Friday, December 15, 2006

Doña Clarissa y Yo

"¡Qué zambullida!"

Early on during my stay in San Miguel, I started in on Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. I admit I felt vindicated at first in my decision to put it off for years for fear that it might be a little too stylistically "difficult." No, it's not exactly Middle English Chaucer, but I don't think I'm being too much of a philistine to claim Woolf has her quirks. However, I found myself pressing ahead gamely. Of course I had a vague idea of the plot and what was going on because I'd seen the film version with Vanessa Redgrave about seven years ago.

The sentences! Never having been a lit major, I don't know if the idea of "The Woolfian Sentence" is a well-worn topic, but I suspect the concept has been discussed at length. As is my usual reading habit, I found myself re-reading the same sentences, going back to the beginning and trying to make sense of thm. At some point I realized I needed to stop doing that, or I would never make any progress; so I decided to just read through and allow myself to be content with absorbing the gist—the feeling—of Woolf's convoluted phrases, clauses, and fragments. And yeah, that worked.

An example of what I'm talking about is below (this is all ONE sentence):
It was her life, and, bending her head over the hall table, she bowed beneath the influence, felt blessed and purified, saying to herself, as she took the pad with the telephone message on it, how moments like this are buds on the tree of life, flowers of darkness they are, she thought (as if some lovely rose had blossomed for her eyes only); not for a moment did she believe in God; but all the more, she thought, taking up the pad, must one repay in daily life to servants, yes, to dogs and canaries, above all to Richard her husband, who was the foundation of it—of the gay sounds, of the green lights, of the cook even whistling, for Mrs. Walker was Irish and whistled all day long—one must pay back from this secret deposit of exquisite moments, she thought, lifting the pad, while Lucy stood by her, trying to explain how.
I was in awe. It's almost a mess, but I think it takes absolute genius to write sentences like that. I thought I might try writing a few of my own just "for fun" sometime, but I can't see myself managing to pull off that kind of construction, even as an exercise. I love the idea of trying to throw out so much convention though. Screw whatever your tenth grade English teacher (or present-day anal-retentive proscriptive grammar wonks) tried to instill in you about the "proper paragraph."

I also couldn't help wonder about how revolutionary it might have been for Woolf to be doing this in 1925. Yes, I know James Joyce had been crazily screwing around with convention in the world of letters for awhile by then... so in that context, Woolf's and other Bloomsburians' daring probably makes perfect sense. [Interesting sidebar: just discovered that Woolf and Joyce were both born and both died within 2 months of each other. Hmm.]

However, I was thinking about the fact that I had just recently finished The House of Mirth, and the difference between Wharton's rigid formality and Woolf's language explosion is really striking, given the fact that the works are chronologically separated by only twenty years (and yes, I know, a very significant ocean). It's amazing to me that such a stylistic shift in prose could occur in such a short period of time. I'm sure history is full of radical changes in art that took place in relatively quick succession, but 20 years seems a fairly short interval.

Again, I'm far from a lit expert, but it feels to me that in recent years there hasn't been similar innovation and experimentation in writing that is so obvious. In terms of general American/British literature, most works written in 1980 or 1985 are likely not so radically different from those written in 2005. Or maybe—being out of the loop as I am—I'm incredibly, embarrassingly wrong, and someone who really knows what he's talking about should push me the hell off of this quasi-academic big chair I'm trying to sit in.

The point is that Woolf made me wonder if we've been in a fairly conservative, stagnant period in terms of the risk that writers are willing to take in their "art." Is this the fault of Big Publishing and The Marketplace (even the Woolfs, after all, had to publish themselves independently)? (When in doubt, why not blame the corporations...).

And I know this whole train of thinking is probably not very valid because I'm only comparing two very specific authors instead of looking at a range of writers on a continuum, in separate American and British contexts—and that Wharton was probably more wedded to older conventions as much as Woolf was potentially way ahead of her time. So, please, don't criticize and refute point by point the silly mental diversions that came over me while wading through Wacky Virginia's Headtrip.

In case I didn't say this yet, I enjoyed Mrs. Dalloway—as much for the content as the craft. I'm also realizing the danger of reading some of the "Great Books": in the presence of all that talent and art, the idea that I could ever put "pen to paper" and create something even a fraction as sublime seems... well... ridiculous.

Below is another bit of Dalloway that really pleased and challenged me. Thank you, Mrs. Woolf.

...Clarissa had a theory in those days—they had heaps of theories, always theories, as young people have. It was to explain the feeling they had of dissatisfaction; not knowing people; not being known. For how could they know each other? You met every day; then not for six months, or years. It was unsatisfactory, they agreed, how little one knew people. But she said, sitting on the bus going up Shaftesbury Avenue, she felt herself everywhere; not "here, here, here"; and she tapped the back of the seat; but everywhere. She waved her hand, going up Shaftesbury Avenue. She was all that. So that to know her, or any one, one must seek out people who completed them; even the places. Odd affinities she had with people she had never spoken to, some woman in the street, some man behind a counter—even trees, or barns. It ended in a transcendental theory which, with her horror of death, allowed her to believe, or say that she believed (for all her scepticism), that since our apparitions, the part of us which appears, are so momentary compared with the other, the unseen part of us, which spreads wide, the unseen might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places after death . . . perhaps—perhaps.

The unseen might survive.


Huntington said...

Might hang on by the thinnest of silver threads, maybe?

copperred said...

I really should pick up a copy, impressed as I was by the insopiration within "The Hours".