Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Visiting Gore Vidal

In the summer of 1980, at the Edinburgh Writers’ Conference, precursor of the present festival, I was introduced to Gore Vidal as the editor of the New Edinburgh Review. “And how is Lord Jeffrey?” Vidal asked as he took my hand, referring to the first editor (1803–29) of the Edinburgh Review. “The wide eyes were alive with humour and so was the smiling mouth”, in the words of the memoir by the Austrian aristocrat Cecilia Sternberg, quoted, along with other passages in praise of himself, in Vidal’s memoir, Palimpsest. I was suitably charmed. Interviewed onstage, he answered questions with the amusing acerbity expected of him. When I included in my report for the TLS a characteristic witticism about Anthony Burgess (also present at the conference) writing for “an imaginary readership”, Vidal wrote a letter without smiling mouth to the Editor to deny that he had said any such thing. “How could I? I am part of Burgess’s audience and although I am often grotesquely imagined, I am not imaginary.”

I was chastened but puzzled. The joke had been repeated by more than one member of a delighted audience. After reading Sympathy for the Devil, I realize that I was not alone in being subject to the master’s morning-after revisionism. It was probably only Vidal’s affection for the TLS, to which at the time he was a regular contributor, that restrained him from instructing his lawyers to settle the potentially damaging calumny. (How could severed relations with Burgess harm him? But he would find a way.) In 2007, as Michael Mewshaw relates, the London Review of Books repeated a libel that had been originally issued in print many years earlier by Truman Capote who alleged that “a drunken Vidal had been bodily heaved from the White House by Bobby Kennedy”. After much expensive wrangling, Capote, a former friend of the wounded party, was obliged to pay damages and apologize, even though Vidal was often paralytically drunk and admitted in Palimpsest that Robert Kennedy “hated” him more than almost anyone. When the LRB repeated the story in the context of a review, Vidal instructed Mewshaw to contact the paper “and threaten that if it didn’t publish a retraction and an apology, he would sue and ruin it financially” – a reckless threat but not an empty one; Vidal knew how much more smoothly the path of libel runs in Britain than in the US. As he tells the story here, Mewshaw sighed but carried out instructions, assuming that Inigo Thomas, the author of the article,

“wouldn’t object to setting the record straight. But I assumed wrong and came to recognize how often Gore must have suffered the same maddening runaround I experienced. If he was cantankerous and confrontational, it might have had something to do with the smugness of the opposition ranged against him. When I rang the London Review of Books, I got bounced from department to department, person to person, each of whom listened with palpable indifference to Vidal’s complaint”.

Eventually, after more muddying of the waters – “I should have made it clear that there are differing versions of Vidal’s evening at the White House”, Thomas first wrote – the magazine printed an apology. Another victim of Vidal’s litigious whimsy was Edmund White, who in 2007 wrote a play, Terre Haute, about the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh, with whom Vidal had corresponded. White incorporated a character based on the elder writer under a different name, having gained Vidal’s permission to do so. When the play came to be produced on BBC Radio, according to White, Vidal threatened to sue.

