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‘Granite and Rainbow: The Hidden Life of Virginia Woolf’ by Mitchell Leaska *****

Mitchell Leaska’s Granite and Rainbow had been on my to-read shelf for a couple of months before I picked it up in early December, in part as PhD research, and in part as an enjoyable read.  Leaska’s wise and intelligent introduction to the volume fits perfectly; it sets out what he is aiming to achieve with his biography, recognising that he is one of many who has chosen to tackle Woolf as Woman and Writer proper.

9780374166595Leaska blends details about Woolf’s life, beginning with in-depth accounts of her parents, and blends in a smattering of criticism about all of her books, as well as detailing what inspired her to write each distinct piece.  He does not take her short stories into account much of the time, and even leaves some of her essays by the wayside, but discussing everything that Woolf ever wrote would be rather a mean feat, and any omissions do not have a great impact on the work as a whole.  The elements of social and political history which Leaska has made use of are fitting, and give a wider context to Woolf’s work and decisions.

One reviewer argues that Leaska makes many unsubstantiated claims throughout Granite and Rainbow; I, however, did not find this to be the case.  Yes, he discusses ambiguities in her prose, but many biographers make claims with regard to what they believe the author was driving at in writing X, or amending Y.  Of course, in every biography there is going to be an element of bias, but Leaska has written rather impartially about his subject.  It is clear that he admires her and his work, but his approach to her as a woman is one of academic understanding.

I found Leaska’s writing really quite lovely: ‘The world that mattered to Virginia Woolf was the world of emotional and sensory experience eddying endlessly in atmosphere, of the mind, in twilit regions of memory where past and present merge and blur.  It was a world where houses and rooms are furnished not with carpets and curtains but with reminiscence and feeling.  This alone was real.  It was not concerned with what life was like, but more with what the actual experience of living felt like’.   The entirety of the book has a wonderful consistency to it too.

Granite and Rainbow did not add much to my understanding of Woolf as a person, but it certainly went into more far depth than the majority of other biographies with her extramarital relationships – with Vita Sackville-West, for instance.  If I was coming to Woolf as someone who had merely read her work and wanted to know more about her as a person in the real world, I would have found Leaska’s book endlessly fascinating.  As it is, I have been studying Woolf for quite a while up to this point and, as one might expect, biographies do tend to repeat themselves from tome to tome.

That said, Leaska’s biography is something else entirely, and deserves to be revered in the same way as Hermione Lee’s work about Woolf; it is just as thorough, and has a wonderful clarity to it.  In Granite and Rainbow, Leaska has produced a fantastic biography which is authoritative and masterfully written, and it certainly deserves more attention than it seems to have received to date.

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Winter Reading Recommendations

The season is turning; trees are shedding leaves, the temperature is beginning to fall, and the Christmas decorations are already out in the shops.  That can only mean one thing; it’s time to crack out the hot water bottle, vat of hot chocolate, and a stack of suitably wintry books.  Below are eight recommendations which I think will be perfect to curl up with this winter.

1. Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson 9780312625412
‘Everyone knows the Moomins sleep through the winter. But this year, Moomintroll has woken up early. So while the rest of the family slumber, he decides to visit his favorite summer haunts. But all he finds is this strange white stuff. Even the sun is gone! Moomintroll is angry: whoever Winter is, she has some nerve. Determined to discover the truth about this most mysterious of all seasons, Moomintroll goes where no Moomin has gone before.’


2. A Winter Book by Tove Jansson
‘Drawn from youth and older age, and spanning most of the twentieth century, this newly translated selection provides a thrilling showcase of the great Finnish writer’s prose, scattered with insights and home truths. It has been selected and is introduced by Ali Smith. A Winter Book features 13 stories from Tove Jansson’s first book for adults,The Sculptor’s Daughter (1968) plus 7 of her most cherished later stories (from 1971 to 1996), translated into English and published here for the first time.’


