First of all, the dramatic reading of Edna O’Brien’s play about Virginia Woolf was very enjoyable. It took place in a little theater in the basement below the Drama Bookshop, and I got to chat with some students who are in the grad program I graduated from. Anne Fernald started off the program by reading a beautiful personal essay connecting her family reading history, her scholarly interests, and Virginia Woolf. And then three actors read the play, which basically covered important events in Woolf’s life, most memorably her relationships with Leonard Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. I would like to read the play, partly because this performance didn’t include the entire script, but mostly because it was beautifully-written, capturing Woolf’s spirit and her brilliant use of language.
I recently finished a book by Woolf herself — her short story collection Monday or Tuesday. It doesn’t feel quite right calling it a short story collection, because many of the works are more like sketches or essays, and only one or two have anything like a plot (and that’s a bit of a stretch). The book is very short — less than 60 pages in my edition — and it contains eight stories, some of which are only a page or two. Each piece is experimental in some way; some of them are like prose poems and others, my favorites, follow a character’s thoughts or Woolf’s own thoughts, as they move from subject to subject. The story with the strongest sense of narrative, “A Society,” is a humorous take on patriarchy. It tells of a group of women who agree that “the objects of life were to produce good people and good books,” and decide they will go out into the world to see just how well men have done with these tasks. They meet periodically to discuss their conclusions. Monday or Tuesday is very short, but I like the way it reveals many of Woolf’s preoccuptions — feminism, consciousness, and the power and beauty of language itself.
As I read along, I thought about how I would have reacted to the pieces if I’d read them when they were first published or if I had read them without knowing anything Woolf. It’s impossible to know what I would have thought, but my guess is that I would have fallen in love with a few of the pieces and found others bewildering or off-putting. The shorter, more poetic pieces (“Blue and Green,” “Monday or Tuesday”) left me a little cold. I can see that Woolf is experimenting with language, but I had trouble piecing together exactly what was going on in them. The feminist tale “A Society” is amusing and light, although with a serious point to make, and “Kew Gardens” interestingly widens its focus to describe the world from the perspective of a snail. There are people in “Kew Gardens,” but they don’t have their usual privileged position and have to share the spotlight with the natural world.
The ones I liked best, though, the ones I would have fallen in love with even if I hadn’t known a thing about Woolf, are the stories specifically about consciousness. There is “The String Quartet,” which follows the thoughts and perceptions of a person at a musical performance. The narrator offers her own wandering thoughts, interrupted now and then by the conversations of others. There is also “An Unwritten Novel,” a story about a train trip where the narrator observes a fellow-passenger and creates an entire life story for her, one that would explain her strange twitch and the unhappy look on her face. The story is about the power of the imagination and of sympathy — and it’s about the way life is sometimes very different from what our imaginations conjure up.
The masterpiece of the book, though, is “The Mark on the Wall,” a personal essay that tells of Woolf’s thoughts as she sits near the fire and notices something on the wall, something she can’t quite place. As she sits there wondering if it is a nail or a smudge, her thoughts roam from the small — wondering about the people who lived in the house before her — to the large — the mystery of life itself. She wants to lose herself in her thoughts and so starts to tell herself a story, which she soon abandons to consider the complications of identity, and soon she returns to the mark again, wondering what it is, but too happily lost in thought to get up and investigate. I love the way Woolf follows the stream of consciousness — this requires such a carefully crafted, contrived style and yet Woolf makes the flow of thoughts on the page seem utterly natural — and the way she uses the stream-of-consciousness style to contemplate thought itself. As she records her thoughts, she makes an argument for the multiplicity and complexity of identity and the way art will reflect this in the future:
As we face each other in omnibuses and underground railways we are looking into the mirror; that accounts for the vagueness, the gleam of glassiness, in our eyes. And the novelists in future will realize more and more the importance of these reflections, for of course there is not one reflection but an almost infinite number; those are the depths they will explore, those the phantoms they will pursue, leaving the description of reality more and more out of their stories, taking a knowledge of it for granted …
After reading the stories, I turned to the relevant chapter in Julia Briggs’s book Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, and she talks about how the stories in Monday or Tuesday are like warm-ups for Woolf’s later experimental fiction. “The Mark on the Wall” is more than that, but it does indicate what Woolf hoped to do in her own work and it helps us understand how to read what came later.
I’m slowly reading my way through Woolf’s fiction, which means that Jacob’s Room is next. I’m a little frightened of this book, as I tried to read it a long time ago and didn’t do very well, but I’m counting on greater age and experience to help me out. I’m excited to see what the second time through will be like.