Read more >>>

Monday, 23 March 2015

Beckett in Love

The Swiss tennis champion Stan Wawrinka has the words “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” tattooed in blue ink on the inside of his left forearm. The lachrymose ending of Israel Horovitz’s recent movie My Old Lady has Kevin Kline paying his respects at a tombstone on which are engraved the words “If you do not love me I shall not be loved.” The first of these quotations is from Samuel Beckett’s late prose piece Worstward Ho, the second from his 1936 poem “Cascando.”
In their original contexts, they do not work quite so well as motivational mottoes or sentimental consolations. “Fail better” (which I recently saw on a recruitment advertisement for a financial services company) is followed a few lines later by a reminder that, for Beckett, the phrase is an exhortation, not to keep trying until you succeed but to keep failing until you fail completely: “Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good.” This doesn’t quite work on an athlete’s arm. As for “If you do not love me I shall not be loved,” it is quickly followed by another bout of verbal nausea:
the churn of stale words in the heart again
love love love thud of the old plunger
pestling the unalterable
whey of words
We are unlikely to see that on a Valentine’s Day greeting card anytime soon.
Beckett loved tennis and his sense of humor might have been gratified by the joke that contemporary culture is playing on him, making his enactments of futility themselves futile by reading them as cheerleaders’ chants. And he would have recognized the ironies involved in this transformation of wretchedness into celebration, for he faced them in his own lifetime, not least in the years after the utterly unexpected success of Waiting for Godot in the mid-1950s, which brought him money and fame. Success was not what Beckett had bargained for: his compact with the Muses stipulated that he must embrace, as his biographer James Knowlson summarizes, “poverty, failure, exile, and loss.” Instead of failing better, he was now succeeding worse.
The feeling of abandonment from which he had written (between 1947 and 1950)GodotMolloyMalone Dies, and The Unnamable—the knowledge that no one greatly cared what he wrote or why—was now impossible. In 1948, he could write, with typically self-wounding humor, to his agent George Reavey in London that “I am now retyping, for rejection by the publishers, Malone Meurt.” In a revealing homage to his Paris publisher Jérôme Lindon, appended to a letter of June 1962, Beckett reveals that he was, indeed, on the cusp of abandoning writing altogether before Lindon accepted his great novel Molloy for publication in 1950: “It would have taken only this last little no thank you for me finally to see that that was it.”
By 1957, when the third volume of Cambridge’s wonderful edition of his letters begins, Beckett is famous and “these bastards of journalists” and “those bastards of critics” (as he calls them in a letter to Alan Schneider) are working over his case. Beckett was acutely conscious that however much he would “refuse to be involved in exegesis of any kind,” he already had by then a public image. He agonized about becoming, as it were, Beckettian and longed for those days of utter hopelessness and utter freedom. As he wrote to his American publisher Barney Rosset in November 1958:
I feel I’m getting more and more entangled in professionalism and self-exploitation and that it would be really better to stop altogether than to go on with that. What I need is to get back into the state of mind of 1945 when it was write or perish. But I suppose no chance of that.
Three days later he returned to the same theme:
The only chance for me now as a writer is to go into retreat and put a stop to all this fucking élan acquis [momentum] and get back down to the bottom of all the hills again, grimmer hills…[than] in 45 of cherished memory and far less than then to climb with, i.e. nice proportions. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s definitely the only last worth trying to pant as far as I’m concerned. So if all goes well no new work for a long time now, if ever.
He repeated this image of getting “back to nothing again and the bottom of all the hills again like before Molloy or else call it a day” to his radio producer (and subsequently his lover) Barbara Bray a few days later. Later again he writes to Bray, in a beautiful summary of his aesthetic, about trying and failing “to find the rhythm and syntax of extreme weakness, penury perhaps I should say.”
These protestations, admittedly, cannot be taken quite at face value. The joke on his own hopes of failing better in the letters to Rosset—if all goes well, he will write nothing—is by no means new.
Long before Beckett feared entanglement in the nets of fame and “self-exploitation,” he could always find other reasons both to be disgusted with his writing and to believe that the worse it got the better it would be in the end. In 1933, when still obscure, he wrote to his friend Thomas MacGreevy: “I find it more and more difficult to write and I think I write worse and worse in consequence. But I have still hopes of its all coming in a gush like a bloody flux.”
By the time we find him in his post-Godot agonies Beckett was, moreover, very good at being Beckettian, at playing on, and playing up to, the image he has created. The great delight of this new volume of letters, indeed, is in the hilarity of Beckett’s acting out for his correspondents a version of himself close to the misfortunate characters that populate his work. When an admirer sends him two dozen monogrammed handkerchiefs, he becomes Hamm in Endgame, who refers to his handkerchief as an “old stancher”: “I have received two dozen old stanchers; I shall have to start crying again.” He gives Rosset a wonderfully deadpan account of standing on a street corner in London after a lunch with Charles Monteith and Peter du Sautoy of Faber and Faber. While they praisedKrapp’s Last Tape as “frightfully funny,”
I was calculating with anguish the chances of my bladder’s holding out to the only public lavatory known to me in the West End, viz. in the Piccadilly Underground (it did almost).
The “almost” is as delicious in its comic catastrophe as anything in Godot. So is his description to Bray of mundane futility: “I go out to look for something to do in the garden. Yesterday I mowed the grass which did not need to be mown. Perhaps to day with rain threatening I shall water it.” And there is his similar image of himself, written to Jacoba van Velde, as a Sisyphus with a garden spade: “I would like to spend two months in the country digging holes, filling up each one as I go with the earth from the next one.”
He plays up his own bodily afflictions: “I was always a great one for cysts.” He delights in the deadliness of his physician (“You wouldn’t get through one day of his prescription,” he mock-boasts to Bray) and hopes those same afflictions might kill him off: “Perhaps in this way I shall succeed in dying before an operation becomes necessary.” He comes up with a doubly miserable topographical coinage to describe his mood, combining the flatness of the polders—low-lying land—with the becalmed doldrums and claiming to be in “the poldrums.” He imagines a character for his next work: “Says nothing, just howls from time to time.” He pretends to be so fed up with writing that he finds himself “wishing I had complied with my father’s wishes and gone into Guinness’s Brewery.”
Read more >>>

