Tag Archives: Virginia Woolf

How should you read a book?

A bookshop in Edinburgh, Scotland, photographed in June 2012.

A bookshop in Edinburgh, Scotland, photographed in June 2012.

 

Virginia Woolf’s reading advice, circa 1926 , remains witty & useful.

In the first place, I want to emphasise the note of interrogation at the end of my title.  Even if I could answer the question for myself, the answer would apply only to me and not to you.  The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.

—Virginia Woolf

Woolf around the time she wrote her essay on reading.

Woolf around the time she wrote her essay on reading.

As these opening sentences of her famous essay on reading show, Virginia Woolf is highfalutin only to those who haven’t read her. The chatty offhand charm and modesty of her essays impress and please. The humbling phase comes when you re-read, and see how simple she’s made complex matters, yet how rounded, deep, and full her expression.

I turned again to “How Should One Read a Book?” because after a while a reviewer tends to ask himself what he thinks he’s doing. What’s fair? Relevant? This weighed on me in wondering how to assess, for my recent review, Ted Kerasote’s Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs. I found this fine book marred by one major flaw in Kerasote’s judgment. I was uncertain how serious my disagreement is for the book, and puzzled by the issues it raised for reviewing in general.

Woolf, in stepping back to see the forest of literature, does provide some guidance in how to asses its individual trees:

1.    Open your mind

 At first, she says, try to move in tune with the author. “Be his fellow-worker and accomplice” rather than his critic: “Most commonly we come to books with blurred and divided minds, asking of fiction that it shall be true, of poetry that it shall be false, of biography that it shall be flattering, of history that it shall enforce our own prejudices. If we could banish all such preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning.”

Thankfully, I feel I did a good job initially of moving in tune with Kerasote. And even as my hackles rose over his letting his dog roam, I admired him for being himself. For admitting what he must’ve known would upset some readers. Granted, he doesn’t appear fully aware of how maddening his practice is to some of us, but he does explain his thinking; steadily he reveals himself throughout, which is brave in its way.

Woolf addresses this:

How far shall we resist or give way to the sympathies and antipathies that the man himself rouses in us—so sensitive are words, so receptive of the character of the author?  These are questions that press upon us when we read lives and letters, and we must answer them for ourselves, for nothing can be more fatal than to be guided by the preferences of others in a matter so personal.

I take this to mean that my faulting Kerasote on a matter of judgment—and in this case the preponderance of opinion is on my side—was within bounds.

2.    Learn to read by trying to write

Who can’t help but agree that to discern it helps to have done, or tried to do. Some great and famous editors were not great writers, just as many coaches weren’t great players themselves. But in each case they understood their chosen business from the inside.

A practitioner’s tough love, here:

Recall, then, some event that has left a distinct impression on you—how at the corner of the street, perhaps, you passed two people talking.  A tree shook; an electric light danced; the tone of the talk was comic, but also tragic; a whole vision, an entire conception, seemed contained in that moment.

But when you attempt to reconstruct it in words, you will find that it breaks into a thousand conflicting impressions.  Some must be subdued; others emphasised; in the process you will lose, probably, all grasp upon the emotion itself.

Now, she says, read the opening pages by a great novelist—she suggests Daniel Defoe, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy—and see their mastery and the great differences between their reality, their worlds, from open-air adventure to the drawing room’s subtleties to the lonely moor’s dark mysteries.

She continues:

Yet different as these worlds are, each is consistent with itself. The maker of each is careful to observe the laws of his own perspective, and however great a strain they may put upon us they will never confuse us, as lesser writers so frequently do, by introducing two different kinds of reality into the same book. Thus to go from one great novelist to another—from Jane Austen to Hardy, from Peacock to Trollope, from Scott to Meredith—is to be wrenched and uprooted; to be thrown this way and then that.  To read a novel is a difficult and complex art.  You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist—the great artist—gives you.

3. Read lesser books & even rubbish

These are those lives and letters mentioned above, works of craft—books that don’t necessarily aspire to art. They can be made to “light up many windows of the past,” but also can stoke one’s own creative musing:

Is there not an open window on the right hand of the bookcase?  How delightful to stop reading and look out!  How stimulating the scene is, in its unconsciousness, its irrelevance, its perpetual movement—the colts galloping round the field, the woman filling her pail at the well, the donkey throwing back his head and emitting his long, acrid moan.  The greater part of any library is nothing but the record of such fleeting moments in the lives of men, women, and donkeys. Every literature, as it grows old, has its rubbish-heap, its record of vanished moments and forgotten lives told in faltering and feeble accents that have perished.  But if you give yourself up to the delight of rubbish-reading you will be surprised, indeed you will be overcome, by the relics of human life that have been cast out to moulder.  It may be one letter—but what a vision it gives! It may be a few sentences—but what vistas they suggest!

And yet, we must move on, for lesser works lack the “artist’s power of mastering and eliminating.” Having failed to “tell the whole truth,” having “disfigured the story that might have been so shapely,” they can only offer facts. Not Woolf’s “purer truth of fiction.”

