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In Praise of Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf and Her Works

by Jean Guiguet
Harcourt, Brace & World, 487 pp., $8.50

It is difficult to guess, more than thirty-five years after The Waves was published (1931), how slight or how strong the hold of Virginia Woolf upon contemporary readers may still be. 1931 was a year of catastrophe; Between the Acts appeared in 1941 in an even greater blackness. Reading these novels as they appeared, one did not doubt that one was watching an extension of English literature, an addition to the resources of the language, which might have no consequences, but which would never be forgotten. For me, as probably for many Englishmen, these two novels, and To the Lighthouse as well, are not easily separated from the setting in which they first appeared. Together with the poetry and prose of the later Eliot, of Auden, Isherwood, and Spender, they belong to that brilliant pre-war phase of English experimental writing; they recall the disappointed enthusiasms of the Popular Front and intellectuals protesting against Fascism. Virginia Woolf was a contributor, on at least one occasion, to the Daily Worker; there was a splender in this incongruity, even if the episode marked principally the desperation of that time.

Now there is surely time to think again about her achievement, away from the local prejudices which, at least in England, have absurdly concealed some of the true qualities of her genius. Some of the dominant academic critics in England have for many years parroted phrases about the Bloomsbury Group, and smothered her work with nervous polemics. Her elaborate play with language in her lighter works, and as a critic and journalist, seems to have aroused a sense of social grievance among critics, because her tone and style were taken to be a return to a genteel tradition of belles lettres, which should have been discredited. A remoteness, a bookishness, a conscious poise and cultivation of literary manner in the widely read The Common Reader established a public character which obscured, at least for a time, her deeper purposes as a novelist.

JEAN GUIGUET is far away from these vagaries of English opinion. He has put together a large study, at once biographical and critical, using all the available sources, and relying particularly on the posthumously published A Writer’s Diary. He is well aware that A Writer’s Diary, as edited by Leonard Woolf, can only tell a very small part of the story, and that most of the biographical sources, particularly letters, are missing. He often has to guess, and it must be admitted that his speculations are sometimes repetitive and unconvincing. So great is his enthusiasm and respect that he sometimes attributes to Virginia Woolf virtuous intentions which it is very unlikely she would have had. She was uncompromisingly aristocratic in her attitudes: she despised many things, and worthy academic criticism was one of them. She admired wit, recklessness, and the crushing intellectual arrogance with which she had been familiar all her life. As a Frenchman, he looks for, and finds, a philosophical thesis in the novels, which he expresses in abstract words that might not have greatly interested her. Perhaps he tries too hard to be exhaustive and definitive in an academic way. But he is immensely informative, and his perceptions are often unexpected and convincing. This is a solid and serious book, without any of the now dreaded affectation and apparatus of so much Anglo-Saxon criticism.

I suppose that this apparatus of modern criticism, which is not mere reviewing or journalism, has the same function as the apparatus of the law courts: to preserve the dignity and distance of the critic’s judicial office. The critic, unlike the reviewer, must be defended against the risk of seeming unbalanced, arbitrary, too personal, too partial in the selection of evidence; he must not be caught in the act of rigging the evidence to satisfy his own emotional responses. I do not pretend to be judicial, to sum up points for and against, when this entirely original, uneven, and occasionally great, writer is in question. It will always be easy to gather evidence for a dismissive verdict against Virginia Woolf; her writing can become arch and trivial and weakly decorative (as in Three Guineas); her ambitions can fail to acquire substance, the effect can be papery and thin and cold (as in some parts of Mrs. Dalloway and in The Years), and the characters unrealized, except as vehicles for the author’s virtuosity. Her own words for her defects were “watery and flimsy and pitched in too high a voice,” and these words do apply to her weaker work and even to some passages in To the Lighthouse. The negative evidence can be piled up, if a balanced verdict is desired. But the point and the pleasure will be missed; once the sharp edge and strangeness of her genius have been felt, and separated from the surface impression, she can be found one of the most unsettling and poignant writers of her time, who penetrated to levels of experience and of feeling which are not explored elsewhere. She describes “the world seen without a self,” the ordinary madness that lies, as she believed, just beneath the solid world of unperceiving sanity.

