Talland House

Virginia Woolf in “A Sketch of the Past” writes that the memoirs “leave out the person to whom things happen” (Woolf 5). What she means here, is that memoirs tend to focus more on the events than on the actual subject that experience them. As much as I understand her point, I cannot agree with her entirely. I believe that, in terms of memories, even if the subject is not discussed, it is reflected in the very way it remembers. Ironically, I realized that while writing about my memory of Talland House – the holiday house of Virginia’s family. This text was going on like that:

Have you ever read that fragment of „A sketch of the Past” by V. Woolf when she mentions her most important memory – hearing the waves while being in St. Ives? It not here it is:

(…) and in fact it is the most important of all my memories. If life has a base that it stand upon, if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills – then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory. It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed, in nursery at St. Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach… (Woolf 5).

This memory, it is believed, is also the source of Woolf’s most powerful water literary images, those from The Waves and To the Lighthouse. Several weeks ago I was reminded about this fragment while reading Frances Spalding’s work. Simultaneously, I was reminded of my visit to Talland House in May 2012. Having in mind the importance of St. Ives experience to Woolf’s writing, and especially the importance of this particular memory, how great was my disappointment when I finally reached the house. First of all, it is rather difficult to find it. There are no signposts leading us to Talland House since its present owners decided to rent it and probably do not wish hordes of visitors to disturb the tenants. Apparently, however, it is not a real obstacle for Woolf’s admirers who, according to the tenants we spoke with, visit the house anyway. Second of all, at the moment the house is surrounded by a bizarre, modern housing estate which, I suppose, completely block the view from the house. Third, it turned out, that Talland House is situated on the hill, almost miles from the beach which ruined my vision of the house I had from “A Sketch of the Past”. After I saw it I really started to wonder how far from the beach it was located in Woolf’s times. If the beach was where it is now, it seems absolutely impossible for me that she could hear the waves. This, in turn, brought me to a question whether her memory was real or was it a compilation of several different recollections.

And then I had a short discussion about our trip to St. Ives with M. Surprisingly, he claimed that, in fact, the house was really close to the beach and Woolf could definitely hear the waves. I was completely baffled by his recollections since it meant that my disappointment with this visit influenced the whole memory of it. Apparently, because it was so emotional to me, I made everything that was far from my original vision even further from it. On the other hand, it could be his recollection that was inaccurate. Nevertheless, both our attitudes towards this visit and Virginia Woolf were reflected in our memories of it. That is why I don’t think that writing about this memory I “left myself out”. Rather the opposite – in comparison “myself” became even more visible. However, the question remains who was right about the house. I guess it will stay unanswered until our next visit in St. Ives.

Virginia Woolf, “A Sketch of the Past”, The Virginia Woolf Reader, ed. Mitchel A. Leaska, Now York: Mariner Books, 1984.

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“Two Paths for the Novel” by Zadie Smith

Couple of weeks ago I read an article „Two Paths for the Novel” by Zadie Smith. Surprisingly, I found it really difficult to read but I wasn’t sure why. First, I thought it was because of the language (since English is not my mother tongue) but it wasn’t – I understood the words separately but I just could not make sense of them. After the second reading I realized that the fragments Smith used to justified her words were the problem. The article is a review of two novels – Netherland by Joseph O’Neil and Reminder by Tom McCarthy. However, it is not a typical review. Smith does in this text something I have not encountered before. I am used to the situation when the form of the novel reflects the character’s personality or the plot; the form becomes the content. In Smiths article, in a way, the content becomes the form. She bases her discussion about novels’ form on characters’ attitudes and choices. That is why I could not grasp the connection between her arguments and the quotations she used. Discussing Netherland, the example of lyrical Realism, she juxtaposes two protagonists : Hans – the anxious man and Chuck – the symbol of authenticity. Smith describes Hans as anxious since, on the one hand, he cannot stand one of the vice presidents nostalgia but, on the other hand, he does exactly the same thing – reminiscences about the past. Chuck, in turn, having no hesitations, communicates in almost Harlequin like quotations (“My motto is, Think Fantastic.”) Smith states:

“Chuck functions here as a kind of authenticity fetish, allowing Hans (and the reader) the nostalgic pleasure of returning to a narrative time when symbols and mottos were full of meaning and novels weren’t neurotic, but could aim themselves simply and purely at transcendent feeling”(Smith).

