My latest #Woolfalong read for phase three, was Monday or Tuesday, a collection of short stories which was published during Woolf’s lifetime. So many other collections – like Mrs Dalloway’s Party which I read last month were put together after her death. I enjoyed this collection, although not quite as much as the aforementioned Mrs Dalloway’s Party – but I already know that writing about this slim little collection will be a challenge, which I won’t even attempt to do in any great detail or depth.
These stories are all generally pretty short, some just a couple of pages, they are impressionistic, and at times feel rather experimental. A few of the stories I read twice, captivated by the imagery, appreciative of the delicious prose, I found myself bemused occasionally asking myself ‘well what did she mean by that then?’ Searching for meaning particularly in the two very short pieces, which are over almost as soon as they have begun; Monday or Tuesday and Blue and Green. Woolf’s powers of observation and description are certainly what stand out from these eight stories, as ever her prose is simply wonderful.
The collection opens with A Haunted House, in which the ghostly presence of the past rub shoulders with the living inhabitants. The ghostly couple roam the house, reminiscing their past, while the residents of the house sleep. I adored the descriptions of the silent house, the feeling of the past presence which still exists there.
A Society is a brilliant satire. A group of women form a society in which they gather to think and discuss the contribution made by men in the arts and sciences in which they have always dominated. The women swear to not marry or have children until they have discovered for themselves what it is the men have been doing all these years. Had the sacrifice made by generations of women caring for men, bearing their children been worth it? The women; each taking a different element for investigation go their separate ways. We see the women come together again after a period of five years, in the intervening years a few have got married and had children after all. They make their reports – though don’t seem to come to any conclusions, except that their girl children must be made to believe in themselves, and so in time the mantle is passed to the next generation.
“’Oh Cassandra why do you torment me? Don’t you know that our belief in man’s intellect is the greatest fallacy of them all?”
“What?” I exclaimed. “Ask any journalist, schoolmaster, politician or public house keeper in the land and they will all tell you that men are much cleverer than women.”
“As if I doubted it,” she said scornfully. “How could they help it? Haven’t we bred them and fed and kept them in comfort since the beginning of time so that they may be clever even if they’re nothing else? It’s all our doing!” she cried.”
(from A Society)
Monday or Tuesday – the title story, is a beautifully rendered piece of modernist experimental writing. It is slightly less than two pages long – and describes the flight of a heron above the teeming life of towns and cities below. There are some lovely contrasts between the freedom of the heron in flight and the restrictions of life below, the striking of a clock a reminder of the tyranny which time has upon our lives. The writing is simply beautiful, there is an exquisite sense of all aspects of life coming together over the course of a day.
“Lazy and indifferent, shaking space easily from his wings, knowing his way, the heron passes over the church beneath the sky. White and distant, absorbed in itself, endlessly the sky covers and uncovers, moves and remains. A lake? Blot the shores of it out! A mountain? Oh, perfect – the sun gold on its slopes. Down that falls. Ferns then, or white feathers, for ever and ever…”
(From Monday or Tuesday)
In An unwritten novel a woman on a train, glances up at the face of the woman sat opposite her. It is a small, insignificant moment, but one Virginia Woolf expands on brilliantly. She sees something in that face, and imagines a whole life, a whole world for her travelling companion. The women do exchange a few words, and our narrator learns a little more about the woman, and from that builds a whole story in her imagination. The unwritten novel of the title – the possible story of this woman’s life.
“Such an expression of unhappiness was enough by itself to make one’s eyes slide above the paper’s edge to the poor woman’s face—insignificant without that look, almost a symbol of human destiny with it. Life’s what you see in people’s eyes; life’s what they learn, and, having learnt it, never, though they seek to hide it, cease to be aware of—what? That life’s like that.”
(From An Unwritten Novel)
In The String Quartet Virginia Woolf represents in prose the music of Mozart’s string quartet. Our narrator attends a performance of the string quartet, and we see and hear her thoughts and observations, and with her overhear snatches of conversation at the concert.
Blue and Green is just two paragraphs long. One paragraph dedicated to blue and one to green. There is no narrative, but again Virginia Woolf flexes her descriptive muscles.
Kew Gardens takes us to the flower boarders of that famous botanical garden. The story alternates between descriptions of a flower bed – including an examination of a snail, to the conversations between several couples walking in the gardens.
Aspects of the final story The Mark on the Wall reminded me of The Unwritten novel, like that story, our narrator’s flits about over various possibilities. Her attention is drawn to a mark on the wall, a mark she hadn’t notice before. In her mind she contemplates how the mark could have got there, inventing, imagining, allowing her thoughts to roam from one explanation to another as each idea sparks off another. Of course Virginia Woolf is particularly good at this kind of perspective.
In these stories, which Virginia Woolf wrote as a distraction at the same period that she was writing Night and Day her second novel, she examines the ordinary everyday moment, the ordinary mind and the impressions it receives.
(for those of you counting – book 2 of #20booksofsummer)