Sunday, January 01, 2012

Jacob's Room, by Virginia Woolf

Let's start the new year with a run of Virginia Woolf readings! Because nothing says "2012" like the writings of World War I avant garde!

Yes, I am taking a course in Virginia Woolf next term. It's going to be a Bloomsbury kind of year!

The Publishing Details:
Jacob's Room  was written around 1922, and may be based on the life of Woolf's younger brother, Thoby Stephens, who died at 25. It is also an early foray into the stream-of-consciousness/psychological writing that Woolf continued to hone through more famous works like To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway. I thought perhaps as an early effort, it might be easier to follow than those works, but I don't think that is true. There is certainly a lot going on in this book, and it's clear that VW had a lot of ideas about literature and its limitations.

The Structure:
The book follows the life of Jacob Flanders in slices: his childhood in Scarborough, his education at Oxford, his adult life in London, his flirtations and affairs, a trip to Greece, and ends with a short piece after his death. Each chapter takes place in a different time and place, and in Woolfian (Woolvian?) fashion, you have to puzzle for yourself where and when. While Jacob is the center of the novel, there is no real attempt to narrate him for the reader. He rarely speaks, his thoughts are not presented through an omniscient narrator, and even the point of view is rarely his. VW is in effect presenting his life from the outside, through the impressions he makes on those around him.

The Literary Effect and Analysis:

Woolf can be quite hard to read, and I find the pleasure less in the reading, and more in thinking about what she was trying to do with literature. Or, as VW makes clear in the course of her writing, since we cannot know what another person is thinking, my pleasure comes from what I find myself thinking about the limitations and strengths of literature--ideas that are sparked by wading through her works.

To begin with, VW's fiction is not terribly inviting. Jacob's Room starts with a family outing at the seashore, with most of the narrative focused on the thoughts of his mother, Betty Flanders. (And it is with that surname that Jacob is obviously destined for death in WWI, although VW doesn't engage in the ominous portentiousness of Edith Wharton in House of Mirth). VW fills the chapter with images that might be read to signal Jacob's destiny--a small crab in the bottom of a child's bucket, trying with its "weakly legs" to escape its confinement, falling back and trying again and again; the two "enormous" people Jacob sees lying on the beach, immobile and disturbing; the misidentification of a rock with a nanny; the skull lying on the beach. Yet VW is decidedly not Victorian, and as much as these images are actually present, they don't really seem to be used as signals of Jacob's future, since they are mixed in with equally vivid, non-morbid imagery, including the "courtship" of Captain Barfoot, the nonsense about Mrs. Flanders forgetting the meat for dinner, the women sitting together after the boys have gone to bed.

Subsequent chapters show Jacob boating with his friend Timothy Durrant to the Cornish coast, where we see as much about random Cornish housewives as we do of Jacob. He returns to London after graduation, falls a little in love with a prostitute named Florinda, and experiences heartbreak when he sees her with another man--he had built up an idealized image of her, which was contradicted when he saw her behaving as she always did, but with someone else.

One could be peevish and complain about the utter randomness of VW's writing--the images and moments she has selected to present to the reader do not serve any larger artistic function that we are used to. Trained as we are by the Victorians to view every detail as significant, VW is frustrating since so much of the book seems to be nothing but details, and they don't add up. I think that is the point, however. VW is using the form of the novel to make the argument that what we think we know about others is really our own projections--not necessarily accurate in any way. And so Jacob is presented via the impressions he makes, and what other people think about him based on those impressions.

An novelist whom I love, Faith Sullivan (The Cape Ann--drop everything and go read that if you haven't already) gave a talk about writing fiction. When writing fiction, you have to choose your details, and there is meaning in what you choose. If you were writing a biography, and the subject wore red shoes, you would put that into the book, because that was the color the shoes were. In fiction, however, the shoes could be any color at all, and making the choice to say they are red is to make a significant choice--a choice that means something, precisely because the author could have made any other choice.

My experience of reading VW is that she is demonstrating that all those choices exist, but they don't necessarily constitute meaning, in any profound way. Many incidents in life just happen, and sometimes a person will interpret those incidents and assign meaning that can't be verified. So Clara Durrant, sister of Jacob's school friend Timothy, falls in love with Jacob. Yet what can she possibly know of him? He is handsome (distinguished looking, VW reiterates), he has been to university, but his actions are opaque, his conversation extremely limited. In some ways VW uses Clara to show us the folly of our trying (as readers) to know any character, since in many ways Clara's infatuation with Jacob is obviously the product of her own projection of characteristics onto him. He never acts contrary to her projections, at least in her presence, and so her fiction of him is preserved--but that in no way means it is accurate.

Similarly, Jacob believes he has a special affinity--an uncommon understanding--with the ancient Greeks. While hiking with a friend, he announces that they are probably the only two people in the world who understand what the Greeks were about. Yet VW is careful to say that their declaiming would not be comprehensible either to actual ancient Greeks or even Greek professors. The supposed affinity is entirely in their own minds, and could never be absolutely verified. In the same way, readers may think they understand who Jacob is, but VW has made it the work of the novel to prove that assumption to be false.

In some ways, Jacob's Room isn't fiction as traditionally understood, so much as it is a kind of fictionalized biography. There are some bare facts of "Jacob's" life, and VW doesn't really embellish or speculate on what might be going on inside the subject's mind. This is not because VW is limited as a writer--in fact, she manages to sketch vivid characters in only a few lines, and has some wonderful sections on the internal states of others, so it is apparent that she has chosen to limit her speculation about Jacob deliberately.

It's an interesting reaction to the sprawling omnipotence of a Dickens, for example, this precise limiting of what might be viewed in real life by an outsider. It's a bit tart, actually, reading this book. Not one for sinking into and wallowing in--rather a novel for precise consideration. Did VW think of herself as a novelist, or was she trying to develop something new? Does VW actually inform how fiction is currently written--or is she a dead end in literary evolution? She might actually have had a bigger impact on biography than fiction--one can imagine she would be right at home in a genre called "literary non-fiction."

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