97801413894003. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
‘Ethan Frome works his unproductive farm and struggles to maintain a bearable existence with his difficult, suspicious and hypochondriac wife, Zeena. But when Zeena’s vivacious cousin enters their household as a ‘hired girl’, Ethan finds himself obsessed with her and with the possibilities for happiness she comes to represent.’
4. Ariel by Sylvia Plath
‘The poems in Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, including many of her best-known such as ‘Lady Lazarus’, ‘Daddy’, ‘Edge’ and ‘Paralytic’, were all written between the publication in 1960 of Plath’s first book, The Colossus, and her death in 1963. “If the poems are despairing, vengeful and destructive, they are at the same time tender, open to things, and also unusually clever, sardonic, hardminded …’

5. If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino
‘Calvino’s masterpiece opens with a scene that’s reassuringly commonplace: apparently. Indeed, it’s taking place now. A reader goes into a bookshop to buy a book: not any book, but the latest Calvino, the book you are holding in your hands. Or is it? Are you the reader? Is this the book? Beware. All assumptions are dangerous on this most bewitching switch-back ride to the heart of storytelling.’

6. The Waves by Virginia Woolf 9780141182711
‘Tracing the lives of a group of friends, The Waves follows their development from childhood to youth and middle age. While social events, individual achievements and disappointments form its narrative, the novel is most remarkable for the rich poetic language that expresses the inner life of its characters: their aspirations, their triumphs and regrets, their awareness of unity and isolation. Separately and together, they query the relationship of past to present, and the meaning of life itself.’

97819060401857. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
‘Rene is the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building. She maintains a carefully constructed persona as someone uncultivated but reliable, in keeping with what she feels a concierge should be. But beneath this facade lies the real Rene: passionate about culture and the arts, and more knowledgeable in many ways than her employers with their outwardly successful but emotionally void lives. Down in her lodge, apart from weekly visits by her one friend Manuela, Rene lives with only her cat for company. Meanwhile, several floors up, twelve-year-old Paloma Josse is determined to avoid the pampered and vacuous future laid out for her, and decides to end her life on her thirteenth birthday. But unknown to them both, the sudden death of one of their privileged neighbours will dramatically alter their lives forever. By turns moving and hilarious, this unusual novel became the top-selling book in France in 2007.’

8. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (predictable, but I could not resist recommending this beautiful novel!)
‘A bewitching tale of heartbreak and hope set in 1920s Alaska, Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child was a top ten bestseller in hardback and paperback, and went on to be a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Alaska, the 1920s. Jack and Mabel have staked everything on a fresh start in a remote homestead, but the wilderness is a stark place, and Mabel is haunted by the baby she lost many years before. When a little girl appears mysteriously on their land, each is filled with wonder, but also foreboding: is she what she seems, and can they find room in their hearts for her? Written with the clarity and vividness of the Russian fairy tale from which it takes its inspiration, The Snow Child is an instant classic.’

 

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One From the Archive: ‘A Writer’s Diary’ by Virginia Woolf *****

First published in 2012.

A Writer’s Diary was first published posthumously in 1953 and is one of Persephone’s new reprints for Spring 2012. The book is composed of extracts from Virginia Woolf’s thirty diaries, unpublished at the time of its original publication. Each extract has been carefully selected by her husband Leonard, whose idea was ‘to extract those entries that show her in the act of writing’.

9781903155882Lyndall Gordon, a biographer of Virginia Woolf, has contributed a new preface to this edition. Written in October 2011, Gordon describes how Woolf’s ‘darting inspiration and plans to transform the novel or enter into women’s buried lives are netted in A Writer’s Diary’. Gordon’s preface is thoughtful and sets the tone for the book, citing it as ‘a masterpiece in its own right’.

The original preface, written by Leonard Woolf at the start of 1953, has also been included. He states that the ‘book throws light upon Virginia Woolf’s intentions, objects, and methods as a writer’ and consequently ‘gives an unusual psychological picture of artistic production from within’. Leonard Woolf believes that A Writer’s Diary ‘shows the extraordinary energy, persistence, and concentration with which she [Virginia] devoted herself to the art of writing and the undeviating conscientiousness with which she wrote and rewrote’.

The span of the book, ranging from 1918 to the lead up to Virginia Woolf’s eventual suicide in 1941, encompasses her ups and downs, as well as her successes and failures with regard to her writing.

