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Nice article (from the New Scientist magazine) about Virginia Woolf and science fiction (thanks Robin)


I would have thanked you for your book before, but I have been very busy and have only just had time to read it. I don't suppose that I have understood more than a small part - all the same I have understood enough to be greatly interested, and elated too, since sometimes it seems to me that you are grasping ideas that I have tried to express, much more fumblingly, in fiction. But you have gone much further and I can't help envying you - as one does those who reach what one has aimed at.

Many thanks for giving me a copy,
yours sincerely,
Virginia Woolf



This was Virginia Woolf's reply to the influential science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon after he had sent her a copy of his recently published novel Star Maker. In an earlier exchange of letters, she made it clear that she had also enjoyed previous works of his, probably including Last and First Men from 1931. These two novels, Stapledon's masterpieces, are enduring monuments of science fiction and of British literature generally. Within a decade of Edwin Hubble's discovery of the red shift, which revealed the universe to be vastly bigger than anyone had imagined, Stapledon's work compressed an entire poetic history of humanity and the cosmos into two slight volumes (more...

"For many Woolfians, Orlando is one of our most-loved, rather than most-loathed, of Woolf’s novels..." Lots and lots of Orlando links over on Blogging Woolf.

The Julia Briggs Memorial Prize 2009 will be awarded to the top essay on the topic of Virginia Woolf and the Common Reader in a competition sponsored by the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain. The competition is being held in memory of noted Woolf scholar Julia Briggs, who died in August (via Blogging Woolf).

I've just been sent a copy of Manuscript Genetics: Joyce's Know-how, Beckett's Nohow by Dirk van Hulle (University Press of Florida; I was also kindly sent Cannibal Joyce). I have precious little idea what "manuscript genetics" is/are, so, before I've read it, here is what the UPF website has to say about van Hulle's book:


By taking the principles of manuscript genetics and using them to engage in a comparative study of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, Dirk Van Hulle has produced a provocative work that re-imagines the links between the two authors. His elegant readings reveal that the most striking similarities between these two lie not in their nationality or style but in their shared fascination with the process of revision.

Van Hulle's thoughtful application of genetic theory -- the study of a work from manuscript to final form in its various iterations -- marks a new phase in this dynamic field of inquiry. As one of only a handful of books in English dealing with this emerging area of study, Manuscript Genetics: Joyce's Know-How, Beckett's Nohow will be indispensable not only to Joyce and Beckett scholars but also to anyone interested in genetic criticism.

Indispensable: you heard the man!


The book opens with a nice epigraph quoting Virginia Woolf:


It is doubtful whether in the course of the centuries, though we have learnt much about making machines, we have learnt anything about making literature. We do not come to write better; all that we can be said to do is to keep moving, now a little in this direction, now in that.

‘Now Miss Hudson,’ said Rhoda, ‘has shut the book. Now the terror is beginning. Now taking her lump of chalk she draws figures, six, seven, eight, and then a cross and then a line on the blackboard. What is the answer? The others look; they look with understanding. Louis writes; Susan writes; Neville writes; Jinny writes; even Bernard has now begun to write. But I cannot write. I see only figures.’
-- The Waves


‘Odd, that they [The Times] should praise my characters when I meant to have none’
-- Virginia Woolf, 5th of October, 1931.


Surely, a good novel must be peopled by realistic figures, have fully-rounded characters? Characters that you can believe in (believe really could exist) doing believable things, responding to other characters believably: that, surely, is a key requirement for a successful novel? For characters to be two-dimensional, to be merely mouthpieces of their author, not to act, within the novel's presented situation, in an authentic way this, surely, damages a novel, hobbles it? Indeed, many book reviews seem to suggest that believability is essential to the novel and that believable characters are the hallmark of a good writer. Well, I don't think characterisation is that important. Not at all, in fact. And Woolf's 1931 novel The Waves (and all of the Woolf novels I've recently read) has allowed me to think about this aspect of the novel again.


Of course, endowing a character with complexity is very much dependent on the relationship of the text with the reader. If we read of a character responding aggressively on one page and then, later, acting warmly, we can and do endow a third dimension to the text: we believe these two situations create a roundness to the character that we are reading about. We presume a characterfulness because different scenarios have been presented to us and the reactions to those situations have been, in some way, recognisable, identifiable. But what happens when such "characters" are not invented and such situations do not occur? Can the novel work well without such scenes?


In The Waves we most certainly don't get characters -- we get barely distinguishable (and distinguished) voices that, over the course of the novel, in some subtle ways, distinguish themselves from one another. Towards the end of the novel Bernard, the storyteller, is allowed to expatiate at length in his voice on his voice and the voices of the other names within the work. He underscores how tentative we should be about calling these cyphers characters and of endowing these names with substance. He reminds us that we are reading and that final judgements and good art do not ever belong together. He reminds us that these voices are writing and that Woolf is writing about writing with every word in her great(est) novel.


The voices, here, are, in no way, believable. The writing is poetic -- could only ever be writing; the voices are not naturalistic, not intended to be mimetic of how anyone naturally speaks. (At best, one could imagine this as a script for a play, and one is perhaps encouraged to do so by the simple repetitions of "Susan said", "Jinny said", "Louis said", etc., but the play would be very stiff.) The voices ebb and flow together (as a reader one has to be very aware when the voices shift because they are almost indistinguishable -- they aren't "characterised"; beyond the eg "Neville said" often we have few clues in the words to separate one voice from another): they have different trajectories; but they aren't clearly differentiated as characters by Woolf by her giving to each -- in the writing -- different inflexions. But characters (or sets of behaviours that, when they are reported, seem in some way correctly to be attributed to eg Rhoda rather than Susan) do emerge. At the end of the novel these non-characterised voices have almost become archetypes (Susan, wife and mother; Jinny, lover; Rhoda, suicide; Neville, homosexual; Louis, outsider; Bernard, storyteller). "Character" has, in some sense, returned to the novel; has, clearly, in a certain sense, never been able to be entirely left behind (perhaps because the reader can never be entirely left behind). One might say, that the impossible search for characters is what structures the work. And this line of argument might be said to be embodied in the one character who never appears on the novel's stage.


Percival is central to the The Waves. He loves Susan, is loved by Neville, and is beloved by all the voices. And he dies. His lack is reinforced, later, by his total absence. But his, also, is the absence of absence; both because of his constant presence in the work (he is constantly referred to by the other voices) and because of the death that defines him and defies the destiny that all the other voices had hoped for him. He never appears in the novel, but he never leaves it either.


Is Woolf breaking the novel here? Only in as far as she is immediately remaking it. And she remakes it via the traditional elements she is interrogating at the very moment she uses them to write her book.


But, perhaps, Woolf's exercise in "high modernity" is no example whatsoever to use. It is so singular (or, perhaps better, so much a part of a moment) that using it to think about the work other novels do is innappropriate. Certainly, this could be argued. But perhaps it would be better to think about the limitations of the realist novel that Woolf was working against and, more positively, of the art she was working to produce, and ask why she needed to forestall the drive to complex characters and instead produce such a beautiful (and complex) piece of writing.

I've just finished reading another Virginia Woolf novel. The Waves was wonderful; every bit as good as To The Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway. (Worth noting: the University of Adelaide Library’s collection of Web books [http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/] has the entire text of The Waves online as well as lots of other goodies.) I'll think and write about the book over the weekend. In the meantime, this from an essay by Lisa Marie Lucenti:


Pamela Caughie writes that "Woolf's characters and narrators do not present a consistent theory of self and world. Instead, they make us self-conscious of theorizing about self and world by making the narrative strategies self-conscious." With such slippery characters to work with, it is perhaps less important -- or even feasible -- to try to define the form of Woolf's subjects than to trace a few of their paths and crossings. To do so is an even greater challenge when, as Bernard says in The Waves, "We melt into each other with phrases.... We make an insubstantial territory". In this novel, six "characters" or voices alternate between acceptance and rejection of their own insubstantiality. And, Woolf would have us realize, her characters are not alone in this struggle, since they are caught within the most basic and most irresolvable questions of ontology -- what it means to be and how one goes about that business.

“...we were walking along that silent blue street with the scaffolding. I saw all the violence and unreason crossing in the air; ourselves small, a tumult outside, something terrifying: unreason...”
Virginia Woolf’s diaries. London, May 25, 1932.


Septimus Warren Smith kills himself because he cannot cope with what he has seen in the Great War. Shell-shocked, the world doesn't understand him. Having seen industrial society at its most brutal, in the trenches, Septimus is unable to deal with life's banalities and normalities. The bombastic, ineffective Dr. Holmes believes he should simply pull himself together; Sir William Bradshaw, pompous, but a better diagnostician, knows he needs "rest, rest, rest" in a sanatorium away from the pressure of friends and family. There are moments of lucidity, certainly, but his wife Lucrezia knows she is losing Septimus as fast as he is losing himself. As Clarissa Dalloway buys her flowers one Wednesday in June in 1923, Septimus Warren Smith remembers his first love Isabel Pole, recalls and envisions his friend Evans, killed in Italy shortly before the Armistice, realises his own insanity in a final moment of clarity, and then kills himself.


As much as Mrs Dalloway is about the eponymous heroine, Clarissa Dalloway, Woolf's novel is about Septimus. And about Septimus's suicide. The Great War has been over for a few years, but its legacy dominates the novel, and that legacy is encapsulated and reflected (one might even say instantiated) in Septimus's madness. Throughout the novel's day, Big Ben chimes. We count down to Clarissa's party, but the great clock tolls ominously for all Woolf's characters. Septimus and Clarissa never meet. Indeed, their only connection, outside of the novel's world which holds them together, is William Bradshaw. Sir William attends the party and comments on a case he is treating. Unbeknownst to him, his case is already closed, his patient has already killed himself. Clarissa hears of the death and is perturbed. Death isn't welcome at the party but, of course, welcome or not, it prevents us everywhere. Septimus's death is, for Clarissa, almost enviable. He has, by killing himself, affirmed something eternal about himself, something Clarissa fears she will never affirm and is constantly in danger of losing: her self; her soul.