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Hermann Hesse: In the Fog

It's strange to wander in the fog!
A lonely bush, a lonely stone,
No tree can see the other one,
And one is all alone.

The world was full of friends back then,
As life was light to me;
But now the fog has come,
And no one can I see.

Truly, no one is wise,
Who does not know the dark
Which inevitably and silently
Does from others him part.

It's strange to wander in the fog!
Life is loneliness
No Man knows the other one,
And one is all alone.

The Letters of Virginia Woolf

Six volumes of real genius boiled down into 1,500 words of solid prose!" she spluttered in 1905 over the task of writing a review article about Jane Carlyle's letters. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann, the editors of "The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume I," announce their intent to issue a total of six volumes of her letters in six years, at the end of which the reviewer will face a similarly impossible task, for Virginia Woolf bids fair to be remembered as a great letter-writer as well as a novelist and critic.

Not all, by any means, of the letters in the present volume are pure gold, but the wonderful ones she writes about her work, mostly to women friends, when in her twenties and beginning to be a professional writer, give us a new Virginia Woolf - not without tears (tragic family deaths and mental breakdowns fill these years) but without Bloomsbury.

To be exact, these are the letters of Virginia Stephen, literary spinster, in her first 30 years fro 1888 when she was 6 to 1912 when she married Leonard Woolf. They read like a drama which seesaws emotionally from the heights to the depths, from brilliance to numb boredom, for Virginia Stephen was intermittently mad, not steadily neurotic. A surprising strength of character emerges from these letters. She fights with renewed force, after each collapse, for her independence as a woman and a writer from the spreading web of family and social connections that binds her down.

From a sanitarium in 1910 she writes her sister on mad-lucid letter which is funny and harrowing: "Miss Bradbury is the woman you saw out of the window and said was homicidal [sic]. I was very kind with her at dinner, but she then put me to bed, and is a trained nurse." Ordinarily her bouts of madness are indicated by a gap in the letters; they appear triggered by periods of grief and physical strain, such as the ordeal of her father's last illness which she reports in daily bulletins to Violet Dickinson, an old family friend, in 1904. "Oh my Violet," she writes from abroad after Leslie Stephen's death, in a letter which in its punctuation as in its anguish announces the onset of a breakdown, "if you could only find me a great solid bit of work to do when I get back that will make me forget my own stupidity - I should be so grateful. I must work." The idea seems not to have occurred to any of Virginia Stephen's male relations, or to the fashionable doctors whose blunders dogged her life.

More than half the letters in this volume are addressed to Violet Dickinson, a woman of aristocratic connections and wide social circle who is remembered as the editor (in 1919) of Emily Eden's letters. A lifelong spinster (she was over six feet tall) and world traveler, she was 13 years older than Virginia, who sometimes called her "Aunt" and, in the earliest letters, wrote her in a language of cuddly affection which reminds us, that Virginia was a motherless child from the age of 13.

