Archive for the ‘The Mark on the Wall’ Category

Editor’s Note: This essay, written in March of this year, was contributed by Mine Özyurt Kılıç, a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at the Department of Comparative Literature at Harvard University and co-organizer of Harvard’s May 10 event, A Press of One’s Own: Celebrating 100 Years of Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press. At Harvard, she currently investigates the connection between the ethical and aesthetic components of short fiction. Her research mostly focuses on contemporary British fiction with special interest in women’s writing. She is the author of the first book-length study on Maggie Gee’s fictionMaggie Gee: Writing the Condition-of-England Novel (Bloomsbury 2013). This academic celebration brings her back to her master’s thesis on the theme of failure in love in T. S. Eliot’s poetry as well as to her lectures on British Modernism.

The snail is a seal of the Hogarth Press, a signature of its focus on nature and the natural against the industrialized literary marketplace! Like this snail with its home on its back, The Hogarth married private and public life with a letterpress machine on a dining table. And that has made all the difference!

The snail that makes its appearance on the first publication of the Hogarth Press, “The Mark on the Wall” (1917), is the very emblem of the Woolfs’ mission. Like Schumacher’s claim for the economy “Small is Beautiful”, the Woolfs suggest that in “express[ing] the rapidity of life, the perpetual waste and repair”: Slow is beautiful!

This first Woolf story they publish can also be read as a fictional manifestation of Woolf’s ars poetica. The narrator first situates herself in the world understanding one truth about it– “what an airless, shallow, bald, prominent world it becomes! A world not to be lived in” — then discerns her calling in it:

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.

This quiet, calm, spacious, and uninterrupted mode of deep thinking is the very engine behind Woolf’s Modernist texts that require a different mode of reading, a deliberately slow and effortful one that is like the movements of a crawling snail. The central motif in the story, also visually reproduced in Dora Carrington’s woodcut print to accompany the text, the snail is one of the many lives that the narrator feels committed to describe in detail.

[…] there are a million patient, watchful lives still for a tree, all over the world, in bedrooms, in ships, on the pavement, lining rooms, where men and women sit after tea, smoking cigarettes. It is full of peaceful thoughts, happy thoughts, this tree. I should like to take each one separately.

In a later Woolf story “Kew Gardens” (1919), the snail now becomes one of the central consciousnesses. A single figure among those visitors coming from different walks of life, it makes its way around the flowerbed, thinking whether it is better to move or not, drawing the reader’s attention to the minutiae of everyday life, to a moment of being, from a major to a minor key. As such, it becomes a sign of a special state of consciousness slow enough to attend to details, to the cotton wool of daily life, to moments of being, to epiphanies, to fragments shored against ruins, to marks on walls, flowers, images and smells that memory brings from distant times and places.

In the idiom of Woolf’s snail, the early Hogarth draws its readers’ attention to an eccentric, marginal and extraordinary vision that necessitates a reading slow enough to digest and savor millions of surrounding lives.

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woolf_callforentriesNow is the time to get creative with paper, paint, scissors and ephemera. This year, a juried exhibition of small works on paper will be part of the 25th Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf, and the deadline for entries is April 20.

Works on paper (15” x 11” or smaller) in all traditional and experimental visual arts media, including photography, will be considered for the international exhibition, titled “Mark on the Wall,” which announces the opening of the Greenly Art Gallery at Bloomsburg University. Awards will be presented at the opening reception for the conference, which will be held June 4-7 at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, Pa.

Details are available online, along with the exhibition Call for Entries as a PDF.


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Many musicians have been inspired by Virginia Woolf. Here are two more.

  1. Right here in the U.S. of A., the Seattle band Modest Mouse got its name from a passage in Woolf’s story “The Mark on the Wall.” Here’s how it reads: “I wish I could hit upon a pleasant track of thought, a track indirectly reflecting credit upon myself, for those are the pleasantest thoughts, and very frequent even in the minds of modest, mouse-coloured people, who believe genuinely that they dislike to hear their own praises.”

    Modest Mouse

  2. And in Italy, the eclectic band Talismanstone counts Woolf as one of many inspirations for its lyrics. The group hails from Ravenna.

Here are links to other music with a connection to Woolf. They are also listed in the right sidebar under the heading “Music.”

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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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Plug and play. That’s all you have to do to listen to the words of Virginia Woolf. Just as long as you have $40 or $50 to spend.

The Playaway Audiobook comes pre-loaded with digital content, earbuds and a battery, is half the size of a pack of cards and holds the audio for an entire book.

Despite its convenience, these items are too expensive for my budget. But they might come in handy for you some day. They are available on Amazon.com and on the Cleveland company’s website.

Many titles are available, including these by or about Virginia Woolf:

  • Mrs. Dalloway
  • To the Lighthouse
  • Classic Women’s Short Stories – by Kate Chopin, Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf
  • Best of Women’s Stories, Vol. 2 – by Virginia Woolf; Jane Austen; Mary Shelley; L.M. Montgomery; Elizabeth Gaskell; Winifred Holtby; Katherine Mansfield; Kate Chopin
  • Virginia Woolf in 90 Minutes by Paul Strathern

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