Woolf’s thoughts about other writers and their work have been included throughout. ‘Byron had a superb force’, the Reminiscences by Carlyle are ‘the chatter of an old toothless gravedigger’, and the work of Katherine Mansfield is both admired and belittled. On Ulysses by James Joyce, Woolf states that ‘I have read 200 pages so far – not a third; and have been amused, stimulated, charmed, interested by the first 2 or 3 chapters – to the end of the cemetery scene; and then puzzled, bored, irritated and disillusioned by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples’.

The diary features Woolf’s meetings with many other writers, spanning from Thomas Hardy and T.S. Eliot to E.M. Forster and Vita Sackville-West. It is set against a backdrop of two world wars and much upheaval, both in Europe and partly in Virginia’s own life.

The effects which reviews of her work had upon her have been described throughout, sometimes in harrowing ways. ‘I don’t take praise or blame excessively to heart,’ writes Woolf, ‘but they interrupt, cast one’s eyes backwards, make one wish to explain or investigate’. Leonard Woolf has also included extracts which signpost Virginia’s struggles as a writer and her often mystified thoughts on her growing popularity. After the publication of Monday or Tuesday in 1921, she says ‘The truth is, I expect, that I shan’t get very much attention anywhere. Yet, I become rather well known’. Her work for the Times Literary Supplement is also touched upon. Woolf states that ‘when I write a review I write every sentence as if it were going to be tried before three Chief Justices’.

Throughout, Woolf’s prose style is spectacular. Some of the extracts are more spontaneous than others, but all are written with such marvellous clarity. The exacting seriousness of her work is paramount throughout. We, as readers, are given a window into her world and the precise way in which she planned every meticulous detail of her pieces before she began to write. Of her own diary writing, Woolf states that she is ‘much struck by the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along, sometimes indeed jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles’. Despite this, each entry is richly written, vibrant, thoughtful and informative, and the piece flows incredibly well as a whole.

The book itself is very well laid out. A chronological bibliography of Woolf’s work has been included, along with a glossary of the main people who feature throughout the diaries.

A Writer’s Diary is a wonderful and an invaluable book, both for writers and for fans of Virginia Woolf and her work. As one of the most revered authors of the twentieth century, Woolf’s writing diary is certainly a worthy addition to the Persephone oeuvre, one that deserves to be read and reread.

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Novels of 1928

I have read several novels for class which were published in 1928, all of which are diverse, and the majority of which have made a great impression upon me.  I thought that I would draw your attention to the four most diverse books from this year, all of which I would recommend.

  1. Orlando by Virginia Woolf 9781853262395
    ”The longest and most charming love letter in literature’, playfully constructs the figure of Orlando as the fictional embodiment of Woolf’s close friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West. Spanning three centuries, the novel opens as Orlando, a young nobleman in Elizabeth’s England, awaits a visit from the Queen and traces his experience with first love as England under James I lies locked in the embrace of the Great Frost. At the midpoint of the novel, Orlando, now an ambassador in Costantinople, awakes to find that he is a woman, and the novel indulges in farce and irony to consider the roles of women in the 18th and 19th centuries. As the novel ends in 1928, a year consonant with full suffrage for women. Orlando, now a wife and mother, stands poised at the brink of a future that holds new hope and promise for women.’
  2. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence
    ‘With its four-letter words and its explicit descriptions of sexual intercourse, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is the novel with which D.H. Lawrence is most often associated. First published privately in Florence in 1928, it only became a world-wide best-seller after Penguin Books had successfully resisted an attempt by the British Director of Public Prosecutions to prevent them offering an unexpurgated edition. The famous ‘Lady Chatterley trial’ heralded the sexual revolution of the coming decades and signalled the defeat of Establishment prudery. Yet Lawrence himself was hardly a liberationist and the conservativism of many aspects of his novel would later lay it open to attacks from the political avant-garde and from feminists. The story of how the wife of Sir Clifford Chatterley responds when her husband returns from the war paralysed from the waist down, and of the tender love which then develops between her and her husband’s gamekeeper, is a complex one open to a variety of conflicting interpretations. This edition of the novel offers an occasion for a new generation of readers to discover what all the fuss was about; to appraise Lawrence’s bitter indictment of modern industrial society, and to ask themselves what lessons there might be for the 21st century in his intense exploration of the complicated relations between love and sex.’
  3. 9780141187488Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh
    ‘Sent down from Oxford in outrageous circumstances, Paul Pennyfeather is oddly surprised to find himself qualifying for the position of schoolmaster at Llanabba Castle. His colleagues are an assortment of misfits, rascals and fools, including Prendy (plagued by doubts) and Captain Grimes, who is always in the soup (or just plain drunk). Then Sports Day arrives, and with it the delectable Margot Beste-Chetwynde, floating on a scented breeze. As the farce unfolds and the young run riot, no one is safe, least of all Paul.’
  4. The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall
    ‘A powerful novel of love between women, The Well of Loneliness brought about the most famous legal trial for obscenity in the history of British law. Banned on publication in 1928, it then went on to become a classic bestseller. Stephen Gordon (named by a father desperate for a son) is not like other girls: she hunts, she fences, she reads books, wears trousers and longs to cut her hair. As she grows up amidst the stifling grandeur of Morton Hall, the locals begin to draw away from her, aware of some indefinable thing that sets her apart. And when Stephen Gordon reaches maturity, she falls passionately in love – with another woman.’