Violet Dickinson gave far more than affection. She nursed Virginia at her Welwyn home through her suicidal depression in the summer of 1904, and then introduced her to the women's editor of The Guardian and to Nellie Cecil. The Guardian assigned Virginia books to review and published her first writing; with Nellie Cecil (a professional critic, as will as daughter and wife of peers - her nephew is Lord David Cecil) she collaborated on a literary column for The Cornhill. From then until her marriage, Virginia Woolf was a hard-working literary journalist; she adored it.

This is the new act of her life that opens in the letters at the end of 1904 - and it is the act that most surprises. We have always been told that what happened to Virginia Stephen in 1904 was her immersion in the "Bloomsbury" circle which began to form around the Gordon Square home she shared with her sister Vanessa, and to which her brother Thoby brought his brilliant Cambridge friends; that Virginia's intellectual sophistication 20th-century sensibility and literary life took root in the masculine Blooms bury atmosphere.

But her letters do not say so. It may be true, as the editors write, that meeting Clive Bell in 1904 was "a turning-point in Virginia's life" because "she had discovered a type of friend and conversation that she most enjoyed." But whatever their evidence may be, it is not in these letters. "He is clever, and cultivated - more taste, I think, than genius." Was her opinion of Clive Bell in 1906, just before he married her sister Vanessa; an opinion that history has seconded.

What mattered most was her own work. Her desk filled with books - Keats, James, Christina Rossetti, Flaubert and the novel a week The Times Literary Supplement sent her to review; she was starting her own sketches and fiction; she was teaching; she was earning money. She writes to Nellie Cecil with charming professional briskness - my English being valuable - about a farthing, every 10 words, I should say." She encourages Madge Vaughan to get on with her novel, in spite of a household of young children. She sends her manuscripts to Violet Dickinson for encouragement, and shares with her joy in solitude and work.

So bubbling with busy happiness are these letters that, reading them, we brace ourselves for the bubble's burst, for the next tragedy - Thoby's death of typhoid in November 1907 - that is to set off Virginia's next collapse. Astonishingly, heartbreakingly, the buoyant mood of her letters to Violet Dickinson persists will into 1908. Virginia turned all her strength (much diminished by the effort of nursing) and all her imagination as a writer to cheerful, chatty lying about Thoby' recovery; for Violet, who lay ill of typhoid at Welwyn, could not be told the truth.

Perhaps the effort of will - the effort of attending to the imperative need of others (which seems to have no parallel in her earlier or later life) warded off her own collapse. Virginia's next breakdown did not come until 1910; then she threw herself into work for Woman's Suffrage - rather grimly, for she did not care for the middle-class people and the Jews she met among the feminists.

Between 25 and 30 Virginia Stephen seems to age, and not attractively. Bloomsbury men cluster around her and several propose; she struggles through the work of G.E. Moore, the second-rate Cambridge philosopher who was the Bloomsbury mentor; she attends the Post-Impressionist exhibit organized by Clive Bell and Roger Fry without evident enthusiasm. The letters grow shrill, lifeless, and filled with nasty, sometimes lewd gossip about uninteresting people with sill nicknames - all very old-maidish. Is this perhaps the Bloomsbury tone?

There is a great life of happiness at the end of vilume, brought by the successful, whirlwind courtship of Leonart Woolf. Why did she marry her "penniless Jew"? This is the question most readers will open this volume to discover. Hew was not a homosexual, not a poseur, not a pendant. "He spent 7 years in Ceylon," she wrote Madge Vaughan, "governing natives, inventing ploughs, shooting tigers...He interests me immensely..." Virginia seems to have played Desdemona to Woolf's Othello, but with a difference, for he was giving up his career as colonial administrator for the chance to marry her, he was writing his own novel, and most of all, as she wrote Violet Dickinson, "L. thinks my writing the best part of me" and "L. wants me to say that if I cease to write when married, I shall be divorced."