By mentioning the return to a narrative time, Smith transposes Hans and Chuck’s personalities into a discussion about narrative. She calls Netherland an anxious novel which uses lyrical Realism, yet, it is conscious of its limitations. Interestingly, she demonstrates this not through the anxiety between different narrative forms and styles (which are simply not there) but through a difference between protagonists’ personalities and approaches to life. This technique seemed slightly bizarre for me at the beginning; I wondered whether we can actually mix characters with the author’s narrative technique or even, in a way, let them comment on this technique. Finally, I came to a conclusion that it is another level of the author’s self-consciousness. He appears to comment on his writing not through the novel’s narrative but through the character’s personal narratives, their individual modes of communication. The author puts the discussion on realism and its limitations not in his mouth, or rather hands, but in the mouth of the protagonists. Interestingly, he doesn’t do it in a direct way, the characters don’t simply talk about realism. This discussion is represented in a mediated way through their ways of communication.

However, despite this rather unusual interpretative style, I cannot escape the conclusion that Smiths comes back to the problem debated intensively since, at least, modernism; the problem that, according to e.g. Gasiorek, does not really exist. He considers the dichotomy between realism and experimentalism as a false one, as ‘neither term can be taken for granted’ (Gasiorek 183) and both modes of writing are, in fact, interrelated since there are no solely experimental novels and realism no longer has the classic form based on transparency of language.

So, when I finally comprehended what the article is about, I asked myself : Do we really have go through this again? Really….?

Gasiorek, Andrzej, Post-war British Fiction, London: Edward Arnold, 1995.

Smith, Zadie, “Two Paths for the Novel”,
http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2008/nov/20/two-paths-for-the-novel/
[4th September 2014]

“Flaubert’s Parrot” by Julian Barnes

It is my ideal book. By saying that I do not mean that it is the best book in the world, kind of war-and-peace-or-crime-and-punishment masterpiece, because it is not. However, it contains everything I love in books. First of all, it is about another author – Gustave Flaubert. Since, apart from novels, I am a big fan of writer’s journals and biographies, I admire Barnes’ idea to put his own admiration for an author and knowledge which is a result of it into a novel. Second of all, this book, being written in 1984, is highly postmodern and metafictional. According to some critics, we no longer live in postmodernism and writing in this mode is passé. And I would have to agree with that but, despite my belief that postmodern techniques have probably petered away, I still find some of its examples interesting and entertaining. One of these examples is definitely Flaubert’s Parrot. In a way it comprises of two parallel stories. The first one is about Geoffrey Braithwaite – Flaubert’s expert who not only recalls his personal memories but also tells the account of Flaubert’s life – and this is the second story. Interestingly, these two parts are not separated; rather the opposite – they are meshed and one results from the other. However, what I find really attention-grabbing is the range of narrative techniques Barnes uses. There is a chronological biography told in three different versions, there is a dictionary, a bestiary, fragments of letters and journals and even parts of examination papers. I am not going to investigate why he actually chose these particular types of narrative. At some point in reading and writing about postmodern literature I realized that kind of choice is, most of the time, a consequence of writers’ inability-to-represent-the-complexity-of-our-reality-ble-ble-ble belief. I just think it is remarkable how efficient Barnes is in all these different styles of writing. Flaubert's parrot

And finally – his sense of humour. I have this old fashioned and rather naive habit of underlining quotes that somehow describe our experience in this world in a more general and objective way. I called it old fashioned since, considering aforementioned “inability to represent the complexity of our reality”, conveying this experience in words, not mention one sentence, is rather undoable; and if someone dares to do it, it comes out as rather Harlequin like. But that is not the case with Barnes. Because of his sense of humour, which I absolutely love, that kind of attempts to generalize world are funny, ironically true and close to reality. One of my favourite examples: “To be stupid, and selfish, and to have good health are the three requirements for happiness- though if stupidity is lacking, the others are useless” (Barnes 166-167). There is also a fantastic list of novels that should never be written again where Barnes ridicules the literary world he lives in. Point nine in the list reads:

There should be no more novels which are really about other novels. No “modern versions”, reworkings, sequels or prequels. No imaginative completions of works left unfinished on their author’s death. Instead, every writer is to be issued with a sampler in coloured wools to hang over the fireplace. It reads: Knit Your Own Staff (Barnes 99)

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Luckily, there is nothing about immensely interesting and dead funny books about other writers so I am waiting for another one of that kind. Not a reworking or a sequel, of course, since these are forbidden.

Barnes Julian, Flaubert’s Parrot, London: Vintage Books, 2009.

“Virginia Woolf. Art, Life and Vision” by Frances Spalding

This book became one of my favourite even before I read it. “Virginia Woolf. Art, Life and Vision” was first experienced by me in the form of an exhibition since its author, Francis Spalding, is the curator of the latest exposition on Virginia Woolf in the National Portrait Gallery.

