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Archive for the ‘Woolf in Contemporary Fiction’ Category

The Last Day of Virginia Woolf. That’s one of the proposed titles for Elfrida Wing’s next novel in English writer William Boyd’s Trio, a romp that takes place on a Brighton film set in 1968.

Elfrida, the director’s wife, is one of three protagonists whose stories are related in alternating chapters of Boyd’s novel.

An alcoholic and ten years past her last success, she was dubbed “the new Virginia Woolf” when her first novel was touted as a modern reworking of Mrs. Dalloway. She’s haunted by Woolf, doesn’t even like her novels, was “underwhelmed” by Mrs. Dalloway.

“She could see no similarity between her spirit, intellect and style as a novelist and Virginia Woolf’s. And that was why she stopped writing, she supposed. It was all Virginia Woolf’s fault.”

A revelation about Woolf’s final day

Then one day, even before her first drink, she has a revelation to write about Woolf’s final day. At a bookstore she asks for a biography and is told there isn’t one, as “Nobody’s much interested in that Bloomsbury set.”

The bookseller mentions A Writer’s Diary, which is out of print, but he tracks down a copy for her. She also buys a pamphlet, Virginia Woolf’s East Sussex, by a local author.

This is before the Woolf revival, before the published diary and letters and Quentin Bell’s biography. Elfrida’s agent is skeptical of the project: “She’s a bit passe, no?” But she’s undeterred.

In Rodmell she walks down the lane to Monks House, “trying to summon up the spirit of Virginia Woolf—and failing.” Peering over the wall from the churchyard, she sees “an ancient man in a beige linen jacket and panama hat deadheading dahlias.”

After he confirms that this was Virginia Woolf’s house, she asks when he came there. When he says “1919,” she says “Ah. You must be Mr. Leonard Woolf.”

She tells him she’s a novelist herself, often compared to Woolf, and wants to write about in Woolf’s final hours.  He bids her good day and stomps back to the house.

At the pub she reads Woolf’s last diary entry, thinks haddock and sausage a disgusting mixture, but she’s inspired: “She would gain a ‘certain hold’ on Virginia Woolf and her last day—and thereby kick-start her own career into life again—by writing it down.”

Making sport of Woolf

Boyd loves to make sport of Virginia Woolf. Rereading To the Lighthouse, Elfrida recalls how much she disliked it, “with its footling detail and its breathy, neurasthenic apprehension of the world, all tingling awareness and high-cheekboned sensitivity.”

When Boyd dissed Woolf in Any Human Heart, he said that it was because he’d taught her and specifically Lighthouse too long. But he considered her diary and letters her best writing, a bias I share.

And so it goes, plots and subplots and overflowing wackiness, a great read to take you out of yourself and the grim present.

Take a look at a YouTube video of Boyd discussing his 2021 novel Trio, which features three people with separate lives and secrets.

I try to push my fiction so far into the real that readers begin to suspect its fictive status. – William Boyd

 

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Sigrid Nunez is most known to Woolfians for Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury, her 1998 (and reissued in 2019) fictional portrait of the Woolfs’ pet monkey, inspired by Flush, Virginia Woolf’s similar treatment of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog.

Bloomsbury makes a brief appearance in her new novel, What Are You Going Through, a series of musings, meetings and memories. The nameless narrator follows some anecdotes about the divisions between women and men by reflecting that while she doesn’t like romance fiction, she’s fascinated by stories of unconventional or hopeless love. She imagines a collection of these tales, called Women in Strange Love.

She considers Dora Carrington’s unrequited love and devotion to Lytton Strachey, her marriage to Ralph Partridge and their lopsided ménage à trois to accommodate Lytton’s passion for Ralph. She recaps Carrington’s suicide two months after Lytton’s death. Virginia Woolf visited Carrington the day before and recounted that she said, “There is nothing left for me to do; I did everything for Lytton.” Woolf’s parting impression of Carrington was “Like some small animal left.”

“Women’s stories are often sad stories,” observes the narrator.

Nunez novel reflects on women’s lives—friendship, aging and death—in the context of the narrator’s response to a friend with terminal cancer. The title is a translation from Simone Weil, who said that love of one’s neighbor is being able to ask the question, Que lest ton tourment?

