Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Alain de Blotton Shows Excellent Taste

...which is to say, he agrees with me.  He says that Virginia Woolf is a better essayist than novelist.  The novels, he says, he "never got along with."  I wouldn't go quite that far: there are parts of Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse  that are superb.  As to the whole--well, I've been willing to assume that there is something going on there that the chromosomally challenged among us just destined never to figure out (actually I do like Orlando, but that is the one Virginia Woolf novel that the true believers treat as a kind of embarrassment). 

Some of Woolf's most enduring work is in her appreciations of other writers: her treatment of Defoe in The Common Reader is as generous and understanding as you are likely to find.  More is in her Diaries, so rich and capacious that it is hard to do them justice by excerpt.  And remarkably, some her best discursive writing is in the novels themselves, like the inimitable account of London in spring, which she offers up as she presents Mrs. Dalloway on a morning walk:
For having lived in  Westminster — how many years now? over twenty — one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.
With pages like tht, I don't think it matters whether the whole holds together or not.

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