4. Read poetry

“The impact of poetry is so hard and direct that for the moment there is no other sensation except that of the poem itself. What profound depths we visit then—how sudden and complete is our immersion!”

Woolf cites first a heartbreaking lament from the 16th Century song Westron Wynde, which probably is even older in origin—from a fragment if medieval poetry:

 Western wind, when wilt thou blow?

 The small rain down can rain.     

Christ, if my love were in my arms,     

 And I in my bed again!

Her reading essay concludes this collection.

Her reading essay concludes this collection.

And the time to read poetry is “when we are almost able to write it,” she says, going on to cite, so as to show their differing emotional expressiveness, verses of “force and directness,” of “wavering modulation,” of meditative calm,” of “complete and inexhaustible loveliness,” and of “splendid fantasy.”

I love Woolf’s unabashed passion and how it endorses one’s own deeply personal emotional response to literature—which, after all, is made from emotion and is meant to move us, engendering an emotional response its very purpose. Like the blinded Gloucester in Shakespeare’s King Lear, we might, using our great human asset of emotion, apprehend the world fully, “see it feelingly.”

Remember always, Woolf says, that with the lever of his great power to shift our perspective, “The poet is always our contemporary. Our being for the moment is centred and constricted, as in any violent shock of personal emotion.”

5. Wait, then give tough love

Having been open to an author, once “the dust of reading” has settled we must come to judgment. One of Woolf’s most useful tips is to wait till a book, first experienced in varying impressions, floats “to the top of the mind as a whole.” And the book having revealed itself as a “barn, a pigsty, or a cathedral,” she writes, “Let us then be severe in our judgments; let us compare each book with the greatest of its kind.”

Ouch. While judging isn’t as simple as reading and receiving impressions, Woolf admits, the task must be done to complete the reading process. One may be tempted to leave this to the “gowned and furred” experts:

Yet how impossible!  We may stress the value of sympathy; we may try to sink our identity as we read.  But we know that we cannot sympathise wholly or immerse ourselves wholly; there is always a demon in us who whispers, “I hate, I love”, and we cannot silence him.  Indeed, it is precisely because we hate and we love that our relation with the poets and novelists is so intimate that we find the presence of another person intolerable.  And even if the results are abhorrent and our judgments are wrong, still our taste, the nerve of sensation that sends shocks through us, is our chief illuminant; we learn through feeling; we cannot suppress our own idiosyncrasy without impoverishing it.

 6. Learn from experts as you train your taste

Some critics, however, including gifted fellow practitioners whom Woolf enjoys for their inside knowledge, can “steady” us in this difficult task of assessment: “But they are only able to help us if we come to them laden with questions and suggestions won honestly in the course of our own reading. They can do nothing for us if we herd ourselves under their authority and lie down like sheep in the shade of a hedge. We can only understand their ruling when it comes in conflict with our own and vanquishes it.”

And though reading a book “calls for the rarest qualities of imagination, insight, and judgment,” and Woolf considers it unlikely that even after a lifetime if reading someone can “make any valuable contribution to its criticism,” ordinary readers have responsibilities and even importance.

Here Woolf winds down her metaphor-rich advice with a mystical bit I love—it’s so very Virginia in its generous sense of connection and in its vision of ultimate holism:

The standards we raise and the judgments we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere which writers breathe as they work. An influence is created which tells upon them even if it never finds its way into print.

. . .

If behind the erratic gunfire of the press the author felt that there was another kind of criticism, the opinion of people reading for the love of reading, slowly and unprofessionally, and judging with great sympathy and yet with great severity, might this not improve the quality of his work?  And if by our means books were to become stronger, richer, and more varied, that would be an end worth reaching.

And, anyway, reading is its own reward—the closest we can come to heaven on earth, she ends.

Wise, warm, and witty, our fellow reader Virginia Woolf is always so much fun.

Woolf’s essay “How Should One Read a Book?”concludes her collection The Second Common Reader and also is available free around the web by googling it.

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Spiritual affinities: Tolle, Rilke, Woolf

Spooky Sky, Moss x

Spiritual Affinities.

I’m pleased to have a guest post today at Daisy Hickman’s Sunny Room Studio on the spiritual insights and strength I’ve drawn from a number of thinkers, especially Eckhart Tolle, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Virginia Woolf. They’ve given me “fragments to shore against my ruins,” as T.S. Eliot put it in his poem “The Waste Land.”

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Reading Rilke again at Eastertide

Spirituality, authenticity & Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.

Sunrise, Double x

A work of art is good if it has grown out of necessity. In this manner of its origin lies its true estimate: there is no other.

Letters to a Young Poet

As a broody kid, growing up in a Florida beach town and grieving my family’s exodus from our farm in Georgia, I found a library book by a guy about his hobby farm. I loved it, probably sensing how both my father’s and my own loss might be redeemed. I shared it with Dad. When I asked him what he thought he said, “I think he wanted to write a book.” Nothing else—Dad was always as concise as a telegram—but I grasped the devastating judgment in his unsparing remark.

