‘I don’t know why you bother reading such long books,’ said a customer to her boyfriend, the other day in the bookshop. He was reading the back cover of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, which is, admittedly, rather long. ‘I only read short books,’ she declared to the shop at large.
What a wally, I thought. Surely some of the greatest books are some of the lengthiest? Bleak House, Ulysses, Middlemarch … and if those seem too snotty, then what about all those thick George Martin books which seem to be the nation’s current obsession?
But now I reflect upon it, perhaps there is something to be said for brevity. Reading a short book is an altogether different experience to reading a long one. A long book is a trusty, constant companion for a few weeks, sometimes even a month. Reading is a gradual, gentle process of absorption. The characters come alive in the margins of the day; they’re there, always, but they’re rarely insistent, they don’t come barging in and demand a whole morning of one’s time.
Reading a short book, on the other hand, can be startlingly intense. I read Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending in three sittings, most of it taking place across one afternoon. It was completely involving, and when I’d finished, I felt almost dazed. A short book can be a sharp, breathless experience.
This weekend, I read another very short, very enjoyable book. You might remember my writing about Alexandra Harris in previous posts, where I’ve discussed her marvellous (long) book Romantic Moderns. So it was with a great deal of anticipation that I greeted her new book Virginia Woolf. Especially as I have such a soft spot for Virginia Woolf, having specialised in her at university.
The Harris/Woolf combo really is a bit of a winner. And it is a combo. For Harris has rather neatly entwined her life of Woolf with Woolf’s writing, and there are a great many quotations. I’m going to choose this one as an example – Woolf’s ‘most important memory’ – as it’s one of my own favourites:
It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach; and then breaking, one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind. It is of hearing the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blew the blind out. It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is almost impossible that I should be here, of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive.
I love this piece of writing. I think it is an instance of Woolf at her finest. Really it’s not so intellectually complicated and obtuse as people unfairly make out! I like it for the quiet yet insistent rhythm of the words – the repeated ‘it is’ and ‘one, two’. The build up and repetition of gerunds – lying and hearing, culminating in that repeated feeling. And there is the perfect amount of attention to visual detail. Rather than trying to list absolutely everything, there is just a general scene, with a few tiny bits picked out – the yellow blind and its acorn, the splash of water on the beach. It is a perfect description of a moment, and, as Alexandra Harris points out:
It is one of those hidden revelations that Woolf’s fiction would propose as the structuring principles of our lives.
I love this idea of Woolf’s of ‘moments of being’, and it seems as though Harris has taken this, rather pleasingly, as the principle of her life of Virginia Woolf. For rather than it being an exhaustive (and exhausting) biography, stretching on for hundreds of pages, going into minute detail about each moment of every single day, every passage of each piece of writing, she glides over the surface of Woolf’s life, dipping down for occasional, significant moments of depth.
In her account of Woolf’s childhood, for instance, Harris glances at her relationships with her mother, father and siblings, her education, and summer trips to St Ives all within the space of ten pages. But the overriding event of her childhood – and the one on which Harris concentrates – is the death of her mother. This is the important moment, and this is what will crop up again and again in Woolf’s novels.
More often than not, Harris concentrates on Woolf as she is writing her novels. Here is Woolf having a breakdown, dangerously ill, before The Voyage Out is published … and here she is busy and excited and happy while writing Jacob’s Room. (‘[I] an really very busy, very happy, & only want to say Time, stand still here.’) While this is against a backdrop of friendships, houses, and world events, the foreground focuses on her writing. And, frankly, while Bloomsbury life was undoubtedly bohemian and exciting and interesting in a gossipy sort of a way, how much more fascinating it is to read about a woman in light of her work rather than in light of her friends.
Which is perhaps why what this book makes me want to do more than anything, with all these new pockets of light shed upon moments of Woolf’s writing life … is to reread some Virginia Woolf. Goody!