Category Archives: Classic

Henry James, An English New Year

Gosh James is a wonderful writer. I often forget how much of this stellar craft has  been lost in recent years. Here James illustrates his brilliance in what seems to be a short extract from something larger, a brief observation of sorts, a muse, which ends with an abrupt and somewhat dissatisfying insight.

I love the way that James captures London:

“But there are fogs and fogs, and the folds of the black mantle have been during the present winter intolerably thick. The thickness that draws down and absorbs the smoke of the housetops, causes it to hang about the streets in impenetrable density, forces it into one’s eyes and down one’s throat, so that one is half blinded and quite sickened – this form of the particular plague has been much more frequent than usual.”

Having spent much time in this great city I know this fog which he describes… I swam through that fog and it is one of the things that makes London skies seem so low.

This little piece is worth reading just to revel in James’ artfulness.

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The Pearl, John Steinbeck

How is it possible that I have only just read this book?

The Mark on the Wall, Virginia Woolf

This wonderful short muse appears in Woolf’s collection called Monday or Tuesday. I have specifically chosen not to call this a ‘story’ for it clearly is not one – Incurable Logophilia agrees with me on this point!Rather, it seems that here Woolf is experimenting with form, trying to draw our attention away from the safety of a sequential plot and to focus rather on an internal dialogue.

She seeks to distract us with this mark on the wall, its significance a means to lead us on a thought quest, a meandering through the differences of mundane reality and each individual’s desire to find something substance in his or her own personal monologue.

All the time I’m dressing up the figure of myself in my own mind, lovingly, stealthily, not openly adoring it, for if I did that, I should catch myself out, and stretch my hand at once for a book in self-protection. Indeed, it is curious how instinctively one protects the image of oneself from idolatry or any other handling that could make it ridiculous, or too unlike the original to be believed in any longer. Or is it not so very curious after all? It is a matter of great importance. Suppose the looking glass smashes, the image disappears, and the romantic figure with the green of forest depths all about it is there no longer, but only that shell of a person which is seen by other people – what an airless, shallow, bald, prominent world it becomes! A world not to be lived in.

So, Woolf takes us on this journey, delving into politics, human nature, society and Nature itself. Each sequence of thoughts is unfinished, interrupted abruptly by the intrusion of another thought, stolen mid-sentence and tossed into oblivion.

Clearly, Woolf is toying with us, forcing us to abandon our expectations of narrative form and structure and to rather savour her alternate route. This is Woolf’s way of encouraging us to stop and smell the proverbial roses.

For readers, the mark on the wall could function as a metaphor for a range of different things. Contextually, the mark could be a reference to World War I, the background to Woolf’s writing and mentioned throughout the text. The mark could also refer to a blot on the writer’s conscience, a distraction of sorts, a fixation. It could imply a challenge, a cry for help, or even a point of communication for it is this mark on the wall that allows the entry of another voice into the stream of consciousness musing. For Woolf it seems that this mark on the wall is the intrusion of reality, that looming thing that holds her back, stunts her ability to truly express herself, to master her craft:

The tree outside the window taps very gently on the pane … I want to think quietly, calmly, spaciously, never to be interrupted, never to have to rise from my chair, to slip easily from one thing to another, without any sense of hostility, or obstacle. I want to sink deeper and deeper, away from the surface, with its hard separate facts. To steady myself, let me catch hold of the first idea that passes …

The fact that the mark is ultimately a snail lends a strange humour to Woolf’s thought processes and might leave some readers disgruntled by the lack of closure in this text.

Monday or Tuesday, Lead Story

Lazy and indifferent, shaking space easily from his wings, knowing his way, the heron passes over the church beneath the sky.

This is the opening of the lead story from Woolf’s Monday or Tuesday collection. I’ve been slow reading this as I’m so intrigued by the stories and, furthermore, by their order. I found myself wondering who decides on the order of these collections – author or publisher? For it is indeed strange for this abstract story to follow the feminist bent of A Society.

Strangely, the thing that struck me most about this story was its similarity to Gwen Harwood’s poetry and before I even had a chance to properly digest Woolf I was picking up Harwood and trying to trace some thread of connection … I didn’t find anything concrete but it was enough to intrigue me for Harwood’s “What is truth, cries the heart” is too similar to Woolf’s notion of truth’s assembly to be coincidental. Furthermore, there is a likeness in language too which echoes in an uncanny way … this is something that I will be pondering for a long time  yet!

But, back to this story. It is all of two and a half pages long, filled with austere descriptions of the heron wheeling and turning in a Yeatsian fashion and the magic of the sky cloaking the stars and then revealing them. It seems that Woolf’s concern here is with the nature of reality and therefore her idea of truth – if something is simply hidden by clouds does it still exist, is it still true? And, what is truth?

The sense of movement in this story is simply inspiring: the bird “shaking space”, the sky endlessly “covers and uncovers, moves and remains” and there is a sense that everything is “drifting at corners” and “blown across the wheels”, as Woolf writes: “gathered, scattered, squandered in separate scales, swept up, down, torn, sunk, assembled”. For the reader, it is difficult to pinpoint what exactly Woolf is writing about, is there actually a story in the sense that we expect or is she musing about the nature of her writing in its essence, the process of recollection that is language and its evolution?