Rilke cover

Writers trying to wrest from their guts that necessary, handmade, human thing called art, which involves (among other things) seeking to see more clearly their lives and those of their fellow humans, might enjoy Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. It’s a slender book, some forty pages, with many admirers and much resonance. Rilke was only twenty-seven, already becoming famous in Germany as a lyric poet, when in 1903 a boy in a military school wrote to him for advice. Rilke had spent five miserable years himself in the same school. His precepts, delivered over an eight-year period, float free of whatever experience or thought process produced them. Yet his judgments feel no less true for lacking explanation.

That’s for you to fill in—you with your private inner inquiry into gender, artistic authenticity, human nature, spirituality, and the concept and definition of what might be termed God.

A key Rilke passage:

Perhaps there is over everything a great motherhood, as a common longing. The loveliness of the virgin . . . is motherhood foreboding and preparing itself, uneasy and yearning. And the mother’s beauty is serving motherhood, and in the old woman there is a great memory. And in the man too there is motherhood, it seems to me, physical and spiritual; his begetting is also a kind of birth-giving, and it is birth-giving when he creates out of his innermost fullness. And perhaps the sexes are more akin than we suppose, and the great renewal of the world will perhaps consist in this, that man and maiden, freed from all false feelings and perversions, will seek each other not as opposites but as brother and sister, as neighbors, and will unite as human beings to bear in common, simply, seriously and patiently, the heavy sex that has been laid upon them.

This is strikingly reminiscent to me of Virginia Woolf’s notion of artistic androgyny with which she concludes A Room of One’s Own, and Rilke’s ideas elsewhere mirror her concept in her essay “Moments of Being” of authentic presence. Everywhere he confirms, completes, and foreshadows manifold later spiritual insights. It appears, for instance, that another German mystic, Eckhart Tolle, owes Rilke a great debt, especially in Tolle’s profound spiritual synthesis A New Earth.

Like Tolle, Rilke advises inner communion instead of identification with ego and form: “What is needed is, in the end, simply this: solitude. Going into yourself and meeting no one for hours on end,—that is what you must be able to attain. To be alone, as you were alone in childhood, when the grown-ups were going about, involved with things which seemed important and great, because the great ones looked so busy and because you grasped nothing of their business.”

Unlike Tolle, he refers directly to God, though only twice and in a most contemporary and Tolle-like way. For Rilke, God appears to arise not from knowledge or even from faith but from intimations from the lost realm of childhood:

And if it dismays and torments you to think of childhood and the simplicity and stillness that goes with it, because you can no longer believe in God who is to be met with everywhere there, ask yourself . . . whether you have after all really lost God? Is it not much rather the case that you have never yet possessed him?

Rilke touches upon the adult task of defining God for yourself:

As bees collect honey, so we take what is sweetest out of everything and build Him.

Of course Rilke wrote to a presumed believer in a time of presumed belief. The important ideas of Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud were afoot but hadn’t yet crushed humans’ self-confidence. Nor had we yet put ourselves through two world wars and the Holocaust. After all that, unbelief and hostility to God and religion—and a pervasive doubt about our own species’ worth—became understandable. I have friends and family members across the spectrum, from those who become enraged at the mere mention of “God” or “religion” to those who dispense Jesus’ name like iodized salt. Just more evidence of humans’ long struggle against their own riven nature: a violent simian substrate; a gentler group mind from a long and at times Edenic evolution among extinct human-like ancestors; and greedy individual egos that arrived with the emergence of our shiny, anxious, hypersexual new species only 200,000 years ago.

Humanity’s puzzle and core dilemma—What does it mean to be human?—Rilke touches upon directly or by implication everywhere in Letters to a Young Poet as he works out for himself and for his acolyte his answers. This is all we can ask of any writer, his sincere testimony, expression seemingly driven by some personal necessity—for Rilke, necessity being art’s acid test. We crave the authenticity concentrated in the fruit of someone’s honest emergency. Oh, the struggle by writers to make something authentic from the necessity that impels them!

And the world’s listeners still draw near to lovely songs, like Rilke’s, that seem true.

///

Austin Kleon has an excellent blog post about the more writerly aspects of Letters to a Young Poet. 

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Filed under essay-expository, honesty, modernism/postmodernism, MY LIFE, NOTED, religion & spirituality, teaching, education

New essay era, 17 classics by women

 

Bonus: Jake Adam York offers a fine minute of writing advice.

We’re living in the golden age of essays, proclaims a February 18 essay by Adam Kirsch in  New Republic. In “The New Essayists, or the Decline of a Form? The Essay as Reality Television,” Kirsch immediately invokes as an example John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead, which in another day, with its roots in magazine pieces and celebrity profiles, might have been labeled journalism—but which, as an exciting hybrid of reportage and personal musing, can fairly be claimed by essayists.

And then Kirsch seems to backpedal from his opening pronouncement:

But all is not as it seems. You do not have to read very far in the work of the new essayists to realize that the resurrection of the essay is in large measure a mirage. For while the work of writers such as David Sedaris, Sloane Crosley, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Davy Rothbart are described as essays—My Heart Is an Idiot: Essays, is the title of Rothbart’s new book—they have little in common with what was once meant by that term. The new essay, like the old essay, is a prose composition of medium length; but beyond that the differences are more salient than the resemblances.

So which is it, golden age or mirage? Well it seems to be more like a new wave, to help Kirsch mix his metaphors further. The self was always at the heart of the essay, he says, but the new essay is exclusively about the self. (Making me wonder whether Joan Didion ever wrote about anything but herself, in the end, and so how new is this new phenomenon?) The popularity of comedic essayists, who bare the world’s supposed assault on their egos, is Kirsch’s prime example: “What we now call an essayist used to be called a humorist.” Hmmm. If you say so. You don’t have to agree with him to find his essay interesting, albeit not very humorous despite his focus is on comedic essayists. He has some interesting things to say about the fictionalized personas they create to achieve their effects.

The most exciting thing about Kirsch’s piece is the way he posits the knowing collaboration between an obviously exaggerating author and his audience. Raising the question as to whether only humor gets a pass or if something else indeed might be brewing, the blurring of genres that David Shields has predicted and celebrated.

• • •

 Flavorwire has recently posted “17 Essays by Female Writers that Everyone Should Read,” a varied selection of work by grizzled matriarchs and fresh-faced up-and-comers. The selection, made by the editors of Creative Nonfiction, includes live links to a dozen of the essays. Classics like Virginia Woolf’s short “Street Haunting,” Adrienne Rich’s powerful “Split at the Root,” and Didion’s ambitious “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” appear with Jo Ann Beard’s contemporary classic “The Fourth State of Matter” and Cheryl Strayed’s more recent “Heroin/e.”

I haven’t followed all the available links, but of those I’ve read or re-read I’ve gotten the biggest kick out of Joyce Carol Oates’s “Against Nature.” No Thoreau, she. Oates’s beef with nature is  refreshing because of the assumed pieties of nature writers; at least, a pitfall of nature writing seems to be that it can so easily come off as smarmy. In any case it’s hard to argue with Oates when she points out, making a deliciously personal and curmudgeonly indictment that also seems true, that nature lacks a sense of humor.

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Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’

Beachroom x

Narrative craft & spirituality in a classic feminist essay.

Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time.—A Room of One’s Own

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. Harcourt, 112 pp.

Like last year when I was at the beach, where I’ve been for the past few weeks, I remember I should have brought Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, what with the Atlantic surf hissing and breaking outside. Sometimes I feel almost frightened by what a ghost I feel here, so much time alone for memories to flood in of the boy I was and of my past friends, some dead or disabled and most scattered. A few people whom I’ve lost touch with are living quietly here where we grew up, and in my mind’s eye they are still eighteen. I wouldn’t know them if I saw them, yet part of me thinks I’d still be eighteen had I stayed here too. At the same time, the beach is magic—it’s the air, so mild, and the ceaseless murmur of the waves and the sun on the living and moving water. Perfect, really, for reading Woolf, that most retrospective of writers, who wrote often of the sea and of water. And so I reread A Room of One’s Own, which I did bring, and marveled anew at her foresight, her courage, her humor, and her artistry.

One might assume that this extended essay, six chapters that make a short book, would be didactic. But I’d noticed before how much Woolf unfolds her essay in scene. For instance, there’s always the track of her mind in a physical place—as she roams a public library or ponders a bookshelf in her home—and there are a series of sexist indignities she suffers while researching the book, which is famous for its dictum that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” This time I noticed Woolf’s caveat about her scenic narrative approach, her “making use of all the liberties and licenses of a novelist” to show her audience how her topic consumed her and how she “made it work in and out of my daily life.” Great novelists are highly sensitive to the murky nature of memory and to the porous border between fiction and nonfiction; Nabokov and Updike made similar statements in their memoirs. In any case, a great move there on Woolf’s part, flagging her method and making her audience complicit in her imaginative approach. And there was at the start of A Room of One’s Own a very specific audience: two women’s colleges at Cambridge University, where Woolf delivered her book in a series of lectures in October 1928.

The first edition's cover.

The first edition’s cover.

Having been asked to speak on “Women and Fiction,” Woolf tells the story of her process, beginning with being flummoxed by what in the world that topic meant and what to say about something so nebulous and vast. Soon we have her brilliant imagining of Judith Shakespeare, the genius sister she creates for William, and her fate. Which isn’t pretty. Indeed the midsection of A Room of One’s Own makes for uneasy reading by a man, despite Woolf’s ever-present tart humor. For we know those opening incidents might well have happened to her—the world’s great lyrical novelist and avatar of modernism chased off the grass at “Oxbridge” by the Beadle (women had to stay on the paths), then barred from the library (being unaccompanied and without a letter), and then too timid to risk entering the institution’s chapel. Thus she gives us experience along with then-radical ideas regarding the equality of women. And of course this resonates too because we know that Woolf herself wasn’t granted a formal university education by her philosopher father, who instead squandered higher education on her cretinous half brothers. Who’d bullied and molested her.