Read more >>>

Friday, 20 March 2015

A tale of two tongues - Hugo Hamilton's memoir The Speckled People

Anyone setting out to write about their Irish childhood should have in mind Roy Foster's gleefully ferocious attack on the Frank McCourt school of bestselling, cliché-ridden "miserable Irish-Catholic childhoods" written with "an utter lack of distinguished style". They will also be conscious of the glittering weight of more distinguished predecessors in Irish autobiography, from Yeats and Shaw to Elizabeth Bowen, Louis MacNeice, Sean O'Faolain, Frank O'Connor and Patrick Kavanagh.

Hugo Hamilton's The Speckled People triumphantly avoids the Angela's Ashes style of sentimental nostalgia and victim claims, and stands up well in the mighty, unending competition for most memorable Irish life-story. It does not subtitle itself a memoir (though the blurb calls it one), and it's not a straightforward reminiscence. More like the early pages of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist, it's shaped like a fiction, told, as if naively, in the language of a child.

It incorporates in passing, but often without much annotation, a complex web of allusions to literature, politics and history. One example: the father admires Cardinal Stepinac, who he thinks "should be made into a saint". This refers to the exposure by Protestant nationalist writer Hubert Butler - very unwelcome to the Irish Catholic Church - of the wartime campaign in Croatia to forcibly convert half a million Orthodox Serbs to Catholicism. But Hamilton gives the story as he hears it from his father; it's up to us to provide the historical background.

Gradually, what the child-narrator sees and hears begins to turn into what he knows and understands - secrets, conflicts, histories, beliefs. It is a bold strategy, because it does so call Joyce to mind, but it pays off handsomely. This story about a battle over language and a defeat in "the language wars" is also a victory for eloquent writing, crafty and cunning in its apparent simplicity.

Hamilton grew up in Dublin in the 1950s and 1960s with his brother and sisters. His mother, Irmgard Kaiser, came from Kempen, a small town in Germany. Her father fought in the first world war, owned a stationery shop and died when she was nine. Her mother was an opera singer; there were five sisters. She and her family lived through terrible times under the Nazis and in the war she was abused and raped by her employer.

She left Germany to go on a pilgrimage in Ireland and stayed on. The man she married, Jack Hamilton - or Sean Ó hUrmoltaigh, as he renamed himself - belonged to a west Cork family, from Leap and Skibbereen, that beautiful country marked with a history of nationalism, poverty, famine, religion and emigration. His grandfather was an Irish-speaking Munster poet; but his father - wiped from the record by his son - served and died in the British Navy.

n engineer in Dublin, Jack Hamilton dedicated his life to the anti-British, nationalist cause, and above all to the rehabilitation of the Irish language. He went around the country in wartime, making speeches for Irish neutrality and the Irish tongue; after the war he married Irmgard as part of his plan for "bringing people from other countries over to Ireland". He belonged to a group called Aiseirí (Irish for "resurrection"), whose publications were anti-semitic as well as anti-British. He campaigned for changing Dublin's street-names into Irish, and he sent his children to Irish-language schools. They were to be his "weapons" in the language wars. If they spoke English at home, he beat them.

"He says 'Irish people drink too much and talk too much and don't want to speak Irish, because it stinks of poverty and dead people left lying in the fields... The Irish language reminds them of the big famine when they had nothing to eat except the old poems in Irish... One day the Irish people will wake up and wonder if they're still Irish,' he says. And that's why it's important not to bring bad words like fruitgum into the house."

No English-speaking school-friends are allowed in; the great wave of Anglo-American music pulsing through the world in the 1960s stops at their front door. When the children come home wearing poppies on Armistice Day, they are ripped from their coats and hurled into the fire: only shamrock badges are allowed, on St Patrick's Day. This angry, determined, fanatical character is, in the end, stung to death by his own bees: a story so metaphorically apt, and told with such power, that it reads more like a Greek myth than a piece of history.

