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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

I‘m not afraid of Virginia Woolf. When I first set out on my reading project I put her on the list of novelists I wanted to read, and I’ve finished rereading To the Lighthouse, the first of several novels by Woolf that I hope to read as part of this project.

This novel was the first I’d ever read by Woolf, and had read it, along with Heart of Darkness, Frankenstein, Tess of the D’Ubervilles, and Women in Love, as part of an undergraduate course on the English Novel, taught by Dr. Bob Randolph at then Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University-San Marcos). In each of those novels we traced the theme of the hero’s journey, an idea that had been popularized by scholar Joseph Campbell.

I again read the novel in graduate school, in a comparative course on D. H. Lawrence and Woolf taught by Dr. Lydia Blanchard. We covered three different thematic elements in that course: the effects of World War I, modernism, and gender. In my disjointed (perhaps modernistic) notes from that course, I had jotted down that Woolf in To the Lighthouse had wanted to create a new kind of character in fiction, in rebellion against the 19th century’s notion that a literary character is “knowable”; the characters in To the Lighthouse can’t be fully known; no person, real or imagined can be fully known. It’s a notion that fits with Woolf’s idea that “[l]ife is not a a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; but a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from beginning to end.”

As writers, as human beings, we see others, as Paul says, “through a glass, darkly,” and Woolf certainly evokes the halo of perception in To the Lighthouse. Even though the minds of multiple characters are presented, we never get to see them fully. The novel seems to discourage us from ever trying to capture any one single character or action (there’s almost no external action, other than James Ramsay’s yearning to go to the lighthouse and the voyage out to the lighthouse ten years later, or the illuminating “Time Passes” section in which the Ramsay home, after the death of Mrs. Ramsay and after the war, declines into chaos); and yet, when reading the novel — or any novel for that matter — we see as best we can the complex relationships between human beings, as Woolf’s husband Leo noted was the point of To the Lighthouse.

This third reading of To the Lighthouse was inspired after reading Ursula K. LeGuin’s Steering the Craft, a book on writing. I picked up LeGuin’s book a couple of years ago after flipping through it at the bookstore and reading this sentence: “Again I am inclined to fault journalists and schoolteachers, however well meaning, for declaring it a sin to say the same word twice, driving people to the thesaurus in desperate searches for farfetched substitutes.” Back then I glommed onto any attack on journalism, because I was miserable at my job at a daily newspaper. (I’m still ambivalent about what effects my newspaper experience had on my writing, though I’m beginning to think the worst part of the experience was the blows suffered to self confidence, blows struck by an editor with an unruly personality and a publication too friendly to the public’s whims.)

I loved LeGuin’s early chapters, because they concerned themselves with sentences, especially with writing fluid and rhythmic sentences and fluid gorgeous sentences have, as those of you who have followed this blog know, been a singular obsession of mine. And Woolf, LeGuin notes, citing an example from To the Lighthouse, writes beautiful, evocative sentences.

“The rhythm of Woolf’s prose is to my ear the subtlest and strongest in English fiction,” LeGuin writes.

Here is just a portion from the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse that LeGuin cites:

Indeed, the voice might resume, as curtains of dark wrapped themselves over the house, over Mrs. Beckwuith, Mr. Carmichael, and Lily Briscoe so that they lay with several folds of blackness on their eyes, why not accept this, be content with this, acquiesce and resign? The sigh of all the seas breaking in measure round the ilses soothed them; the night wrapped them; nothing broke their sleep, until, the birds beginning and the dawn weaving their thin voices in to its whiteness, a cart grinding, a dog somewhere barking, the sun lifted the curtains, broke the veil on their eyes, and Lily Briscoe stirring in her sleep. She clutched at her blankets as a faller clutches at the turf on the edge of a cliff. Her eyes opened wide. Here she was again, she thought, sitting bolt upright in bed. Awake.

Even this single paragraph would be perfect to study for its sentence variety, from lengthy meditative sentences to an abrupt single word sentence, all perfect for a moment in which a night passes into morning and a character suddenly awakens. Reading this passage, reading Woolf again, I’m not afraid of her. I am somewhat intimidated by her prose. And I’m still left wondering if I can ever write sentences as wonderful as those in the passage above.

