Monday, November 28, 2016

Substantialreads: Novirginiawoolfember

I make no apologies for taking affirmative action and dedicating this month to a woman author to help boost my sexist stats. However - you'll want to prepare yourself for a shock - it's an author I wanted to read more from anyway (and to properly read the ones I lazily skim-read at university, despite liking them. I found it harder to read three books a week back when I was actually supposed to).

Anyway, I love the modernists and Woolf is less heavy-going than Joyce. Or seemed so back when I wrote this optimistic intro anyway, I'll see how it goes.


Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out

1915 / Audiobook / 375 pages / UK

**

"She shifted her eyes and became less desirable as her brain began to work."

As expected, Woolf's feet-finding first novel is closer to the 19th-century husband-seeking female novels than the more confident, progressive and experimental stuff she's better known for, but the groundwork is there, and the political diatribes were supposedly a lot fiercer in the early drafts before she was advised to temper things somewhat, there's a dear.

My biggest issue is the size of the thing, encompassing too many characters over a surplus of pages covering an inordinate length of time. Hopefully it won't be too long before that's sorted out and I can look forward to being trapped inside one woman's head as she goes about her morning ablutions in real time.


Virginia Woolf, Night and Day

1919 / Audiobook / 442 pages / UK

**

Back to the real (privileged) world of drawing rooms and recreational duck slaughter, Woolf's more concise character palette covers the full spectrum of contemporary women's attitudes as she sees them... though only among a class of women for whom work is an optional political statement rather than a necessity. Maybe it's asking too much for a book to cover the entirety of English society, this is even longer than the last book already.

For all its cushy progressiveness, we're still firmly entrenched in the Victorian novel, with hot topics like suffrage and the crumbling caste system being secondary to the more pressing dilemma of which suitor our heroine should choose. The lawyer or the poet? Isn't there a war on?


Virginia Woolf, Jacob's Room

1922 / Audiobook / 290 pages / UK

****

Disorienting alienation at last! Woolf's decision to self-publish meant she could be as strange as she damned well liked, but this isn't quite as revolutionary and inverted as the fans like to claim. The protagonist is unusually backgrounded, but he's still there. The dialogue is vacuous and events meaningless, but the poetic descriptions keep us grounded.

If Ulysses hadn't come out the same year and ruined things for experimental novelists, maybe this would enjoy the same level of appreciation as its successors, rather than being (arguably unfairly) overlooked and treated more like a promising demo.


Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway

1925 / Audiobook / 194 pages / UK

***

I appreciate what you're doing, but while making us intimately privy to the scatter-brained stream-of-consciousness of a middle-aged, middle-class, post-war housewife is intriguing, that does mean we're stuck with actually reading about the dull minutia that occupies said middle-aged, middle-class, post-war housewife's day. And it's all a bit of a rip-off of Joyce anyway.

The side trip inside the bipolar head of a male character was more compelling, probably because a) the comparisons to the author's own tragic mental issues add superficial real-life pathos, and b) I'm obviously a white male chauvinist. Why else would I prefer Jacob's Room to Mrs Dalloway? I'm probably a homophobe too.


Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

1927 / E-book / 209 pages / UK

*****

"Unfilmable" is one of the highest compliments you can give to a book. Just as very few of the films I like are adaptations, the best novels and short stories are those take full advantage of the medium. Imagine trying to film this. It'd just be a meaningless sequence of people doing mundane things while looking contemplative. Film it at a high frame rate and play the audiobook over the top and you might be getting somewhere, but I wouldn't want to watch that.

There's probably more to me adoring this while being indifferent to Mrs Dalloway than just the more pleasant coastal scenery, but don't underestimate the power of that.


Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography

1928 / E-book / 134 pages / UK

***

Already regarded as a classic feminist novel, Woolf's book-length lesbian love letter wasn't considered essential reading when I studied the modernists, maybe because it's disappointingly accessible after all that showing off.

But it's presumably secured its spot on the syllabus now that transgender is a thing. Or maybe just to help people who've read The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen but didn't know who the ageless, androgynous one was supposed to be. Ticking off those references is the only reason I bother with classic literature, after all.


Virginia Woolf, The Waves

1931 / E-book / 324 pages / UK

*****

Back on form and capsizing the boat, this is her most arduous one yet and thus the most satisfying. You wouldn't want to read this sort of book every day – even the author has to take a sanity break and write magical love stories between her heavy-duty efforts – but it's got to be good for the soul, or at least makes you feel clever when you don't have trouble following what's going on even without a Wikipedia summary holding your hand.

In this schizophrenic soliloquy sequence blending novel, play and vivid poetry, Woolf escapes Joyce's shadow and puts forward a worthy rival to Ulysses. So I suppose there's nothing left to prove and the laurel bed is earned. I don't mean to be a pessimist, but surely things can only realistically go downhill from here?


Virginia Woolf, Flush: A Biography

1933 / E-book / 163 pages / UK

***

A necessary light palate cleanser after The Waves, this is really a smart-arse literary joke needlessly extended to book length, but at least it is a bit of a short one.

This atypical biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning sidelines the poet and centres instead on her spaniel. Partly for the fun of subverting your expectations, but also presumably so Woolf can make some scathing observations on unnaturally stratified and polluted London from a dog's primal perspective. It's borderline Disney already, but I don't think she went far enough. I wanted an authentic canine simulator – less time dwelling on his pedigree, more time sniffing other dogs' arses and licking his own balls.


Virginia Woolf, The Years

1937 / E-book / 444 pages / UK

***

The bubble was bound to burst eventually. Flush was a fun, inconsequential E.P., but her next "proper" book after Lighthouse and Waves feels retrogressive in several undesired ways, length being just one of them.

From the onset, this had the same disappointing air as an increasingly pretentious prog band stripping back to the core instruments and a basic stage set when you were looking forward to more delightful pomp. In its favour, there's nothing half-arsed about it, and it does manage to be moderately superior to her early works, but if she was going to look back to the "classics," I would have preferred anything over a slightly better 'Night and Day.'


Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts

1941 / E-book / 228 pages / UK

****

Pulling back from the languid scope and length of The Years, Woolf's prematurely posthumous final novel is more concise, necessarily less polished and a much more satisfying one to go out on. I don't just rate these on length; I'd rather read this twice in one session than go through that last one again.

Swapping the city for the symbolic countryside, Woolf explores her justified fears of a Britain and Europe poised for war while some posh people watch an amateur pageant, almost as oblivious to its ironic symbolism as I was, and I was looking. We're treated one last time to the scatter-brained anxieties of a cast of familiar characters as we possess patriarchs, wives and gardeners in turn.


Virginia Woolf, A Haunted House and Other Stories

1944 / Audiobook/e-book / 124 pages / UK

****

I expected to like this posthumous collection of sketches a lot more than I actually did, but considering what Woolf did for the novel, it would be asking a bit much for her less substantial works to be similarly groundbreaking.

Spanning most of her writing career, you can see the playful and ambitious seeds that would germinate more fully in her best books, while others seem primarily oriented to sell to Harper's.

Faves: 'Kew Gardens,' 'Lappin and Lapinova,' 'Solid Objects.'

Worsties: 'The New Dress,' 'Together and Apart,' 'A Summing Up.'

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