Tuesday, July 16, 2013 5:12 PM
I’ve just finished re-reading Virginia Woolf’s “The Years” and I’m feeling extremely introspective all of a sudden—I wonder why that is? The novel is considered by many to be the crown jewel of her entire opus—and I am certainly not someone who would argue with that—it is a great favorite of mine, as are all of her strange novels, essays—and her biographies!
One is a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s pet dog, Flush; another is a biography of a creature named Orlando, who lives for centuries and changes sex every time he/she has a fainting spell. But then there is a biography of Roger Eliot Fry (Dec. 14th, 1866 to Sept. 9th, 1934)—a contemporary of Woolf’s and a member of the Bloomsbury Group—which took his sudden death at a young age very much to heart and decided amongst themselves to intrust Virginia with the task of writing his biography. Fry (an English artist and critic who established his reputation as a scholar of ‘Old Masters’ and was an advocate of then-modern trends in French painting, giving it the name ‘Post-Impressionism’) was Woolf’s only non-fiction book. I confess, I haven’t read this biography—or at least I can’t remember reading it, which comes to the same thing.
The incredible thing about Virginia Woolf is that she successfully dodges all the tripwires of convention and grammar and—while never officially breaking any rules for writing—manages to put down words in the same way that our interior voices do. There is a kind of doom to it—the message seems to be ‘if you want to fully know yourself, be prepared for existentialism’. Self-regard, the hard, ‘objective-ish’ kind (for true objectivity about ourselves is impossible) is a cold end to a lonely journey. Our minds are not such clockworks as we should like to think them; our verbal communications are not so efficient as we would like to think them; our understanding of each other is a worn patch-work of superficial observations, constantly being interrupted by our self-regard.
Such (partial) truisms are hard won—many levels of self-deception must be breached to even approach such understanding of oneself. Most people have the sense not to go there—but a brutalized and repressed mentality such as the young Virginia Woolf’s is driven by her need to get at the Truth, with that capital ‘T’. Those who should have protected her have attacked her—those who should have been minding her were unconcerned for her—when everything a child has learned is put at odds against a cruel reality, the search for meaning becomes a compulsion.
Ms. Woolf’s self-awareness was not an achievement per se, it was more like a scar left on her soul by a horrid family. We can comfortably (from seventy-five years after the publication of “The Years”) look back at her amazing artistry as a wordsmith and as an observer of the human race, the community, the family, and the pageant of time’s passing. But she, like Van Gogh, is one of those artists whose tormented life gave rise to supernatural efforts of artistry, yet display through those artistic expressions that horror of real life, that despair over true love and goodness.
I was impressed, as a young man, reading this giant of a novel—as sharp and quick as a dagger, as broad and open as the heavens. As a fifty-seven year-old I can barely enjoy the reading while the knowledge of her suffering hangs so opaquely above every page.