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Illness Narratives: Getting Started

Whilst I did not enjoy my Illness Narratives as Life Writing class anywhere near as much as I thought I would, I still read some incredibly good memoirs in preparation for it.  There are a few here which I read prior to the course too.  The following books have all been selected to feature on the blog today because I feel that they are all important; they are poignant, tender, thought-provoking and, above all, life-affirming.  For each, I have copied the official blurb, as the majority of them describe the conditions written about in a far more comprehensive way than I could without doing some research.

  1. Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen 9781860497926
    ‘In 1967, after a session with a psychiatrist she’d never seen before, eighteen-year-old Susanna Kaysen was put in a taxi and sent to McLean Hospital to be treated for depression. She spent most of the next two years on the ward for teenage girls in a psychiatric hospital renowned for its famous clientele – Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, James Taylor and Ray Charles. A clear-sighted, unflinching work that provokes questions about our definitions of sane and insane, Kaysen’s extraordinary memoir encompasses horror and razor-edged perception while providing vivid portraits of her fellow patients and their keepers.’
  2. On Being Ill by Virginia Woolf
    ‘The essay seeks to establish illness as a serious subject of literature along the lines of love, jealousy and battle. Woolf writes, “Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to light…it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”‘
  3. Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel
    ‘From the double Man Booker Prize-winning author of ‘Wolf Hall’, a wry, shocking and beautiful memoir of childhood, ghosts, hauntings, illness and family. ‘Giving up the Ghost’ is award-winning novelist Hilary Mantel’s uniquely unusual five-part autobiography. Opening in 1995 with ‘A Second Home’, Mantel describes the death of her stepfather which leaves her deeply troubled by the unresolved events of her childhood. In ‘Now Geoffrey Don’t Torment Her’ Mantel takes the reader into the muffled consciousness of her early childhood, culminating in the birth of a younger brother and the strange candlelight ceremony of her mother’s ‘churching’. In ‘Smile’, an account of teenage perplexity, Mantel describes a household where the keeping of secrets has become a way of life. Finally, at the memoir’s conclusion, Mantel explains how through a series of medical misunderstandings and neglect she came to be childless and how the ghosts of the unborn like chances missed or pages unturned, have come to haunt her life as a writer.’
  4. 9781783781461Until Further Notice, I Am Alive by Tom Lubbock
    ‘In 2008, Tom Lubbock was diagnosed with a brain tumour, and told he had only one or two years to live. In this remarkable record of those years, lived out in three-month intervals between scans, he examines the question of how to live with death in sight. As the tumour progressed, Tom engaged intensely and imaginatively with work, art, friends, and his wife and their young son, while trying to remain focused on the fact of his impending death. His tumour was located in the area of the brain associated with language, and he describes losing control over the spoken and written word and the resources he drew on to keep communicating; a struggle which brought him ever closer to the mysteries of the origin of speech. As the Independent’s chief art critic, he was renowned for the clarity and unconventionality of his writing, and the same fierce intelligence permeates this extraordinary memoir. This is a book written by a man wholly engaged with life even as it ends.’
  5. The Iceberg by Marion Coutts
    ‘Winner of the Wellcome Book Prize, and finalist for every major nonfiction award in the UK, including the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Costa Award, The Iceberg is artist and writer Marion Coutts’ astonishing memoir; an adventure of being and dying and a compelling, poetic meditation on family, love, and language. In 2008, Tom Lubbach, the chief art critic for The Independent was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The Iceberg is his wife, Marion Coutts, fierce, exquisite account of the two years leading up to his death. In spare, breathtaking prose, Coutts conveys the intolerable and, alongside their two year old son Ev, whose language is developing as Tom’s is disappearing/  Marion and Tom lovingly weather the storm together. In short bursts of exquisitely textured prose, The Iceberg becomes a singular work of art and an uplifting and universal story of endurance in the face of loss.’