So it’s tough, this little book. But its transcendent reward comes in the final chapter, where Woolf argues that at base gender differences are a fiction of and for the small-minded. Quite simply, Woolf says, beyond that it is natural for the sexes to cooperate, artists must be conversant with their inner opposite sex. The creating mind must indeed be androgynous. Only those with this dual mind, those who partake in this “marriage of opposites,” she says, have a shot at writing with “suggestive power,” at making writing that has “the secret of perpetual life.” The book’s spiritual dimension soars here, so reminiscent of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet with its insistence on the sexes’ deep commonality, their inner union. Woolf: “The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually co-operating.” For in the end, for anyone of either gender involved in creation, Woolf observes, “There must be freedom and there must be peace.”

I previously reviewed Woolf’s memoir A Sketch of the Past.

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My top 12 books of 2012

From 30 finalists, a dozen memoirs, novels, how-to & history.

Bookstore in Mainex

While reading sixty-something books—those re-read I listed and counted again—I picked thirty favorites. I’ve now winnowed them to my top twelve. They’re listed here in the order I read them.

I Knew You’d Be Lovely by Alethea Black. Black’s short stories are funny and wise. Readable from this collection on line is the fine “The Only Way Out is Through,” about a man trying to help his furious, disturbed son by taking him on a camping trip; the story’s flash forward still thrills me. Another of my favorites is “Someday is Today,” based on the death of Black’s brother in law, in which a young single woman struggles to comfort her widowed sister and tries to help care for the couple’s three young girls. Review/Author Interview.

A Childhood: The Biography of a Place by Harry Crews. Crews depicts his life from age five to ten, the son of destitute sharecroppers in Georgia’s coastal plain during the Great Depression. These are folk right out of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Crews masterfully employs both his child and adult perspectives. Reviewed.

The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea. This 2005 Pulitzer finalist is about the suffering and deaths among a group of twenty-six Mexicans who tried to sneak into America through the Arizona desert in May 2001. Urrea, the son of a Mexican father and American mother, is a poet, memoirist, novelist, short story writer, and journalist who is steeped in border culture. He exhaustively researched and fully imagined this tragic incident, producing a powerful and important book that soars lyrically and inhabits shifting points of view. Reviewed.

Such a Life by Lee Martin. These linked memoir essays are deliciously readable and inspiring—see him turn his life into art! And in Ohio, no less. My favorite essay, “Never Thirteen,” is about Martin’s girlfriend and himself when they were thirteen and were about to be split up by his parents’ return from suburban Chicago to their farm in southern Illinois. Martin captures the sweetness in the kids’ relationship, which is set against the fears, suspicions, and flawed lives of the adults around them. He’s a master at moving between himself then and himself now. Review/Author Interview.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. Impressively Woolf opens her wondering mind and wandering body to us. This book-length essay is always transparent and never didactic: surprisingly, she embeds most of her inquiry into sexism in scene. Her riff on what-if-Shakespeare-had-a-sister is witty and poignant, and the book peaks in conclusion with a Rilke-worthy mystical vision of the sexes’ ultimate unity.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. A blockbuster bestselling memoir I adored—my favorite memoir of 2012. For me it was a very comfortable book to slip into, and it also inspired me as a writer. I read it completely twice and its prologue about six times. Sales figures indicate I’m not the book’s only admirer—and Oprah even revived her book club with it. Reviewed.

Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy. Better late than never I read this masterpiece from 1985, and I’m still reeling from the prose, the story. It’s a bloody western, a historical novel, a revisionist history, an overly dark view of humanity, a master class in narrative technique. You don’t “like” this novel any more than you “like” Everest. You love it or hate it, but you must bow down before its grandeur.

Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg. How to foster and feed and practice the writing mind that makes sentences lies at the heart of this hymn to prose style. Klinkenborg’s method is to gut it out, one sentence at a time. I was stirred by his hard-edged honesty about how hard it is to think. That is, to write. Reviewed. Another fine how-to book among my thirty finalists is Robin Hemley’s A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism, and Travel.

The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love by Kristen Kimball. A compelling story, beautifully written, about a young couple’s first year as full-time farmers. My desire to call attention to this fine memoir may be why it edged out on the top twelve list Philip Roth’s strong 1996 memoir about his father, Patrimony.

Canada by Richard Ford. In my favorite novel of the year, action is seen through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old boy, though technically—and memoiristically—it’s narrated by his adult self. The story is how his middle-class parents committed a crime that wrecked their family and shattered his and his twin sister’s lives; it begins in Montana and moves to Canada, where the boy ends up, alone, living a Dickensian existence. A short third act is told purely from his perspective at age sixty. Reviewed.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich. Like Canada narrated technically by a middle-aged man about and from the viewpoint of his teenage self, this winner of the National Book Award for fiction is set on a high plains Native American reservation. A woman, a tribal record-keeper, is raped and brutally beaten, and her thirteen-year-old son sets out to solve the crime, as does his father, a tribal judge. It’s a detective story, a whodunit with high stakes, as well as a coming-of-age tale, and a portrait of ongoing racial injustice. I also admired Kevin Powers’s celebrated novel of the Iraq War and its aftermath for one soldier, The Yellow Birds, which The New York Times has named one of the top five novels of 2012.

Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard. Millard depicts the shooting and lingering deathbed agonies of President James Garfield—killed by doctors who didn’t yet believe in European germ theory. Born to dire poverty in Ohio, Garfield was leading a college at age twenty-six; entering the U.S. senate to fill an open seat, he soon rose to the rank of general in the Civil War, and after the war was drafted as a presidential candidate against his will. Millard’s book, a carefully crafted narrative, is still history and harder reading than memoirs or fiction, but worth the effort to feel an America being swept into modernity as its physical frontiers shrink. Garfield was not only smart, he was good to the core, and Millard’s portrait of his noble character and his needless suffering is humbling and inspiring.

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Noted: John Gardner’s great sentence

I was reading the late novelist’s short story “Redemption,” based on the accidental death of his younger brother in a horrifying farming accident, and found its sentences beautifully crafted. John Gardner, at eleven, was driving a tractor when his brother fell under its towed cultipacker, a pair of giant rolling pins for mashing the clods in harrowed soil that weighed two tons. In the story, grief almost destroys the father, like Gardner’s father a dairyman, orator, and lay preacher; the surviving brother is tortured almost to madness by guilt.

This sentence is about the wife and mother—Gardner’s was an English teacher:

Because she had, at thirty-four, considerable strength of character—except that, these days, she was always eating—and because, also, she was a woman of strong religious faith, a woman who, in her years of church work and teaching at the high school, had made scores of close, for the most part equally religious, friends, with whom she regularly corresponded, her letters, then theirs, half filling the mailbox at the foot of the hill and cluttering every table, desk, and niche in the large old house—friends who now frequently visited or phoned—she was able to move step by step past disaster and in the end keep her family from wreck.

That’s 112 words. Virginia Woolf wrote longer ones, 140 words and more, but what Gardener kept aloft—the construction of his sentence and its clarity and beauty—and those double parenthetical dashes—amaze me. ‘‘Redemption” was published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1977, and Gardner later included it in his collection The Art of Living in 1981; the complete story is available on line.

There’s a famous quote by Gardner that seems to apply to this story:

By the time you’ve run your mind through it a hundred times, relentlessly worked out every tic of terror, it’s lost its power over you . . . [Soon it’s] a story on a page or, more precisely, everybody’s story on a page.

In the 1970s his novel The Sunlight Dialogues was everywhere I looked, but I didn’t read it, nor have I read what’s considered his masterpiece, the novel Grendel. I did enjoy as they appeared his books on writing—On Moral Fiction, On Becoming a Novelist, and The Art of Fiction—and later read two novels I much admired, October Light and Mickelsson’s Ghosts.

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Essay’s ancient spell, memoir’s transformation

[The essay] should lay us under a spell with its first word, and we should only wake, refreshed, with its last word. In the interval we may pass through the most various experiences of amusement, surprise, interest, indignation; we may soar to the heights of fantasy with Lamb or plunge to the depths of wisdom with Bacon, but we must never be roused. The essay must lap us about and draw its curtain across the world. . . . What can the essayist use in these short lengths of prose to sting us awake and fix us in a trance which is not sleep but rather an intensification of life—a basking, with every faculty alert, in the sun of pleasure? He must know—that is the first essential—how to write. His learning may be so profound as Mark Pattison’s, but in an essay it must be so fused by the magic of writing that not a fact juts out, not a dogma tears the surface of the texture. . . . [and] if the voice of the scold should never be heard in this narrow plot, there is another voice which is as a plague of locusts—the voice of a man stumbling drowsily among loose words, clutching aimlessly at vague ideas . . . the essay must be pure—pure like water or pure like wine, but pure from dullness, deadness, and deposits of extraneous matter.—Virginia Woolf, “The Modern Essay,” from Collected Essays Vol. 2, p. 41

 

At the same time that the power of voice alone has been dwindling, an age of mass culture paradoxically much influenced by modernism has emerged on a scale unparalleled in history, and today millions of people consider themselves possessed of the right to assert a serious life. A serious life, by definition, is a life one reflects on, a life one tries to make sense of and bear witness to. The age is characterized by a need to testify. Everywhere in the world women and men are rising up to tell their stories out of the now commonly held belief that one’s own life signifies. . . .

But memoir is neither testament nor fable nor analytic transcription. A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by the idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom. Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required. As V.S. Pritchett once said of the genre, “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.”—Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story, p. 90-91

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Virginia Woolf’s ‘moments of being’

The past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river. Then one sees through the surface to the depths. In those moments I find one of my greatest satisfactions, not that I am thinking of the past; but it is then that I am living most fully in the present.—“A Sketch of the Past”

Virginia Woolf begins her “Sketch” by describing her earliest, joyous memories in infancy, those associated with her family’s beach house, St. Ives. She writes, “I feel that strong emotion must leave its trace; and it is only a question of how we can get ourselves again attached to it, so that we shall be able to live our lives through from the start. But the peculiarity of these two strong memories was that each was very simple. I am hardly aware of myself, but only of the sensation. I am only the container of the feeling of ecstasy, of the feeling of rapture.”