There are so many questions and the reader is left wondering if it is the heron who holds all the answers. “Lazy and indifferent the heron returns; the sky veils her stars; then bares them.”

I need to think about this further, to read it again and again, to immerse myself in its lyricism. There is no doubt that it is beautiful but there is something in this story that evades my grasp and leaves me somehow in darkness. It is a darkness I am happy to inhabit with such a writer beside me.

Monday or Tuesday

Well, I’ve dived into Virginia Woolf’s short stories. Not sure why since most of you will know that this is not my favourite genre.  I’ve only read the first two stories in this collection but I am so excited to be reminded of Woolf’s magnificent prose that I couldn’t resist sharing.

The first story, A Haunted House, is remarkably short. Woolf’s strength is revealed here as she clearly captures the atmosphere of this house and the ghosts haunting it. The story is filled with rhetorical questions – “What did I come in here for? What did I want to find?” – which are posed by the ghosts who are seeking “their joy” which they describe as a buried treasure. The metaphor is marvellous, the house imbued with this miraculous energy, their memories encased in the very air that fills these spaces, the “heart of the house” literally “beats proudly”. The notion of this joy as connected to pride leads us to the heart of Woolf’s message in this story: Joy comes from connections between people and it is through others that we find ourselves. For Woolf, this realisation often comes too late:

“Death was the glass; death was between us; coming to the woman first, hundreds of years ago, leaving the house, sealing all the windows; the rooms were darkened … ‘Safe, safe, safe,’ the pulse of the house beats gladly. ‘The Treasure yours.'”

Ironically, the second story in this collection is remarkably different to the first one. In A Society Woolf clearly conveys her feminist bent, parodying patriarchal influences and emphases. The story describes a group of young women who gather regularly over a period of years to investigate the contribution that man has made to the world, particularly to the world of books.

“We have gone on all these ages supposing that men were equally industrious, and that their works were of equal merit. While we have borne the children, they, we supposed, have borne the books and the pictures. We have populated the world. They have civilised it. but now that we can read, what prevents us from judging the results? Before we bring another child into the world we must swear that we will find out what the world is like.”

The subtext is clear here, the revelation “Why did my father teach me to read?” when there is nothing worth reading? Together these women decide that they will collectively not bear any more children until they are satisfied with man’s contribution.

The realisations abound in this story and it is quite brilliant in the way that it engages reader through humour and wit. For me, this is essential Woolf, encapsulating all that makes her brilliant.

Virginia Woolf

I am thinking about joining Incurable Logophilia’s reading adventure through the works of Virginia Woolf.

I’ve already read The Waves, A Room of One’s Own and To The Lighthouse so inline with IL, I might start with Woolf’s  The Voyage Out. It’s available free on Amazon Kindle.

Has anyone read Woolf’s short stories or other essays? I’d been interested in some recommendations.

The Dead

James Joyce is one of those authors who inspires fear in the minds of readers. Not surprisingly since Ulysses is such a dauntingly terrifying tome! However, his short stories are remarkably accessible and I was reminded of Joyce’s brilliance by a colleague of mine yesterday.

So, inspired, I came home and read ‘The Dead’ – according to this colleague, one of the best short stories.

Let me start by saying that I am not a fan of the short story genre. This is not to say that I don’t respect short story writers as to write such a story one has to be accomplished with prose and thought. It is certainly not an easy task. However, for me, the short story lacks the type of character development that I enjoy. While I appreciate the flavour that is provided, in most instances, I find that things are just not developed enough for my tastes.

That said, Joyce’s short story, ‘The Dead’, made for remarkable reading. In part this was due to the fact that I managed to download it for free from the internet and in part, simply because Joyce is indeed a genius and who I am to dislike or criticize such a canonical author?

The beauty of Joyce’s story is that nothing much actually happens. The setting is a dance/recital at the house of a pair of spinster sisters. The entire narrative unfolds over the course of the evening and the deep matter of this text arises more from the subtext – what is not said – than from what actually occurs.

The protagonist is Gabriel. We gather he is a gallant, if somewhat insecure individual, well accomplished academically but uncertain about his ability to engage with company. There are some stellar moments in this story where Gabriel is quite unhinged by things and readers are inspired to feel tremendous empathy for him. He is clearly in awe of his wife and desperate to express this to her, but at the same time, confounded by her nature and too afraid to offend her sensibilities. It makes for a complex relationship and it is this that lies at the core of Joyce’s story.

While Gabriel was a fascinating character and well fleshed out, I thought that the most intriguing individual in this tale was Lily, largely unexplored and mostly sidelined by the other characters. It is Lily who opens this narrative and by far the most interesting exchange happens between Lily and Gabriel in the pantry. I am unsure whether my interest in this individual is a consequence of what Joyce presents of her, or rather the result of what he leaves to the imagination. Regardless, it is this that is one of Joyce’s greatest talents – the morsels that leave readers salivating for more.