  6. Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy 9780060569662
    ‘”I spent five years of my life being treated for cancer, but since then I’ve spent fifteen years being treated for nothing other than looking different from everyone else. It was the pain from that, from feeling ugly, that I always viewed as the great tragedy of my life. The fact that I had cancer seemed minor in comparison.”At age nine, Lucy Grealy was diagnosed with a potentially terminal cancer. When she returned to school with a third of her jaw removed, she faced the cruel taunts of classmates. In this strikingly candid memoir, Grealy tells her story of great suffering and remarkable strength without sentimentality and with considerable wit. Vividly portraying the pain of peer rejection and the guilty pleasures of wanting to be special, Grealy captures with unique insight what it is like as a child and young adult to be torn between two warring impulses: to feel that more than anything else we want to be loved for who we are, while wishing desperately and secretly to be perfect.’
  7. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
    ‘The diary of Jean-Dominique Bauby who, with his left eyelid (the only surviving muscle after a massive stroke) dictated a remarkable book about his experiences locked inside his body. A masterpiece and a bestseller in France, it is now a major motion picture directed by Julian Schnabel. On 8 December 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby suffered a massive stroke and slipped into a coma. When he regained consciousness three weeks later, the only muscle left functioning was in his left eyelid although his mind remained as active and alert as it had ever been. He spent most of 1996 writing this book, letter by letter, blinking as an alphabet was repeatedly read out to him.’
  8. 9780099556091Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
    ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a memoir about a life’s work to find happiness. It’s a book full of stories: about a girl locked out of her home, sitting on the doorstep all night; about a religious zealot disguised as a mother who has two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the dresser, waiting for Armageddon; about growing up in a north England industrial town now changed beyond recognition; about the universe as a cosmic dustbin. It is the story of how a painful past, which Winterson thought she had written over and repainted, rose to haunt her later in life, sending her on a journey into madness and out again, in search of her biological mother. It’s also a book about other people’s literature, one that shows how fiction and poetry can form a string of guiding lights, a life raft that supports us when we are sinking.’
  9. Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
    ‘This is the true story of a boy who wanted to grow up with the Brady Bunch, but ended up living with the Addams Family. Augusten Burroughs’s mother gave him away to be raised by her psychiatrist, a dead ringer for Santa Claus and a certifiable lunatic into the bargain. The doctor’s bizarre family, a few patients and a sinister man living in the garden shed completed the tableau. The perfect squalor of their dilapidated Victorian house, there were no rules and there was no school. The Christmas tree stayed up until summer and Valium was chomped down like sweets. And when things got a bit slow, there was always the ancient electroshock therapy machine under the stairs.’
  10. Before I Say Goodbye by Ruth Picardie 9780805066128
    ‘By turns humorous and heart-rending, an unforgettable account of a young woman’s spiritual triumphs over breast cancer in the last year of her life Ruth Picardie was only thirty-three when she died, a month after her twins’ second birthday and just under a year after she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. For Ruth, a journalist, it seemed natural to write about her illness. She published only five columns for Observer Life magazine before she became too sick to continue, but her moving, funny, and very human account drew a huge response from readers all over England. Before I Say Goodbye juxtaposes these columns with correspondence from readers, e-mails to her friends, letters to her children, and reflections by her husband and her sister. The result is a courageous and moving book, entirely devoid of self-pity, that celebrates the triumph of a brave and wonderful woman’s spirit. An international bestseller in England, Picardie’s sobering yet ultimately life-affirming book is destined to become a classic.’

 

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