Archive for October, 2010

Lovely coincidences were a big part of the day when I saw Sara Ruhl’s stage adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando in New York City earlier this month.

The first coincidence was that I already had a one-day trip to New York City planned for the last weekend of the production. So while my traveling companions went off to see the Saturday matinee of Promises, Promises on Broadway, I headed to East 13th Street and the Classic Stage Company to see Orlando.

When I got there, I waited for the second lovely coincidence, which was the fact that I was attending the performance with Vinny Ciarlariello, a NYU graduate student with whom I had worked at the University of Akron’s student newspaper last year.

Vinny Ciarlariello outside the Classic Stage Company

But before Vinny arrived, the third lovely coincidence walked up. Anne Fernald, professor of English at Fordham, editor of the upcoming Cambridge University Press edition of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and blogger over at Fernham, was there to see the show and headline a post-performance Q&A session.

Afterwards, it was no coincidence that Anne, Vinny and I agreed that Ruhl’s adaptation was absolutely brilliant.

Here’s what I loved about it:

  • The artful simplicity of the production, which used a lighted portable model to depict Orlando’s huge estate and a huge billowing square of white cloth to simulate the frozen Thames.
  • The fantastic huge gilt-framed mirror that hung above the stage, reflecting the performance below and offering a unique perspective of it as well.

    Anne Fernald after her Q&A

  • The insightful performance of Francesca Faridany in the title role and her perfect blend of humor and intensity.
  • The lyrical dialogue, which was 90 percent Woolf.
  • The simple all-white costumes, which managed to convey the gender changes of Orlando and the actors who played multiple roles.
  • The fun of the golden wedding band hoop skirt that Orlando wore over her regular costume when the Victorian urge to marry overtook her.
  • The artful “skating” of Annika Boras, who played Sasha. And her gorgeous wine velvet costume, complete with soft-soled flat suede boots.
  • The venue, which was intimate and immediate.
  • The fact that when it was over, I wanted to see the entire performance again.

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Molly Hoff, author of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: Invisible Presences, has obviously been reading Alice Lowe’s posts about Virginia Woolf in contemporary fiction.

Yesterday she let me know that we can all meet Mrs. Dalloway in Graham Greene’s The Confidential Agent. Here are Molly’s interesting observations:

“Graham Greene’s text features walking up and down three times, three traffic jams, three instances of false pretences, and two pistol shots that resemble a car backfiring, or a car backfiring that sounds like a pistol shot. There is a bookstore window display with titles included, a skywriting airplane, and a person who jumps out of a window. Another person gets lost in a crowd of people intervening.

“The Tatler and bananas also appear with the suggestion that the narrative will start over again. The main character – “My name is D” leads a Kafkaesque thriller of which Greene said he felt as if he were ghosting someone else’s novel.”

Read more about Woolf and contemporary fiction and find more Woolf sightings around the Web.

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“On and About: Bloomsbury and December 1910” will be the topic of a lecture by Peter Stansky, professor of history emeritus at Stanford University and expert on modern British history, on Dec. 6, 5 to 7 p.m at the Book Club of California.

Also at the 312 Sutter St. location in San Francisco, Calif., will be “In the Gallery: The Birth of Bloomsbury: 1910” from Nov. 15 through Dec. 30.

The events are free and open to the public. For more information, visit www.bccbooks.org.

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Robert Stanley Martin offers a review of Virginia Woolf’s story “The Mark on the Wall” on his blog, Pol Culture. In it, he says Woolf builds on Wordsworth’s use of nature imagery, but that’s where the similarity ends.

Instead of looking outward, as Wordsworth does, Woolf looks inward, Martin argues. And he frames that difference in simple terms, as the difference in the world outlook of the Romantic versus the Modernist.

Verbivore, a blogger on Incurable Logophilia, says the story isn’t a story at all, but “a series of thoughts squeezed between the two tiny actions of a woman looking through her cigarette smoke at a blot on the wall” and a man announcing that he is going out to buy a newspaper. (You can also read Verbivore’s other Woolf posts: Woolf’s 1915 Diary and Initial thoughts on The Voyage Out.)

I, on the other hand, just finished reading Marguerite Duras’s The Ravishing of Lol Stein for a class I am teaching. As a result, I see a French connection with Woolf’s story.

The French connections

Let me explain. Duras’s 1964 novel has been called an anti-novel. That is similar to “The Mark on the Wall” being characterized as not “a story at all.” Lol Stein is a series of observations by an omniscient narrator squeezed between the two large actions of a young woman who is jilted by her fiancé and a man who observes her asleep in the rye field outside his hotel window.

But there is a major difference. Duras writes Lol Stein in a purposefully vague and low-energy, melancholic style. She never takes us inside Lol’s head. Woolf, on the other hand, rushes to reveal the thoughts of her main character as she contemplates the black mark on the wall in front of her.

All of which brings me to another French connection, one that has been flitting around the edges of my mind for years. I am talking about Alain Robbe-Grillet’s third and most famous novel Jealousy (1957).

In it, Robbe-Grillet presents five characters in a bungalow overlooking banana plantations. All is seen through the gaze of a faceless, voiceless narrator who counts and measures and minutely describes his surroundings. And in the midst of the story is a squashed centipede that has left a dark stain on a wall.

I just pulled out the yellowed paperback version I read for an undergrad class many years ago. After only a few moments of skimming, I hit on these lines:

  • “and the bare partition where a dark stain … stands out on the pale, dull, even paint” (62).
  • “On the light-colored paint of the partition opposite … a common Scutigera of average size . . . has appeared . . . the orientation of its body indicates a path which cuts across the panel diagonally: coming from the baseboard on the hallway side and heading toward the corner of the ceiling” (64).
  • “About a yard higher, the paint is marked with a dark shape, a tiny arc twisted into a question mark, blurred on one side” (65).
  • “On the bare wall, the traces of the squashed centipede are still perfectly visible. Nothing has been done to clean off the stain” (78).
  • “On the opposite wall, the centipede is there, in its tell-tale spot, right in the middle of the panel” (95).

And from “The Mark on the Wall”:

  • “The mark was a small round mark, black upon the white wall, about six or seven inches above the mantlepiece” (83).
  • “And yet the mark on the wall is not a hole at all. It may even be caused by some round black substance” (84)
  • “In certain lights that mark on the wall seems actually to project from the wall . . . I cannot be sure, but it seems to cast a perceptible shadow, suggesting that if I ran my finger down that strip of the wall it would, at a certain point, mount and descend a small tumulus” (86).
  • “I must jump up and see for myself what that mark on the wall really is — a nail, a rose-leaf, a crack in the wood?” (88)
  • “`All the same, I don’t see why we should have a snail on our wall.’ Ah, the mark on the wall! It was a snail” (89).

Marks on the wall by Woolf and Robbe-Grillet

Both Woolf and Robbe-Grillet use a spot on the wall as a visual marker to which they both return. However, Woolf shares the interior monologue of her narrator, while Robbe-Grillet does not.

Similarly, Woolf’s narrator uses the mark on the wall as an opportunity to conduct mental meanderings. Robbe-Grillet’s narrator uses the mark he observes to keep his mind anchored in objective reality. He does not wander into the subjective.

Robbe-Grillet, who pioneered the New Novel of the 20th century, said he was influenced by Woolf. That is clear when one studies what he believed about writing novels. Like Woolf, he decried the idea of using the novel to narrate a story or support a cause.

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A while back on the Woolf list-serv, Kristin Czarnecki alerted us to a sighting in a Poirot episode of PBS Masterpiece Mystery. After a conversation about “the modern novel,” one of the characters, a mystery writer, is seen reading A Room of One’s Own. That piqued my interest about the likelihood of Woolf references in that or in any other of Agatha Christie’s books.

There are 39 Poirot novels alone, plus several story collections, an undertaking I wasn’t prepared for, but I did start musing about Woolf’s place in the genre.

The first person who came to mind, of course, was Carolyn Heilbrun, who wrote 14 mysteries under the pseudonym of Amanda Cross, featuring professor of literature and part-time sleuth Kate Fansler. I had read several of those, and I remembered one that was unique in that the mystery to be solved involved not crime but literature.

For starters, The Players Come Again takes its title from The Waves, which is incorporated into the epigraph: “The sweetness of this content overflowing runs down the walls of my mind, and liberates understanding. Wander no more, I say; this is the end. The oblong has been set upon the square; the spiral is on top. We have been hauled over the shingle, down to the sea. The players come again.”

Kate is hired to write a biography, and her research calls into question the role of the scholar/biographer as detective, as observed by Kate’s husband: “What I can’t decide is whether you are engaged as a detective or as a scholar and writer,” and one of her clients: “…aren’t all scholars really detectives?”

The biography is of the enigmatic wife of a famous modernist, Emmanuel Foxx (Foxx? Woolf?), and Woolf is evoked frequently throughout the novel, starting with a preliminary discussion between Kate and the publisher about their subject: “He is perhaps more influential in the long run than any but Joyce and Woolf.”

Long after Amanda Cross’ identity was made public, Heilbrun wrote some pieces about detective fiction that were included in her essay collection, Hamlet’s Mother and Other Women. In two of them she discusses gender and class issues, and in a third she writes about Dorothy Sayers’ wonderful Gaudy Night, in which Lord Peter Wimsey and scholar Harriet Vane tackle crime at an Oxford women’s college.

I read this classic of the genre prior to my first trip to Oxford 20 years ago. Rereading it now, it feels like a companion piece to A Room of One’s Own, capturing as it does the cloistered atmosphere, “perennial scarcity of funds,” and second-class status of the fictional Shrewsbury College. The reunion that Harriet Vane attends—dining on “improved” soup, lamb and peas, bad coffee and no wine—invokes Woolf’s famous repast, and the BBC must have thought so too, as the televised version adds a brief conversation, absent in the book, about custard and prunes. The novel was written in 1936, but the opening sentence—“Harriet Vane sat at her writing-table and stared out into Mecklenburg Square”—is prescient of Woolf a few years later living on the same square.

Woolf continues to pop up in contemporary mysteries, like Bleeding Heart Square, which I wrote about in June 2009; the character there was also reading A Room of One’s Own. In Val McDermid’s Report for Murder, protagonist Lindsay Gordon calls herself a cynical socialist lesbian feminist journalist, here moonlighting as a detective when a murder is committed at a girls’ school. Woolf makes a few appearances: a signed copy of Orlando is a prized auction item at a fundraiser; a student’s room is described with posters of Lenin and the Greenham Common peace women and a photograph of Virginia Woolf on her walls.

Yes, she’s an icon, of course. But it’s also true that these often casual mentions evoke more meaning than might otherwise be captured in many paragraphs, and it’s no mystery why writers continue to pay homage to her in their novels.

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