography may say, is always a matter of dispute. For it is a difficult business – this time keeping; nothing more quickly disorders it than contact with any of the arts; and it may have been her love of poetry that was to blame for making Orlando lose her shopping list and start home without the sardines, the bath salts, or the boots.


June 16, 2007 at 9:32 am 3 comments

The Hours

The Hours, by Michael Cunningham, is one of those rare, glittery constructions which make you gasp, and sigh, and sets a ribbon of delight twisting inside you. I mean – I loved it. It’s built around Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dallaway, so you need to read this first. But when I say built, I don’t mean roughly or heavily. It is like a river, and a city made of light, and the quick-pulsing heart of a small bird. It is connected to Mrs D so lightly, so elegantly, so deeply and so gently that it made me think of all these things.

When I read the first couple of pages I had reservations. So, I thought, he’s picked up the rhythm and the sentence structure from Mrs D and transplanted it into the 1990’s. Big deal. But two more pages in, and I was lost in the beauty of the refractions, and the way he has formed something entirely new from an engagement with the older text. Incredible.

The novel, set on a single day, oscillates between three time-frames: Virginia Woolf’s 1920’s Richmond, as she begins to write Mrs Dallaway; Laura Brown’s stifling life as a housewife in 1940’s Los Angeles, as she longs to sneak away and read Mrs Dallaway; and Clarissa’s 1990’s New York, as she buys flowers and prepares a party for a dying friend. Clarissa’s name and life echo Mrs Dallaway, and there are subtle refractions which make you gasp with recognition and surprise, almost like deja vu.

I read Mrs Dallaway last year, as I was tutoring on the Reading Prose module for first year English students at the University of Leeds. It is a beautiful book, a perfect book; I enjoyed every page. I love Mrs Dallaway, I feel like I’ve met her somewhere. She is ordinary but extraordinary as well. I think my students had trouble coming to terms with this, and saw her as shallow or a victim. I wonder if, for most people, Woolf is more accessible when you are a little older. I tried Towards the Lighthouse when I was 18 and got nowhere with it.

I haven’t seen the film of The Hours, but I guess I will at some point. I didn’t see it when it first came out, because a few people told me it wasn’t very good, though I’ve since heard otherwise. It’s probably a good thing, because I hadn’t read Mrs D at that point, and it was lovely to read The Hours without knowing exactly how it was going to work.

Writing a novel always involves making choices, limiting possibilities, taking this path instead of that one. The Hours went back to Mrs Dallaway and teased out some of the threads not followed, the roads not taken. When I finished it, I thought – yes, this is the best way to respond to literature! Not writing essays or theses, but making a new story, making it live again. It made me want to run out and get hold of everything Cunningham has ever written. I’m in Norway now, so that will have to wait. But it won’t stop me thinking of rivers, and glittery cities, and the quick-beating hearts of birds.

May 31, 2007 at 5:16 pm 8 comments

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