Returning to Virginia Woolf

Maybe it’s because I’m reading Alexandra Johnson’s books and Virginia Woolf is an author who is central in them or perhaps it is because of Sigrun’s (sub rosa) Virginia Woolf project which I like to follow, whatever it is, Virginia Woolf was often on my mind lately.

I have this odd habit that when I like an author a lot I try to keep at least one of his or her books for later. There are a few authors whose complete works I have read but, due to my reluctance to run out of books to look forward to, they aren’t numerous.

Virginia Woolf is one of those authors where the thought I may finally have read all she has ever written fills me with a certain apprehension. While I’m still keeping Moments of Being for later, I have finally started The Voyage Out, the only novel I hadn’t read yet.

It’s funny to return to her and finalize the reading of her novels with the first book she wrote. It feels as if I had completed a circle. I started reading Virginia Woolf with Mrs Dalloway. I didn’t know that Mrs Dalloway was a returning character. I didn’t even know that Virginia Woolf had any returning characters. But here she is, in The Voyage Out, Mrs Dalloway, in all of her “glory”. Was she always this obnoxious? Frankly, I don’t remember. What I remember of my first Virginia Woolf novel was how much I liked the style.

The Voyage Out is very different from later books but at the same time it contains so many aspects typical for Virginia Woolf”s writing. I know many people read the body of work of an author they cherish chronologically but in her case, reading backwards wasn’t a bad choice. One could too easily overread important aspects of this early novel or, as was done when it was published, dismiss it as being nothing special.

Reading The Voyage Out makes me realize once more what I like the most about her writing. Yes, the style, especially in the later novels, is fantastic, with its flow of interior monologue, the way she uses time and how she describes the passing of time. But there is something else that stayed with me forever since the day I have read Mrs Dalloway. Her writing has an exhilarating quality, an effervescent intensity of feeling that made me think of a German expression which I adore: “Champagner Wetter” or “Champagne weather”. Champagne weather is used to describe a very fresh but sunny spring morning on which the air is still cool, nature has returned to life, the first tentative, tiny leaves appear, the first blossoms can be seen. It’s already a bit warm in the sun but still chilly in the shade. It’s like drinking the first glass out of a freshly opened, nicely cooled Champagne bottle. It bubbles and goes to your head. Virginia Woolf’s novels are full of scenes conveying the mood of champagne weather.  

I will write a “proper” review once I have finished the book but I’m enjoying it too much to wait until then. So far I can see that the story is told chronologically and sequentially, nothing daring really. But there is already a very striking way of writing about people’s interior lives. One of the main themes is the role of women and the way they are treated or rather mistreated by society. Parts of the novel reminded me of E.M. Forster, others of Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady. Rachel, one of the main characters, has a lot in common with Isabel Archer. Still there are scenes which are already typically Woolf. She had a very particular way of showing the passing of time or how the interior worlds of people coexist. There is a wonderful scene towards the middle of the novel in which we see a hotel at night.  First we see it from the outside, all its windows are illuminated, the people are getting ready to go to bed. Later we approach and enter the building, brief glimpses into the various rooms draw pictures of the inhabitants. At the end of the scene, they are lying in their beds, separated only by thin walls, dreaming or just sleeping, drifting off into unknown territory, as if on a big ocean liner. It is a recurring scene really, as the book starts with the voyage on a ship.

It is possible that I will start rereading her books in chronological order when I have finished The Voyage Out and Moments of Being. My favourite of her books are Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and Flush. I didn’t like The Years or The Waves much and can never even keep them apart. I also didn’t care for Orlando at all. Not sure why, it’s generally a favourite of many people but I remember I found reading it was painfully boring. Jacob’s Room and Between the Acts were two I liked but the memory of them is barely more than a vague impression.

I often hear people say, they are intimidated by Virginia Woolf, just like many are intimidated by Proust or James Joyce. For those who didn’t dare reading her so far, The Voyage Out and Flush are excellent starting points.

Have you read The Voyage Out or any other of Virginia Woolf’s novels? Which is your favourite?

Bookish Christmas Memory: Mrs Dalloway

This post is my contribution to the Virtual Advent Tour. A big “Thank you” to Kailana from The Written World and Marg from Adventures of an Intrepid Reader for organising it. It is already day 22 and many interesting, touching and informative posts have been written so far. Mostly family memories, but also a few of another kind.

Christmas has always been a special and a very quiet holiday  for me. When I was very little, we spent the Christmas season in Paris, with my father’s family. My mother’s side is dispersed all over Europe, there was never a possibility or a will for a big gathering. Later, when I grew older, and family politics made it impossible to have one joint meeting, we mostly stayed at home. Due to these circumstances Christmas was always a time of intensified reading and watching of old movies on TV.

Books that I have read during a certain season, on a holiday, somewhere abroad, a special period of my life, have always seemed to stay more intensely in my mind than others. I have a mental treasure trunk full of cherished book memories of this kind.

The last Christmas I spent with my parents, when still living with them, at age 19, is, in retrospect, one of the most enchanted ones. I already studied at the university but had no worries, lived in great comfort and was looked after. No illness, no precarious financial situation, no major burn-out, nothing of the kind, that all happened later. All I had to do, is come out of my room and join my parents for lunch and dinner. With hindsight, that Christmas seems like frozen in time, like a scenery in a snow globe and when I look at it, I see a young girl, curled up in an old wicker chair, holding a book with a greenish cover and reading it with utter enchantment.

That year, someone had offered me my first Virginia Woolf novel. It was Mrs. Dalloway. I will never forget that novel and especially not my favourite scene in it. This scene comes to my mind the very instant when I think of Christmas. Invariably since that time my mind wanders spontaneously along the following trail: Christmas, Mrs. Dalloway and off into a string of associations that are all tied to one particular episode in the book: Mrs Dalloway buying flowers at a flower shop. My memory of this scene is intense and sensual. I remember Mrs Dalloway entering a cool shop, an intense green scent of freshly cut flowers pervades the air and the odor of some sweet smelling blossoms seems to linger all over the place. I cannot remember what flowers she bought, I remember semi-darkness and this almost sparkling scent.

I often remember one particular scene from the novels I liked best. Everything else slowly sinks into oblivion but that one scene, with all the associations and meanings it represents to me, stays ingrained in my mind. I don’t know if others feel like this about books.

I have never read Mrs Dalloway again, I am afraid of what I might find. Maybe my memory has adorned it over the years with elements entirely my own. I fear disenchantment. I have read Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, the novel that is dedicated entirely to Virginia Woolf and Mrs Dalloway, and have seen the movie that is based on it. The novel is wonderful and the movie is one of the best I know, especially because of Philip Glass’ music. It has acoustic qualities that are corresponding to the flower shop scene’s visual ones; they are light, fresh and green.

It may be odd to tie Christmas to one distant reading experience but I love the memory.

I haven’t made many Christmas plans for this year apart from dinner with friends. I was toying with the idea to read Elizabeth Gaskell’ s Cranford or maybe Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. I have seen the movie during another Christmas season and found it wonderful. I like books and movies about writers and it is the only movie in which I liked Michael Douglas.

Does anyone else have any speacial Christmas reading memories or plans?

Don’t forget to visit the other stops today.