The children wear Lederhosen and Aran sweaters. They speak German and Irish at home, but their mother doesn't speak Irish. Outside, where the Dubliners all speak English, they are mocked and bullied by the other children as "Nazis". On their visits to the German sisters (warmly invoked), they compare Ireland and Germany. When they go to the Gaeltacht in Connemara, where everyone speaks Irish, they talk about the state of the Irish language - and the English prose of the book moves into lyrical rhythms, a kind of Synge-song: "All of us dreaming and sheltering from the words, speaking no language at all, just listening to the voice of the rain falling and... the water [whispering] along the roadside like the only language allowed."

Inside the Dublin house, there is a war going on between the father and the mother over intolerance and violence, and between the father and his children over language and beliefs. Both parents draw parallels between the British colonisation of Ireland and the Nazis' treatment of the Jews. Both insist on the relation between "language" and "home", and it's that link that makes the deepest story of the book. "My father says your language is your home and your country is your language and your language is your flag." Their mother tells them of all the exiles in the world: "Homesick people carry anger with them in their suitcases. And that's the most dangerous thing in the world, suitcases full of helpless, homesick anger."

Read more >>>

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Dutch Courage: The letters of Vincent Van Gogh

"The uglier, older, meaner, iller, poorer I get, the more I wish to avenge myself by doing brilliant colour, well arranged, resplendent." So wrote Vincent Van Gogh from Arles to his sister Willemien in September 1888, describing the exhilarating joy of painting sunflowers, the night sky, and the cottages and fishing boats of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

He had just painted a self-portrait "in ashy tones against a pale Veronese background", a subject chosen, he told his brother Theo, "for want of a model". He looks ill and ageing, his red hair receding, his face sunken (he had lost many teeth, probably through poor diet), his cheekbones gaunt and jutting, and his expression grim. Yet the brilliance of the colour and the intensity of the brushwork are vibrant with triumphant life. This portrait is but one example of the paradox of his laborious and painful struggle to emerge from the darkness to the light: an epic pilgrimage, tracked and documented by letters, letter sketches and drawings, many on show at the Royal Academy in London.

The mantra of his early years was a quotation from 2 Corinthians 6:10 - "sorrowful, yet always rejoicing" - which is scattered through the first two volumes of this extraordinarily interesting correspondence, recently published by Thames & Hudson. Most of it is directed to his younger brother Theo, with whom he had a mutually supportive relationship. A cursory browse may give the impression that Vincent was always asking for financial help, for rent and materials (as he was), but a closer reading reveals deep affection, shared values, and a strong desire to cheer and help Theo through illness, career difficulties and sexual disasters.

At times Vincent wrote almost daily, describing his life teaching and preaching in England, and later his work in various unaccommodating lodgings in the Netherlands. The darkness drove him to read and to write, as he could not draw or paint in the long evenings. He wrote about his admiration for George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Keats, Charlotte Brontë and Harriet Beecher Stowe. (Another of his favourite quotations was Christina Rossetti's "Does the road wind uphill".) He also devoured Balzac, Hugo and, as they appeared, the novels of Zola and Maupassant. (Gauguin was to tell him he read too much.)

His letters at this period were enriched with sketches of men digging and sowing (after his hero Millet), of women miners carrying sacks of coal, of pollarded willows, of old men ("old orphans") sitting worn out by the fireside, of women peeling potatoes. It is a dark world of hard rural labour, in dark tones, sanctified in his own eyes by a sense of religious humility. He was moved by the old, the gnarled, the destitute, even by the broken-down cab horse, to which he often likened himself. The poor, he believed, would inherit the earth.

Vincent's father was a minister who came to disapprove of his son's unworldly biblical evangelism, and even more strongly of his relationships with women - first, his unrequited love for a widowed cousin, and then his attachment to Sien, a pregnant former prostitute, with whom he lived at The Hague from 1882-83 and who worked as his model. Models were expensive, as he mentioned throughout his career, but he preferred to work from them than from the imagination. (This was to become a subject of aesthetic debate with Gauguin and Émile Bernard.) His relationship with the only models that he could afford must have affected his artistic vision, and he writes about it with compassion, occasional irritation, and some distress. But when his strikingly powerful portrait L'Arlésienne (1888) was admired, he said: "praise the model, not the painter".