THE IMPRESSION that her finest writing, and particularly her two masterpieces. The Waves and Between the Acts, conveys is of a wildness and violence below a hard and beautiful surface which scarcely contains them; it is as if a whirling confusion, a horror of chaos and of disintegration, is just being kept at a distance. The characters hold on to conventional reality, but they know that they are clinging to a frail convention only. Along the path of their nerves, and in their unguarded perceptions, they continually receive intimations of another and more primitive world, in which solid objects dissolve, lose their shape and coherence, become threatening or enchanting, and leave a trail of unexplored significances; the colors and rhythms are more insistent, and at this deeper level gloom and brightness are juxtaposed, as in a jungle, and the most humdrum objects are swept from their placid English setting in some breaking wave of primary emotion. The speakers in The Waves feel a kind of anguish in sensation, as they struggle to hold the world steady; it is slipping away from their grasp. Their friends, and the occasion of their meeting, the hurrying moment, will not be fixed, and those rounded presences, real people, cannot quite be realized and held in focus. A true consciousness is more rapid than we must conventionally pretend, and, once opened and uncontrolled, will run in ecstasy from the pattern in the tablecloth to the pattern of meetings and absences among friends. The agony of loss in The Waves is as much the loss of a moment, of an unusual instant of true communication, arrested and perfect, a point of intersection between monologues, as the loss of a friend who has died. Only in the practice of an art can one both suspend the reality principle, and allow the gross facts of time-governed reality to dissolve before one’s eyes, and yet retain a sense of identity, a continuing sanity. So Virginia Woolf wrote of herself in her Diary:”…something very profound about the synthesis of my being: how only writing composes it: how nothing makes a whole unless I am writing”; and again, “Odd how the creative power at once brings the whole universe to order.” Words allow the whirling chaos to be recognized, to be placated, to be contained and formed; the violent rhythms of anguish and exaltation can be realized in free imagery, and the English language, the language of Sterne and of the Elizabethans, can match the pace of a dissociated sensibility. She wrote, and her characters speak, with the fear of madness near to them. But the painful magic of sentences and phrases can gather the distracted fragments of a personality together, and give it a shape, and a sense of identity. The phrases echo along the corridors of perception from childhood.

M. Guiguet is surely half right to stress the quest for reality in the changing forms of the novels. Narrative is that form of description which must be unfaithful to l’expérience vécue. We need a form of fiction which, like Emily Brontë’s, “could free life from its dependence on facts.” Obituaries must lie; this was, for Virginia Woolf, a necessary, and not a contingent, truth. Perceptions always carry unnamed emotions, and no true story can be told without the flow of perceptions, the subject’s temporary world, which he does not control at will. So a style and a form are needed that “transmit emotion without impediment,” give a luminous immediacy of impression, without the scaffolding of exposition and plot, which must break the flow. The post-impressionist painters whom Roger Fry admired had liberated themselves from conventions of representation, and had found a new immediacy by suppressing all explanatory transitions, bridge passages, inert segments of the canvas that are mere picture-building; this analogy was certainly in Virginia Woolf’s mind.

BUT NEITHER THE MOTIVE nor the value of her writing are to be found in these abstract and methodological concerns, cherished by the new Cartesians in France, who have almost buried Virginia Woolf beneath their doctoral philosophizings. “Le roman psychologique,” with the inevitable allusions to Dujardin and Joyce, is an irrelevance: The personal urgency and the density of feeling in The Waves disappear in an analysis of this abstract kind. The bleak conclusion of this line of criticism is to be found in Nathalie Sarraute’s patronage of Virginia Woolf in The Age of Suspicion. Mlle. Sarraute wholly detaches the method from the substance, as if novels, whether written by Proust or by Butor or by Virginia Woolf, were all directed towards the same subject matter, but employed different methods to reach it; just as in biology there could be mechanists and vitalists, so there can be psychologizing novels, now shown to be mistaken and superseded, and objective novels, the approved rational method. This pretense that “The Novel,” or “The Modern Novel,” is a continuing inquiry into some independently recognized problem, and is therefore akin to philosophy, is particularly misleading here; Virginia Woolf knew very well that her visions of the reality behind appearances were partial and eccentric, that Rhoda and Neville and Jinny in The Waves lived among wholly different enclosing images and perceptions. She knew also that her perceptions must be more violent and threatening than those of other writers, reverberating along, nerves that were more taut, and scattering in wild discords, uncontrolled at the center: that for her “nothing makes a whole,” as it would for Tolstoy or Thackeray. The immediacy for which she struggled was an immediacy in the transmission of primary emotion, unfocused upon enduring objects: of the literally overwhelming sense of the strangeness of being alive, of the horror of an inner darkness, like a tunnel of fear, as the sense of identity disintegrates: in her words, “the sensation of all the violence and unreason crossing in the air: ourselves small: a tumult outside: something terrifying.” In “Kew Gardens,” in some passages of To the Lighthouse, throughout The Waves and Between the Acts, the hurrying menace of disembodied emotion, like the drumming of horses’ hooves, or the pounding of waves on the shore, is insistently present in the writing. Her men and women hold on, sometimes despairingly, to some solid center, to some handrail over the chaos of the whirling sensations, which form their dissolving patterns. In love and in friendship there can be, temporarily, “a riveting together of the shattered fragments of the world.” But they are threatened, and haunted, by the memory of an unendurable loss: the loss of a brother, or, later, of a friend, which had once shattered “the little strip of pavement over an abyss”—Virginia Woolf’s picture of her own experience. The small group of friends, in The Waves, which, biographically, may be seen as a reflection of a Cambridge coterie and of Bloomsbury, was more significantly a representation of “the little strip of pavement over the abyss,” a linking around Percival, the solidly upright male figure at the center, who had held the common, man-made world of fact together, but who is dead.

