Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Night and Day, by Virginia Woolf

Man, what a slog this one was! Virginia Woolf is a hard writer to love!

This was her second novel, published by her (allegedly sexually abusive) stepbrother Gerald Duckworth, so it's hard to know how much control she had over the finished product. Great huge swaths of this book are in her trademark stream-of-consciousness style, and that gets tiring very fast. Yes, human beings do experience lots of different thoughts and emotions which are entirely internally generated. But how many times can you ask a reader to suffer through "Inexplicably, the anger/jealousy/happiness/boredom he thought would be his lifelong burden to bear turned to joy/sympathy/pathos/rage/a need to take long cab rides along the Thames"?

There is a nominal plot--Katherine Hilbery is the granddaughter of a nationally celebrated poet, and her mother (the poet's daughter) is desultorily working on a biography of the man. Katherine's father runs a literary magazine, and employs several bright young men who write reviews and articles, including William Rodney (to whom she becomes engaged) and Ralph Denham, with whom she falls in love. There is another woman, Mary Datchet, who volunteers for a suffragist society who is initally in love with Denham, until he falls in love with Katherine. Mary opts for the consolations of a well-spent work life and ends the novel ignored by everybody as she selflessly toils away in the Room of Her Own, making the world a better place.

There is a fifth member of this fugue/rondeley, who is introduced suddenly about two-thirds of the way through the novel--Katherine's cousin Cassandra, who arrives via William Rodney's sudden premonition that he might actually be in love with her instead. There is some nonsense about whether Katherine and William will be allowed to mutually end their engagement, since they are both in love with other people. But in the end everybody ends up with the right person and engaged.

This is a very long novel, and ultimately it's interesting primarily as an artifact of Woolf's struggle to master the kind of interior writing she wanted to do. It's still very beholden to the conventions of Victorian novel-writing, while at the same time being largely locked inside the interior monologues of the characters. Very seldom do the characters actually interact with each other. More often, they engage in a sort of parallel play, where they conduct their own thoughts while in the same room with each other.

It is tempting to ascribe autobiographical details to this plot--Woolf grew up in the kind of literary family she draws in the Hilberys, and she sketches the emotional cost of living under the legacy of a Great Man, much as Virginia herself may have felt about her own father. Ralph Denham supports his large family of siblings, as Leonard Woolf may well have done, living a lower class existence than the rarefied one enjoyed by the Hilberys.

Not a great book, and I wouldn't recommend it except for Woolf completists.

1 comment:

city said...

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