Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘contemporary fiction’ Category

The Things They CarriedWho’d have figured? Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” is a classic, the title story in a collection of linked pieces that I’ve long heard is a “must read” for writers. So it caught my attention when I noticed it at the library recently, and I plucked it off the shelf. Finally, I thought.

Virginia Woolf wasn’t on my mind when I opened the book—for obvious reasons, I’d say—but there she was, on the first page:

First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha…. More than anything, he wanted Martha to love him as he loved her, but the letters were mostly chatty, elusive on the matter of love. She was a virgin, he was almost sure. She was an English major at Mount Sebastian, and she wrote beautifully about her professors and roommates and midterm exams, about her respect for Chaucer and her great affection for Virginia Woolf.

The surprising Woolf sighting made me think about Septimus Smith and his wartime experiences, the horrors that haunted him for the rest of his brief life. Different war, same horrors—it never ends. I read a few more stories—they’re compelling and well written—but soon I’d had enough and returned the book to the library.

Read Full Post »

Two years ago I wrote here about Meg Wolitzer’s Woolf-citing in The Uncoupling. To my surprise and delight, Meg commented on the post, saying that Woolf would appear in her next novel too.

The InterestingsThat next novel is now out to fantastic reviews, and no wonder. The Interestings is interesting; it’s also riveting and thought-provoking. Meg had me on the first page when she said of her wonderfully-flawed protagonist, Jules: “Irony was new to her and tasted oddly good, like a previously unavailable summer fruit.”

I’ve always enjoyed Meg’s novels for a lighter touch, lots of wit and whimsy. This one’s bigger and deeper. She introduces six teenagers who meet at an artsy summer camp in New England and follows them into their 50s, through ups and downs, sickness and health, fame and fortune, failure and envy. There’s wit and whimsy and a whole lot more—irony isn’t new to Meg Wolitzer; she’s a master at it.

Through it all—the mainstay of the book—is the deep friendship between Jules and Ash, and Woolf shows up in a scene between them:

 Once, looking through a women’s magazine together, they saw an article about a legendary sex toy emporium in New York for women called Eve’s Garden. It wasn’t that their marriages weren’t sexually satisfying to them—both of them had confided that they were—but they got into a discussion about how maybe it was a good idea to have “a vibrator of one’s own, to paraphrase the late, great Virginia Woolf,” Jules said. Then, to amuse Ash, she went off on a Woolf sex riff, saying, suggestively, “Are those rocks in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”

The success of The Interestings is well-deserved. Meg, if you’re reading this, thanks for a terrific reading experience.

Read Full Post »

The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin is a fictional account of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, whoaviator's wie chose for much of her life to sacrifice her own interests in order to be “the aviator’s wife.”

In the novel, the Lindberghs attend a reception at which Amelia Earhart is present.  Anne Morrow Lindbergh is an accomplished pilot in her own right, but Earhart dismissed AML in the following exchange as a mere wife, “a sweet little thing:”

“That’s a very pretty frock.” Her voice sounded brighter, more musical; more suited to the nursery than to the airfield.

“Thank you.”

“Tell me, Anne, have you ever read A Room of One’s Own?”

I gasped, then laughed out loud. Was she serious? I could see by the earnest look on Amelia Earhart’s face that she was.

“Excuse me?” I asked politely.

“Virginia Woolf’s latest. You should read it sometime. It was written for someone like you.”

…I smiled up at the Great Aviatrix, so earnestly boyish, so fiercely alone.

“Thank you for the suggestion, Amelia. I’m always looking for something new to read, you know. I had no idea you were so well read.”

Apparently this exchange, or something close to it, really took place. In fact Anne Morrow Lindbergh knew Woolf’s work well. Her 1955 Gift from the Sea has been compared to A Room of One’s Own and is in part a response to it, adopting and developing many of the same ideas in her ruminations. While women need to have time to themselves, she adds that, “Solitude alone is not the answer to this; it is only a step toward it, a mechanical aid, like the ‘room of one’s own’ demanded for women, before they could make their place in the world. … The room of one’s own, the hour alone are now more possible in a wider economic class than ever before. But these hard-won prizes are insufficient because we have not yet learned how to use them.”