Sien was one of the few who posed naked for him, most memorably as "Sorrow", 1882: on the whole he preferred to paint people with their well-worn work clothes on, because, as he said, "that's how we usually see them". He looked after Sien (with Theo's support, and eventually his father's tacit acceptance) and her two children, and his heavily illustrated letters describing efforts to make his studio functional, homely and habitable are touching. So is his affection for Sien's baby: he sent a sketch showing the infant crawling across the studio floor (Adventurer sallying forth, 1883) to his painter friend Anthon van Rappard.

Read more >>>

When Virginia found her Rachel?

Virginia Woolf made her TLS debut in March 1905, when she was just twenty-three, with a review of two “pilgrimage” books by F. G. Kitton – one concerning “Thackeray Country”, the other “Dickens Country”. “A writer’s country is a territory within his own brain”, Woolf wrote confidently. “No city indeed is so real than this that we make for ourselves and people to our liking”.

These comments came about five years before Woolf started work on The Voyage Out, her debut novel, published in March 1915, whose 100th birthday we mark in the latest episode of TLS Voices. (We’re joined by Hermione Lee, who needs no introduction here.)

* * *

Woolf’s novel is a pilgrimage work of a different order, the journey at its core being one of self-discovery rather than the discovery of any other. This accounts, as Lee explains, for the book’s arduous progress: though it was not published until 1915, when Woolf was thirty-three, the novelist had been struggling with it since at least 1910.

During this fraught period, Woolf continued to review regularly for the TLS, writing some 100 pieces, mainly on debut novels. She also reviewed the work of established writers, however, including The Longest Journey by E. M. Forster (“Where are the connexions? Sometime the short cut succeeds and sometimes it fails . . . . The method is clearly dangerous") and The Sentimental Traveller by Vernon Lee (“It is perhaps, the confession of a narrow spirit, but have we not heard a little too much lately about this pervasive Genius Loci?”). In Forster’s A Room with a View, meanwhile, she recognized “that odd sense of freedom which books give us when they seem to represent the world as we see it”.

Her responses to the material she was reviewing tell us something, perhaps, about where she was up to in her own writing. Indeed, it is possible that, in reviewing a biography by Francis Gribble of the great French actress Rachel Félix (TLS, April 20, 1911), Woolf found a rich source of inspiration for her own protagonist, Rachel Vinrace. Certainly the two characters have a great deal in common, from their esoteric educations to their ambivalent opinions of the opposite sex; and both women are to a degree mixtures of fact and fabrication at the mercy of writers. The actress’s father was a pedlar and, as a child, Rachel “jolted about in the back of her father’s cart, and sang at street corners”; Woolf’s Rachel, meanwhile, sets sail for South America on a vessel belonging to her father, a commercial trader.

In her review of Rachel: Her stage life and her real life, Woolf is concerned with the shortcomings of biography: there is a tendency towards over-simplification and, ironically, type-casting – “La pauvre Rachel! That is the Leit-motif . . . .We can imagine [her] reading this exclaiming, ‘Poor thing! But I’m not a bit like that’, and going up to town as gay as ever”. Mr Gribble’s broad strokes daubed over “the secret of Rachel’s sadness”: for Woolf, that lay in having to “live the life of others and not my own” – a sentiment that may as well have been uttered by Woolf’s own Rachel aboard her father’s ship. (“But what, after all”, Woolf continues, “is one’s ‘own life’?”)

Both Rachels die out of wedlock. The actress, having had many lovers, “died of exhaustion at the age of thirty-seven, having kicked her body round the world, secured no permanent happiness, and outlived her success”. Woolf's Rachel never really got the chance.

Wresting Rachel back from Mr Gribble’s too-neat characterization, Woolf ventriloquizes the actress on her death bed: “I have not been one quarter as great as I might have been. I have talent, but I might have had genius”. (Compare this with the extraordinary passage read for us by Hermione Lee, which captures the Rachel of The Voyage Out, in the grip of typhoid fever; she is a woman curled up between life and death, to whom things are done rather than who does things herself.)

Read more >>>