 

 

 

 

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In fiction and in verse, Virginia Woolf continues to be recognized, referenced, and revered. How is it that the mention of her name or a subtle allusion to her work conjures instant identification and understanding, not just by writers or scholars, but by readers of all kinds. Here are two recent sightings.

Weather sighting

In Jenny Offill’s latest novel, Weather, she conveys her ideas and story in fragments that merge into a cohesive whole. Here’s her narrator, Lizzie, a university librarian:

“I do have one bookish superstition about my birthday. I like to see what Virginia Woolf said about an age in her diaries before I reach it. Usually it’s inspiring.”

She then quotes from Volume 3 of Woolf’s Diary about life being “if anything, quicker, keener at 44 than 24….”

Zooming in on poetry

A couple of weeks ago I had the good fortune to participate in a Zoom workshop with poet and essayist Natasha Sajé, after which I bought Vivarium, her poetic abecedary teeming with word play.

An entry for the letter “B” is the witty and wise “Beauty Secrets, Revealed by the Queen in Snow White.” The advice includes “Pace yourself for 35-55” and “Brace yourself for 55-85,” and this:

“Embrace a stash and a place, Virginia wrote, 80 years ago.”

Happy reading to all who are hunkered down in this time of sheltering at home.

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An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine is described as “a nuanced rendering of one woman’s life in the Middle East.”

The author writes from the point of view of his reclusive septuagenarian Lebanese narrator, Aaliya, who muses on literature and philosophy as she manages her increasingly challenging life. A translator working from English and French into Arabic, Aaliya discourses at length about her work and the nuances and difficulties of translation, including a mixed assessment of Constance Garnett’s translations of the Russians.

Noting that Margaret Yourcenar translated Virginia Woolf’s The Waves into French, Aaliya the critic says, “I can’t bring myself to read her translation.” Later, she talks about projects she might yet undertake: “I can translate Mrs. Dalloway. I’ll spend that famous day inside Clarissa’s head as she prepares to host the party. Or work on A Room of One’s Own in a soggy apartment of my own.”

Further linking this novel with Woolf, Stacey Goldring, the creator of NPR’s Chapter Endnotes, remarks that “Aaliya is Clarissa. Beirut is her London. Virginia Woolf’s protagonist leaves her place to run errands to prep for a party. Aaliya has to escape her apartment in order to avoid a neighbor’s knock.”

 

 

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Lynnette Beers is a Woolf scholar and enthusiast who teaches British literature and creative writing at Santiago Canyon College in Orange, Calif. So it’s no surprise that Virginia Woolf would make an appearance in Lynnette’s first novel, Just Beyond the Shining River

Woolf introductions

The protagonist, Gemma Oldfield, discovers a cache of letters spanning six decades at the cottage of her recently-deceased grandmother in the East Midlands village of Moulton. The letters disclose family secrets with ever-widening ramifications across generations. The story balances between the past, as revealed by Gemma in the letters, and the present, as she grapples with crises and discoveries in her own life.

Epigraphs from Moments of Being and The Waves introduce each of three sections and help to establish themes of remembrance and change, resolve and renewal. Within the letters themselves, Mary, their author, tells Emily, Gemma’s grandmother, that “I find myself one of the lucky ones to have actually met Mrs. Woolf years ago.” In another Mary writes about an article she’s researching about suicides by drowning, specifically Mary Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf.

Sense of place

What I enjoyed most, though, was an ever-present sense of place. Lynnette brings London to life throughout the novel. As in Woolf’s own work, I was able to visualize so many scenes and sites, the Chelsea neighborhood of Gemma’s friend, their walks along the Embankment, back lanes of Soho, and more. But it was the story’s frequent surprises, its twists and turns—both Gemma’s and her grandmother’s—that kept me turning the pages.

Just Beyond the Shining River grew out of Lynnette’s MFA thesis, and involved extensive time and research in England. It has been selected as a finalist in the debut novel category for the “Goldie” awards of the Golden Crown Literary Society, which recognizes and promotes lesbian literature. Congratulations to Lynnette Beers!

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