Cover of "Gift from the Sea: 50th Anniver...

Cover via Amazon

She later cites a passage from The Waves, saying “I always liked that Virginia Woolf hero who meets middle age admitting: ‘Things have dropped from me. I have outlived certain desires …’” and goes on to quote from Bernard’s monologue in her own reflections on aging.

It comes full circle, as Woolf read Mrs. Lindbergh too. In 1932, after the trauma of their son’s kidnapping and death, the Lindberghs rented Long Barn from Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West to get away from the publicity. Nicolson later visited them when they’d moved back to the U.S. and brought Woolf a copy of AML’s book, North to the Orient, in which she mentions reading The Years. In a diary entry in August 1935, Woolf considers writing about “Mrs L.”

Read Full Post »

archivistMeandering through the bounteous bookshelves of a writer friend in Seattle for whom I was recently house-sitting, I zeroed in on The Archivist, a 1998 novel by Martha Cooley.

The story revolves around a cache of letters from T.S. Eliot to Emily Hale that Hale bequeathed to a university library (unnamed in the novel) in 1965, with the stipulation that they not be opened until 2020. This is true; the letters are at Princeton, sealed until 2020. The archivist’s wife is a poet, and they share an interest in Eliot. After her death he takes the university position right around the time of the bequest and meets a graduate student who is interested in the letters.

Eliot’s work weaves in and out, as do issues of Jewishness, war atrocities, conversion, and identity. Eliot’s life with and abandonment of his first wife Vivienne comes into it but not so much their London milieu, with a few exceptions, including this:

Roberta (the student) to Matthias (the archivist):

I was just remembering how Virginia Woolf once said Eliot was sordid and intense. Did you know that when he was still married to Vivienne, he occasionally wore face powder when they went to dinner parties? Can you imagine? I guess he couldn’t resist the temptation to dramatize his suffering—God knows Vivienne wore hers on her sleeve.

English: T. S. Eliot, photographed one Sunday ...

English: T. S. Eliot, photographed one Sunday afternoon in 1923 by Lady Ottoline Morrell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course I had to see if that was accurate (Woolf’s description, not the face powder) and found it in Woolf’s Diary, Nov. 12, 1934, about a performance of Eliot’s uncompleted verse drama, “Sweeney Agonistes”: “The acting made more sense than the reading but I doubt that Tom has enough of a body & brain to bring off a whole play: certainly he conveys an emotion, an atmosphere: which is more than most: something peculiar to himself; sordid, emotional, intense—a kind of Crippen, in a mask: modernity & poetry locked together.”

Seems to me she’s talking more about the play and his approach to it than Eliot himself. While she does implicate Eliot’s character and craft with her curt observations, the quote, out of context, strikes me as a bit too convenient for Cooley, the Woolf citation too dishy to resist. Still, it was a fascinating novel.

Read Full Post »

In a newsletter from Powell’s, the fabulous book emporium in Portland, I read about a first novel by one of their own former staffers, Alexis Smith.

According to the publisher’s notes: “Glaciers unfolds internally, the action shaped by Isabel’s sense of history, memory, and place, recalling the work of writers such as Jean Rhys, Marguerite Duras, and Virginia Woolf.”

I picked it up at my local library, a slim and inviting paperback with a collage-like cerulean cover. I found it charming, and the narrator, Isabel, a sympathetic character—bookish and introspective, observant, partial to thrift stores. I wasn’t expecting an actual reference to Woolf, but her ghost appeared near the end when Isabel and a group of friends are telling personal stories, their host assigning topics. Someone is asked to tell a story about regret:

“So she tells a story about visiting England when she was in college. She had a chance to visit the river in which a beloved writer drowned. She had a mousy friend with a family cottage nearby. But she wanted desperately to be fashionable. So instead she went toLondon to see a boy who later humiliated her…” (165).

This was my first Woolf sighting in fiction this year, my 24th since completing my 2010 monograph, Beyond the Icon: Virginia Woolf in Contemporary Fiction, with 37 references. I don’t go looking for them, but they keep appearing; Woolf continues to hold a unique place in the hearts and minds of writers and readers: muse, model and mentor, and yes, icon.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: