Monday, July 18, 2005

Night and Day by Virginia Woolf

I would like to do something a bit out of the ordinary this morning. My tendency is to review quite recent works, since I like to read people who are writing about the world that we are working in and worrying about right now. I don’t know about you, but I find the world to be not only huge and complex, but also dangerous and worrisome. I read novels as a way of trying to discover how to behave in this chancy and huge world. Certainly, Virginia Woolf is not talking about the modern world, nor does the pace of her novels have much to do with the break-neck speed of today’s world, but I hardly every read more than a page or two of her work without finding something that applies to my life here and now. Today I want to talk about one of her less well known works entitled Night and Day.

I often remind readers about how much more rewarding it is to read novels in a concentrated manner, preferably over a day or two, rather than a month or two in bedside bits. But I suppose I think Woolf is an exception to this rule. I quite intentionally chose this novel as a car-book, something that would always be with me just in case I found myself stranded in a doctor’s office or some such waiting area without my current book at hand. Unlike any other author I can think of, it amazes me how easy it is to pick up something Woolf has written and to re-enter the conversation almost as if one has just left it, although, in fact, it may have been a week or a month since the last session. I even found myself restricting this to car-book status, both because it lends itself to such piecemeal reading, and because I wanted to intentionally savor it. Indeed, it was with some reluctance that I forced myself to finish the last couple hundred pages of this book fairly quickly, so that I could talk about it today. This is not one of the books I refer to as quick-hitters, short books for busy city-folks; it needs and deserves a languorous reading.

A lot of my friends who are devoted, even compulsive, readers tell me that they cannot read Woolf, that her novels are too slow, with too little action, and too much psychologizing. Interestingly, they often lump together three of my favorite writers in this group of too-much-effort-for-the-reward: Henry James, Iris Murdoch, and Virginia Woolf. Ah, what wonderful company to be in! I am puzzled by the fact that some of these same readers will tell me how much they like (and are amused by) Woody Allen films in which he allows the viewer to hear both the actual conversations between people, and then the much richer, funnier, and fuller inner dialogue that accompanies the sparse public dialogue. But if they like this about Woody Allen, then how can they not love it about Woolf? The incredibly rich and absolutely convincing description of the inner dialogue of Woolf’s characters I find mesmerizing.

I don’t intend to tell you much about the plot of this novel, nor do I think the plot is very important to Woolf. While there are always plenty of side characters in any Woolf novel (and each described fully enough to become quite real and interesting in her/his own right), this is a story about a young woman, Katherine, her suitor William, and two mutual friends, Denham and Mary. Katherine is from a well to do and prestigious family, which includes a famous, though now deceased, poet in its ranks. Besides considerable wealth, we discover quite soon that Katherine is bright, beautiful, and much admired by almost all who know her. Her suitor, William, also of good family, is described as a serious young intellectual who, while not nearly as socially skilled as Katherine nor nearly as physically appealing, has the advantage of being, well, male, and thus as a person who can decide just how he wants to spend his life. Denham is a hardworking law clerk, whose family depends on his income, though he would much prefer to be a simple scholar. And Mary is a hardworking young woman, a village girl, who is now on her own in London working in a salaried position with a group of suffragettes. Again, I will not be giving way much of the plot if I tell you that both of the young men are in love with Katherine (or, at least, their own inner versions of who Katherine is), while Mary is in love with Denham (knowing it to be hopeless and unrequited), and Katherine in love with no one at all. For very good reason, Katherine admires Mary, who has serious work and a room of her own, and she envies the lives of both Denham and William, since both are allowed to take their own lives and their own intellectual pursuits seriously. Katherine is much admired by the other three because of her good sense and down-to-earth coping skills, as well as for her wealth and good looks. All three imagine that Katherine must be happy, self-possessed, and in confident control of her life and surroundings.

In my estimation, the novel is primarily about Katherine, and about the ways in which she is utterly bound by cultural and family traditions and the expectations of those around her. Although still quite young, she is in many ways in charge of the social life of her family, especially that of her mother. And her only escape from being the hub of that family will be to marry and become the hub of another. In secret, she harbors the desire to work with numbers, to do astronomy, to deal with abstract problems that can be ordered and that ultimately have answers, problems not nearly as complex as the problems of the social lives of humans.

Circumstances had long forced her, as they forced most women in the flower of youth, to consider, painfully and minutely, all that part of life which is conspicuously without order; she had had to consider moods and wishes, degrees of liking or disliking, and their effect upon the destiny of people dear to her; she had been forced to deny herself any contemplation of that other part of life where thought constructs a destiny which is independent of human beings.
The particular genius of Woolf is to show us just how different peoples’ inner lives are from what can be observed from the outside, so that one simple conversation can, if fully analyzed, speak volumes about the people involved and the society from which they spring. It is this phenomenological detail that, I think, puts off many of my reader friends, and that I (on the contrary) find so wonderful and insightful. Perhaps I should give you just one quick example (though most examples take at least a few pages of intricate Woolf prose), and if you find the passage tedious, ah, then you might be one of those who will find Woolf tedious. If, instead, this one passage leaves you wanting more, then pick up a volume of Woolf, either this book or some other, and luxuriate in the richness of her understanding of all that it is to be human. Let me add a final comment, like Iris Murdoch, Woolf realizes that most of what we call communication is really miscommunication, that we so rarely say what we mean or what needs to be said. So much can be clarified in a simple few moments of honesty, and yet those moments happen so infrequently. In what follows, Katherine is trying to think of how to answer (or to avoid answering) William Rodney’s proposal of marriage.
She felt certain that she would marry Rodney. How could she avoid it? How could one find fault with it? Here she sighed, and, putting the thought of marriage away, fell into a dream state, in which she became another person, and the whole world seemed changed. Being a frequent visitor to that world, she could find her way there unhesitatingly. If she had tried to analyze her impressions, she would have said that there dwelt the realities of appearances which figure in our world; so direct, powerful, and unimpeded were her sensations there, compared with those called forth in actual life. There dwelt the things one might have felt, had there been cause; the perfect happiness of which here we taste the fragment; the beauty seen here in flying glimpses only. However the embellishment of this imaginary world might change, two qualities were constant in it. It was a place where feelings were liberated from the constraint which the real world puts upon them; and the process of awakenment was always marked by resignation and a kind of stoical acceptance of facts.
I invite you to plunge into the word-rich world of Virginia Woolf; I always find it a rewarding and enlightening swim.

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