IT COULD BE SAID that this beautiful novel is too static and emotionally stifling, and that the dismissal of bodily presences and of actual events is unbearable as fiction, because it seems pathological; or that the whole work is “too egotistical,” the author’s own verdict on some of her work. It may be too egotistical, in the sense that the immediacy, which she had so long sought, removes an essential condition of fiction; the author’s emotions are transmitted without resistance along the nerves of her prose, and the reader is left helpless, either overwhelmed or repelled, and in either case without the independent material on which his imagination can begin to work. The implications are already stated, and the novel criticizes itself. The resources of the language are magnificently stretched; there is nothing else in English literature which resembles The Waves in its attempt to render very general, even cosmic emotions by a controlled profusion of images, concrete, various, and exact. No one else has used language with this extravagance and yet kept a hardness of surface at the same time. The Waves has, as a novel, the virtues of a great Fauve painting, a celebration in bright colors of the emotions of vision and of awareness, and is similarly disciplined. After the luxury and the beauty of the language, “a great sense of the brutality and wildness of the world” remains with the reader, and, on any re-reading, the apparent preciosity of the material disappears in this sense of ecstasy, loneliness, and loss, so thrown into relief. The novel does render “all the insanity of personal existence” and those characteristic moments of “sudden transparencies,” when “the walls of the mind grow thin.”

Between the Acts, which Virginia Woolf considered “more quintessential,” is a turning away from egotism and subjectivity, and, though unrevised, seems to me flawless, and in need of no defense at all against hostile critics. It is a wonderfully compressed story, as clear on its surface as in its themes; during the single summer day described, the pageant of a contracting England drags on, too slowly, towards the evening, and masks the gradual overcoming of despair. The wildness and violence in the too bland air are at last given a name and a substance, at least in part, as sexual love and estrangement, and as the blind, natural force that holds people together when the voices stop, and the common history is forgotten, and when Miss La Trobe goes away, alone, knowing that her art cannot altogether be heard, or be understood. She is a feminine, or half-feminine, unmagical, muttering Prospero, who in her art attempts the impossible, and who is heard only in snatches. In the worst year of the war, only “a wedge-shaped core of darkness” ahead, this novel seemed an epitaph; literature would be carried forward almost into the night, as the bourgeois world faded and dispersed, with the story of that particular phase of English history told and concluded. All that can be done with words to ward off death and destruction—and the effort was half a failure and half a success—has been done, and it is time to go. Life would be renewed, primitively, in the night, and Miss La Trobe, alone in her pub, would have no part in this renewal. It was difficult in 1941 to read the story in any other way. But the story, and Miss La Trobe, now seem to have a more various and lasting beauty and a less simple suggestiveness. This last novel may be small in scale; but like any great work of art, it can be read again in different ways at different times. Around the walls of the mind, which had grown too thin, a fortification had finally been built in a work which was no longer egotistical. But Virginia Woolf had been exhausted by the headlong pursuit of a controlling form, and died in the River Ouse.

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