New Novel Chapter Up

In my list of pages, I’ve posted Chapter 2 of my novel Most of the Time. Feel free to comment on this chapter or on Chapter 1 or on both chapters. Any feedback is welcome and anyone interested in reading the whole draft and giving feedback on it, please send me comment about how to get in touch with you. I would be happy to read your fiction or other manuscripts as well.

Ain’t Nothing but a Hound-dog Man

Periodically for the past three or four months I’ve been working through some of the writing exercises in The Curious Writer by Bruce Ballenger, the textbook I used when teaching freshman composition last fall. I started these exercises in part because I needed something to keep me writing regularly (I had finished the second rewrite of my novel and hadn’t been writing very much), and also because though I don’t know if or when I’ll teach again, I wanted to be much more familiar with the text than I was — I had the thing all of about four days before I went into the classroom the first time I taught it.

One prompt has you write about someone who influenced your reading, and I wrote about my grandmother who was an English teacher. I have one set of book shelves of the vast set that covered one wall of my grandparent’s living room. Every shelf was filled and my grandmother would always give me books to read from those shelves.

The books I inherited from her still have a certain smell — sort of a musky scent of yellowing and sometimes crumbling paper. In 1977, she gave me a copy of Fred Gipson’s Hound-dog Man. It has a hardbound orange cover and inside left she has written the date she received the book — 1949 — along with her name and then to the right she has written my name and 1977 as the year she presented it to me.

If you don’t know Gipson by name, you know, and have probably cried at the end of the movie based off his novel Old Yeller. Gipson’s a Texan, and had a country life, and that country life is captured well in Hound-dog Man, and I’m pretty sure my grandmother wanted me to know what country life was like in Texas in the 1930s or 1940s, before World War II.

When my grandmother gave me the book, I recall my cousins, all the boys at least, going on about coon hunting, and the novel is about a boy, Cotton Kinney, who wants two things more than any others — a hound dog of his own and to go coon hunting. Back then I wanted to go coon hunting with my cousins, not so much to trap and kill a raccoon, but to go out into the woods and romp around. I never did go coon hunting. And I never did get past the first few pages of the book. Maybe I was just too young at nine to really understand Cotton’s longings, or just really didn’t care to know too much about country life, although I had loved Tom Sawyer, which my grandmother had given me around that same time.

But, working through that exercise, thinking about my grandmother, I thought maybe it was time to read the book she had given me 30 years earlier.

It’s a short novel, and would probably be shelved as young adult fiction today, if anyone were to read it, and I couldn’t see it assigned in a classroom because of what would now be overt racism (the N-word appears a few times), though at the same time there is a scene in which a white man defends his giving equal status to a Hispanic man.

In many ways it’s a sentimental story: Cotton never strays far from his family, and comes to appreciate them and love them as a son should love and respect his parents. At the same time, like much young adult fiction, the darker, shade-of-gray world of adults is always around, along with a uneasy sense of threat, up until the last few scenes. It’s a coming of age novel, though one that doesn’t explore budding sexuality, as many coming of age stories do. Cotton, at twelve, is still innocent enough to feel uncomfortable when men and women kiss, and feel bewildered by sexual innuendo.

Much of the adult world he’s exposed to is one that turns violent — even his father at the end of the novel pistolwhips the hog farmer Hog Waller, after Waller has pistolwhipped ne’er-do-well Blackie Scantling for stealing his woman. (Chauvinism is rampant.) And Cotton has to face the ambiguity of lying to save Scantling, an adult action — accept the gray areas in life to stem further violence. It’s an action similar to Huck Finn’s dilemma of either protecting Jim or turning him in as a runaway slave.

It’s these shade-of-gray areas that we all face, and it’s such areas that novels seem to explore best, and what makes them, as John Gardner notes, such powerful sources of “concrete philosophy,” even a young adult novel like Gipson’s in which the cultural surface is to some extent distant from our own, and yet so much like our own.