Woolf calls the forgotten rush of everyday life “non-being,” and contrasts this unconscious state with memorable moments—the hum of bees as she walked to the beach as a girl—that are often mysterious for being so ordinary and yet remembered. In these flashes of time she was conscious of being conscious, instead of “embedded in a kind of nondescript cotton wool” in which human days typically pass.

I mentioned in my last post the resonant hints of spirituality I find in Woolf’s concept. Here is an excerpt that shows what I mean:

As a child, then, my days, just as they do now, contained a large proportion of this cotton wool, this non-being. Week after week passed at St. Ives and nothing made any dint upon me. Then, for no reason that I know about, there was a sudden violent shock; something happened so violently that I have remembered it all my life. I will give a few instances. The first: I was fighting with Thoby on the lawn. We were pommelling each other with our fists. Just as I raised my fist to hit him, I felt: why hurt another person? I dropped my hand instantly, and stood there, and let him beat me. I remember the feeling. It was a feeling of hopeless sadness. It was as if I became aware of something terrible; and of my own powerlessness. I slunk off alone, feeling horribly depressed. The second instance was also in the garden at St. Ives. I was looking at the flower bed by the front door; “That is the whole”, I said. I was looking at a plant with a spread of leaves; and it seemed suddenly plain that the flower itself was a part of the earth; that a ring enclosed what was the flower; and that was the real flower; part earth; part flower. It was a thought I put away as being likely to be very useful to me later.

A manuscript page of "A Sketch"

The sensitivity with which Woolf experienced life seems excruciating, as the passage underscores as it continues with the third example, of overhearing her parents discuss the suicide of a neighbor. Walking in the garden later, she stood before an apple tree, unable to pass it, “looking at the grey-green creases of the bark—it was a moonlit night—in a trance of horror.” This connecting an innocent tree with a man’s death, of being “dragged down, hopelessly, into some pit of absolute despair,” shows her torture as a person better than anything I’ve read.

“All her life,” writes Hermione Lee in her introduction to the Paris Press edition of Woolf’s On Being Ill, “she had to do battle with tormenting, terrifying mental states, agonising and debilitating physical symptoms, and infuriating restrictions.”

How she suffered for her sensitivity. But Woolf writes in “A Sketch” that “the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer.” Indeed, she says that when she wrote about the three above incidents, she realized for the first time consciously that one, the flower insight, ended in satisfaction. Even as a girl she felt she had made an important discovery with the flower, one she could return to, “turn over and explore.” And as an adult, even the blows that seemed to come from an enemy hidden in the cotton wool appeared to her a revelation of some sort, “a token of some real thing behind appearances.”

She continues:

Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what; making a scene come right; making a character come together. From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we—I mean all human beings—are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are part of the work of art.

To me this is spiritual, even as Woolf goes on to say emphatically that in these moments “there is no God”—nor Shakespeare nor Beethoven either—and she has also expressed what I see as the religious impulse—connection—and comes close to defining where I place God, inside humans as an evolutionary force impelling their search for goodness, truth, and justice. This is a very personal reading, of course, my receiving a thrilling hint, as when I read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, of someone else working out the same problems that preoccupy me and arriving at the numinous.

Or, as Woolf says better: “. . . we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself . . . It proves that one’s life is not confined to one’s body and what one says and does; one is living all the time in relation to certain background rods or conceptions. Mine is that there is a pattern hid behind the cotton wool. And this conception affects me every day.”

Woolf succumbed to mental illness and killed herself before she was able to put in “the horrid labour” she felt was necessary to make of her “Sketch” a work of art. I found an excellent short essay online by Nicole L. Urquhart,Moments of Being in Virginia Woolf’s Fiction,” which discusses how Woolf tried to portray moments of being—episodes in which characters are conscious of being conscious—in her novels Mrs. DallowayTo the Lighthouse and Between the Acts.

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Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Sketch of the Past’

From it all I gathered one obstinate and enduring conception. That nothing is to be so much dreaded as egotism. Nothing so cruelly hurts the person himself; nothing so wounds those who are forced into contact with it.—Virginia Woolf, writing about her relationship with her father in “A Sketch of the Past

Having posted so much lately on scenic narrative, I do penance by featuring Virginia Woolf, a most reflective writer. Toward her I feel a kinship, which for some time struck me as odd. Then I realized that, in her deep art, her delicate nature, and her spiritual sensibility, she had replaced my boyhood idol Ernest Hemingway. What bookends to have as literary heroes! He, killed by his egotism and his rage, she killed by her sensitivity and her pain.

I admire his courage and his artistry as a young writer; I lament the shameful boor he became. I write that feeling like a son striking against his father, because when I was a lonely and pained adolescent his stoic myth gave me hope and his stories artistic delight. As a teen I read everything I could by and about him, and first saw the link between outlook and art. As an adult I feel that his efforts to grow as an artist, and perhaps to deepen his tragic view of life, were doomed by the prison of image he’d constructed.