VW

This July I was lucky enough to see it and be amazed by it. As an established admirer of art, life and vision of Virginia Woolf, I appreciated the informative scrupulousness with which the exhibition was prepared. I was absolutely moved seeing the very same walking stick she left on the shore before her last, tragic journey. However, the most important thing that this exhibition along with the book do, is making us realize that Virginia Woolf was actually a real person. Off course, both the exhibition and the book contain Wool’s portraits, those really well known by her sister Vanessa and those less popular by Roger Fry, but the real treasure here are the photographs. We see Virginia as a little girl with her parents or playing with her sister, we see her with Leonard and their dog, we see her photographed by Man Ray and we see her in 1938 – three years before her death. And suddenly she stops being a “ghost” behind the initials V.W. and behind the pages of novels or diaries – she becomes a person with flesh, who not only wrote books but actually lived. What is more, thanks to Spalding’s book we have this life at our fingerprints. It is like reading illustrated version of Woolf’s diaries. We learn about the author’s childhood, mental breakdowns, her work as a writer and as a social figure, the origins of Bloomsbury group, postimpressionism and Vanessa Bell’s art, the impact of war; and all this is accompanied by numerous photographs, paintings, letters, book covers, personal notes which, I believe, were not published before, definitely not in a form of a book. Importantly, Woolf’s life and work is put in a historical and cultural context what makes the work much more accessible for non-fans. However, regardless of your knowledge about Woolf and her writing, after reading Spalding’s work you will get to know Virginia but more as a person than as a writer; and exactly that’s why watch out for the last pages of this enthralling story. I am not saying anything more …. just watch out…

The exhibition available here.

“Pure Gold Baby” by Margaret Drabble

It has been a while …….. almost two years since my last entry; two years that I spent in a rather non literary world of work and where-do-I-live-right-now chaos.  I would like to say that the chaos is over but, to be honest, I really don’t know. That’s why I will try to control it by the routine of writing this blog. But that’s enough about me.

When I was thinking about returning here, I realized that the best topic for the first entry after such a long break should be my favourite author – Margaret Drabble. Luckily for me she has just published her seventeenth novel. I came to this book with extreme curiosity since after “The Seven Sisters” she claimed she would never write a novel again.  In fact, she stood by this decision for some time – her last work- “The Pattern in the Carpet”- was a semi-memoir. Fortunately for us – readers, she has changed her mind and wrote “The Pure Gold Baby”.

“Pure Gold Baby” is told to be the story of Anna – a disabled child; the story of Jess- a single mother who has to deal with her daughter’s disabilities and, finally, the story of our changing attitudes towards these disabilities. However, the novel can be discussed on a much broader level – the level  of otherness as such. Drabble has always been appreciated for her deep and analytical picture of society and she succeeds to do it again . She manages to create a vivid picture of society in which coping with otherness becomes one of the most distinctive features. What is more, Drabble herself copes with otherness in one of the most emphatic and beautiful ways.

Hayden White in “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact” to explain how historians make sense of the facts uses the term “emplotment” by which he understands “the encodation of facts contained in the chronicles as components of specific kinds of plot structures.” (White 1714) He refers to Northrop Frye and his historical myths (romantic, comic, tragic and ironic) which for the facts are a kind of case that provides them with sense. Obviously, in novel writing this process of emplotment is much more visible. However, the scope of this term, both in history and novel writing, is placed between two extremities. First one refers to authors who lead their readers resolutely through the narrative, giving them clear signals for the novel’s interpretation. The reader is then left with a rather narrow margin of freedom in terms of meaning of the text. In the the second one, in turn, the process of emplotment is not that visible,  the author does not impose his vision so strongly and gives the reader some space to manoeuvre. Drabble seems to prefer the second style of writing and often presents the text as kind of tabula rasa. She appears to be saying: ok here’s the story but it’s your job to make sense of it. Of course, it’s not possible to avoid a particular perspective and direction in which the novel goes, but her writing is so balanced and, I would even say, neutral, that the reader has a really vast scope for action in terms of interpretation. In case of “Pure Gold Baby”, Drabble’s style of narrative has one more function.  Because of its impartiality, it manages to present otherness as something completely normal, as day-to-day experience. What can be sensed in her writing is peacefulness instead of drama and steadiness instead of climax.

The novel starts with Jess’ memory of African children described as “Lobster-Claw”. Later the narrator reveals that they have syndrome called ectrodactyly or SHSF – split hand split foot. What is striking about this image is a rather positive resonance it provokes. Jess when looking at the little ones “felt a kind of joy, an inexplicable joy” (Drabble 1) and “the little children seemed indifferent to their deformity” (Drabble 2). Importantly, this vision reappears in the novel several times and becomes kind of leitmotif which shows the novel’s prevalent attitude towards otherness in which, as I have already mentioned, other is perceived as normal. Anna’s disabilities are described in a very polite and  a non-judgemantal manner:

She was, it is fair to say, a little uncoordinated, and was often clumsy. Sometimes she dropped things or knocked things over or split her juice. But what child does not? Her speech, perhaps was a little simple, with a tendency towards a repetition of phrases, sometimes meaningless, that appealed to her. (…) She never learnt to manage the dumpy little thick-wheeled red-and-yellow tricycle that the playgroup provided: she could not get the hang of pedalling. (Drabble 15)

Drabble seems quite sparing in the use of adjectives. In order to avoid judging, she presents facts rather than opinions. Another example of this specific kind of writing is a fragment presenting the conversionof one of the peripheral characters:

Ursula, he relates, had seen God when young. God had visited her in a shining light, from somewhere above the pelmet of her bedroom curtains (she was very precise about his location), and she had been converted. (Drabble 213)

The whole story is told by a third-person narrator from the perspective of one of Jess’ friends. The choice of that kind of narrative is another move that contributes to the aforementioned peacefulness and steadiness of the novel. The narrator describes the events from the outside what makes it possible to keep some distance and leave the drama behind.  However,  in this particular fragment, what is hidden behind the face of the third-person narrator, are the very words and thoughts of Ursula herself. Ursula’s vision, rather awkward and unrealistic, by the third-person narrative becomes much more objective and loses the traces of otherness.

“The birth of children such as Anna may become rarer year by year. And that would be a loss, though the nature of that loss is hard to describe. It is important to recognise it as loss, although we cannot describe it.” (Drabble 44) It seems that Drabble in “Pure Gold Baby” not only recognized the loss but also succeeded in describing it. With incredible empathy and tactfulness she created a picture of society in which coping with otherness becomes one of the most distinctive features. What is more, through her style of writing – balanced third-person narrative  based rather on facts than attitudes – Drabble manifested probably the most desirable attitude towards otherness; attitude that lacks exaggeration in which otherness equals normality.

 

Drabble Margaret, The Pure Gold Baby, London: Canongate, 2013.

White Hayden, “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact”, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticsm, ed. Vincent B. Leitch, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.

 

 

 

 

Eden Project – Cornwall (1)

China clay- that was the beginning of Eden Project . This global garden – the re-creation of microclimates of rainforest and Mediterranean- was build in the old china clay quarry near St Austell in Cornwall where I stayed last week. Eden Project happened to be the first place we visited and I have to admit it was quite an ambivalent experience; actually it was something like a semi-experience.  As much as I enjoyed wandering through  the paths of “rainforest” or “Mediterranean  coast”, I was constantly reminded I am not actually there. All the signposts that advised me to drink lots of water, to follow this particular route or the sky covered with a cosmic capsule were giving me the sense of some kind of parallel reality. It was like watching a live show through the lenses of a camcorder. However,  there was one thing that let me feel at home.

The Entrance to the Mediterranean Biome

This short poem of an unknown origin welcomes you when entering the Mediterranean gardens. Several other fragments of literarure are inscribed on walls or smal rocks laying on the soil like this fragment of T.S. Eliot “The Hollow Men”:

T.S. Eliot “The Hollow Men”

What I love about this idea is not only the fact that you can read these pieces of art being surrounded by beautufil landscapes- it is more the notion that literature is inscribed into the nature like the were coming from the same source…

Virginia Woolf and Autism

In February I wrote about Virginia Woolf and her attempt to go beyond words and literature. Recently,  I have come across a book titled Thinking in pictures: and other reports from my life with autism by Temple Grandin. I was captivated by these particular words:

I think in pictures. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full colour movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR type in my head. When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures. [1]

Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin

 

What fascinated me about this fragment was the fact that autistic mind not able to cope with language-based communication chose pictures as an alternative form. This conclusion instantly brought me back to Virginia Woolf. At the beginning of The Waves thereis a fragment when every character announces what they see (and rarely hear). Later we find out that every object they described refers to their personality, as if their perception defined them as individuals. They do not talk about their feelings, about events in their lives- they only tell what they see.[2] When I compared these two fragments – Woolf’s and Grandon’s- it occurred to me that in The Waves Woolf, in a strange way, wanted to communicate in images; still using language, she attempted to allow the characters to communicate in their perceptions, to omit the level of linguistic understanding and metaphorically go back to “the roots”.  What I mean by “the roots” are the first attempts of a human to write down oral communication, namely,  first proto-writing systems which were  based mainly on pictograms- images that resembled objects or ideas and had literal, as opposed to ambivalent, connection with them.

Thus, it seemed that Woolf perceived images as something much more instinctive and therefore natural/truthful  to human soul than words. Paradoxically, however, being a novelist, and not a painter, she decided to combine them and paint with words.


[1] Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures: and other reports from my life with autism, London, 2006. p. 3

[2] Virginia Woolf, The Waves, London, 2000, p. 5-6.