Peter Walsh wonders about his plan to marry Daisy, the young wife of an Indian officer who already has two children with the other man. One wonders, as a reader, whether his plan to organise the divorce and take Daisy as his own wife will go ahead. Walsh has never really stopped loving Clarissa who chose not to marry him all those years ago. Clarissa may be the perfect hostess, but she is, she knows, she hopes, more than this. Throughout the day her mood shifts back and forth. She is excited about the party, but sad and regretful over Peter (who visits her briefly in the morning before the party) and over her marriage to the dull, dependable, but undoubtedly decent Richard Dalloway.


Woolf wrote in her diary that she wanted to sketch “the world seen by the sane and the insane.” Clarissa's sanity is society's sanctioned sanity: she is the perfect hostess, who married Richard because she was afraid of her own sensuality. She may have depths (Peter sees them and he still half wants Clarissa because of them, and we are privileged to read them), but Richard doesn't understand them, her daughter Elizabeth doesn't believe them (hence her -- already crumbling -- attraction to the auto-didactic and rather dour spinster Doris Kilman) and the once wild Sally Seton, Clarissa’s old friend (whom Clarissa idolised and, probably, loved), now married to Lord Rosseter, would consider them frivolous.


Clarissa it is, however, who hears about and, quietly, as the party goes on around her, and as she simultaneously frets about whether it will or will not succeed, responds to Septimus's death. She affirms his life in her attraction to his death. He becomes a lodestone for her seriousness; he bequeathes to her -- and to this wonderful novel -- something wholly substantial.

There are two poles to contend with, to negotiate, when reviewing. Especially with regard to new books, the pressure is to venture an opinion, the fear, I suppose, is "getting it wrong" (one misreads something or, perhaps worse, one believes something to be "good"; critical opinion all says "bad"); with established books, the fear is banality (simply reiterating what is already well-established) and, especially with books that have become "classics", daring to venture an opinion against the body of received academic lore. Saying anything about, for instance, Shakespeare would seem pointless or foolhardy. Notwithstanding that, and aware that I might fall flat on my face, I'd like to write some very provisional notes about To The Lighthouse.


I know precious little about Virginia Woolf. I have read one biography (Julia Briggs' Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life which I thought was excellent) and, now, two of her novels (I read Orlando many years back). I cannot even begin to pretend any great understanding of her work, but I do want to respond to To The Lighthouse, which I've just read, which moved me greatly. The novel seemed to confirm a personal maxim of mine, no doubt gleaned from the writings of Gabriel Josipovici, especially his The Lessons of Modernism, that we have not fully learnt all we could from Modernism, and that the questions Modernism asked, and the challenges that Modernism posed, remain with us today. Almost 80 years since it was written (it was published by the Woolf's own Hogarth Press in 1927) and To The Lighthouse still makes most modern fiction look tired, nescient and pointless. Almost 80 years since it was written and it still retains something vital and fresh.


How has the novel retained its freshness and vitality? Its form is as important as its content; its content is self-aware of the form through which it is being expressed. It is tender and intelligent; domestic and philosophical; it is aware of its artifice. In its central section, Time Passes, an obvious reference to Proust (Woolf was obsessed by Proust and noted in her journal his "tremendous sensibility & curiosity & intelligence"), the hinge between The Window (dominated by the thoughts and character of Mrs Ramsay and through whose perspective we see many of the other characters and see into her -- and their -- mind) and The Lighthouse (Lily Briscoe to the fore), the reader is moved, at pace, through time (ten years, the sympathetic fallacy of the declining house, and a war). The narratorial perspective shifts. For this section, we are outside looking in. And we learn, almost casually (shockingly, in parentheses) of Mrs Ramsay's death.


There is a compelling rhythm to the writing in The Window. We move back to a similar style in The Lighthouse. This reinforces the centrality of Time Passes and gives the novel's shape such strength. I'm uncomfortably using the term "stream of consciousness" (note, anyway, that the novel is all narrated in the third person) because is seems to me to have been degraded now to mean little more than a style marked by sentimental, mawkish interiority (what I often think of, in film, as the dreary expedient of the voiceover). Here the interior monologue is exquisitely handled: inquisitive, fickle, capricious, grounded. At the centre is war and death: Andrew Ramsay dies at the front, Prue Ramsay dies in an "illness connected with childbirth" and, as noted, Mrs Ramsay dies "rather suddenly".


Lily Briscoe doesn't go on the boat-trip with the family at the end of the novel (Mr Ramsay is now quite old, but his youngest child, Cam, is still only fifteen; his son, James, is sixteen). She stays in the garden, she remembers back to earlier times, and she paints. Indeed, she struggles to finish a portrait of Mrs Ramsay. Art has to contend, contain, contest death. Its contours are shaped by death. Charles Tansley who, earlier, cruelly and stupidly claimed that women could neither paint nor write, is also remembered. And dismissed. Lily has been struggling to get the perspective right for years. “It is finished,” Lily says. Carmichael the poet looks on.