Barely having dipped into Woolf to the same extent, I nonetheless find the depth of her artistry breathtaking, and am in awe of the resonant hints of spirituality I find in her work, especially in her concept of “moments of being” that she discusses in “A Sketch of the Past,” collected in Moments of Being. Ever since I read that long, unfinished essay I’ve been thinking about it—how dominated she was by her father, how she lost her mother so young, how she was molested and bullied by her cretinous stepbrothers, how her account still feels modern. In it Woolf makes her famous statement that although she reads many memoirs, most are failures because they are mere narratives of events and “leave out the person to whom things happened.”

Here she is on her parents’ dysfunction:

Every afternoon we ‘went for a walk’. Later these walks became a penance. Father must have one of us go out with him, Mother insisted. Too much obsessed with his health, with his pleasures, she was too willing, as I think now, to sacrifice us to him. It was thus that she left us the legacy of his dependence, which after her death became so harsh an imposition. It would have [been] better for our relationship if she had left him to fend for himself. But for many years she made a fetish of his health; and so—leaving the effect on us out of the reckoning—she wore herself out and died at forty-nine; while he lived on, and found it very difficult, so healthy was he, to die of cancer at the age of seventy-two. But, though I slip in, still venting an old grievance, that parenthesis, St. Ives gave us all that same ‘pure delight’ which is before my eyes at this very moment. The lemon-colored leaves on the elm tree; the apples in the orchard; the murmur and rustle of the leaves makes me pause here, and think how many other than human forces are always at work on us. While I write this the light glows; an apple becomes a vivid green; I respond all through me; but how? Then a little owl chatters under my window. Again, I respond.

Here she writes on the early blows of losing her mother and then a sister to death:

My mother’s death had been a latent sorrow—at thirteen one could not master it, envisage it, deal with it. But Stella’s death two years later fell on a different substance; a mind . . . extraordinarily unprotected, unformed, unshielded, apprehensive, receptive, anticipatory. That must always hold good of minds and bodies at fifteen. But beneath the surface of this particular mind and body lay sunk the other death. Even if I were not fully conscious of what my mother’s death meant, I had for two years been unconsciously absorbing it through Stella’s silent grief; through my father’s demonstrative grief; again through all the things that changed and stopped; the ending of society; of gaiety; of the giving up of St. Ives; the black clothes; the suppressions; the locked door of her bedroom. All this had toned my mind and made it apprehensive; made it I suppose unnaturally responsive to Stella’s happiness, and the promise it held for her and for us of escape from that gloom; when once more unbelievably—incredibly—as if one had been violently cheated of some promise; more than that, brutally told not to be such a fool as to hope for things; I remember saying to myself after she died: ‘But this is impossible; things aren’t, can’t be, like this—the blow, the second blow of death, stuck on me; tremulous, filmy eyed as I was, with my wings still creased, sitting there on the edge of my broken chrysalis.

On how she gained insight into foreign pleasures and strangers:

Once, after we had hung about, tacking, and hauling in gunard after gunard, dab after dab, father said to me: ‘Next time if you are going to fish I shan’t come; I don’t like to see fish caught but you can go if you like.’ It was a perfect lesson. It was not a rebuke; not forbidding; simply a statement of his own feeling, about which I could think and decide for myself. Though my passion for the thrill and the tug had been perhaps the most acute I then knew, his words slowly extinguished it; leaving no grudge, I ceased to wish to catch fish. But from the memory of my own passion I am still able to construct an idea of the sporting passion. It is one of those invaluable seeds, from which, since it is impossible to have every experience fully, one can grow something that represents other people’s experiences. Often one has to make do with seeds; the germs of what might have been, had one’s life been different. I pigeonhole ‘fishing’ thus with other momentary glimpses; like those rapid glances, for example, that I cast into basements when I walk in London streets.

On how fiction and memoir feed upon and devour memories:

Further, just as I rubbed out a good deal of the force of my mother’s memory by writing about her in To the Lighthouse, so I rubbed out much of [my father’s] memory there too. Yet he obsessed me for years. Until I wrote it out, I would find my lips moving; I would be arguing with him; raging against him; saying to myself all that I never said to him; how deep they drove themselves into me, the things it was impossible to say aloud. They are still some of them sayable; when [Woolf’s sister] Nessa for instance revives the memory of Wednesday and its weekly [bank account] books, I still feel come over me that old frustrated fury.

But in me, though not in her, rage alternated with love. . . . ‘You must think me,’ he said to me after one of these rages—I think the word he used was ‘foolish’. I was silent. I did not think him foolish. I thought him brutal. . . .

Woolf died by her own hand before she made of this memoir a literary work equal to her fiction. It feels like a draft still searching for its structure, and ends abruptly. But what a memoir, and the very model for those who believe memoir must, as they say, “interrogate memory.” “A Sketch of the Past” is better for my money than another classic memoir, the gorgeously written Speak, Memory, since, lamentably, I find Vladimir Nabokov’s cold-fish persona in it repulsive. Woolf, in contrast to the guys, seemingly stands naked before her readers, a wounded creature working to understand her life, and life itself, with true courage and great artistry.

Next: Woolf’s concept of “moments of being” from “A Sketch of the Past.”

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