I do like to theme my pairs of reviews but don’t always manage. But today I have a corker – two fantastic examples of stream of consciousness modernist novels by two seminal writers. One is very well known, one very much less so. One relates her characters to the outer world, to events in history, to characters in history, the other writes in a much more enclosed space.
Virginia Woolf – “Mrs Dalloway”
(bought 9 January 1992)
I bought this when I was 20, at university, and I have a feeling that I haven’t read it again in the meantime, so it was hardly surprising that I’d forgotten as much as I remembered about this classic. It’s thanks to Heaven-Ali‘s #Woolfalong project that I re-read it this month, and I’m glad I did, although I would say that it’s best to approach this (maybe all books that look deep into the mind of people who are having mental crises) when you’re feeling calm and in no way fragile yourself. I read it when I was a bit frazzled, and I certainly found it more disturbing and depressing than I did at 20. Was I more resilient then? Have I experienced too much mental health issues stuff in the meantime? I’m not sure, but I know I did have to read some fluffy stuff afterwards.
Anyway. It was curious how much I had forgotten – I had totally wiped Septimus Smith’s wife, Rezia, from my memory, for example, believing that Septimus wandered the streets of London alone! While we’re on the subject of the streets of London, having lived in London for seven or so years and in Covent Garden for two of them did give an extra dimension of enjoyment, as I was able to imagine Mrs D and Septimus and Rezia’s wanderings quite clearly. I had also forgotten the flashbacks to Mrs D’s youth.
I found it a depressing read, with Septimus’ fracturing world described so horribly clearly and the despair of Rezia heartbreaking to read. That’s not to say it’s a bad book – it is of course amazing, but it’s one to read when you’re feeling fortified against the horrors of the world.
A Penguin Modern Classics edition with good (if sometimes a bit obvious) notes and a great introduction by Elaine Showalter. And I was excited to find the road we used to live off on the map in the front!
This book would suit … Woolf fans, modernism fans, people interested in the development of the novel in the 20th century, people who’ve read Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours” or seen the film and want to go back to the original
Dorothy Richardson – “Backwater”
The second book in Richardson’s Pilgrimage series, which I’m reading alongside a few blogger friends this year, and Miriam has left Germany and is interviewed for a position at a school in North London. Again, the characters she meets are shown obliquely and entirely from her viewpoint. As an aside, I described this as being “Cubist” in my last Richardson review, and was pleased (OK, a bit smug) to read in the introduction to “Mrs Dalloway” Woolf’s technique being described in the same way.
Anyway, this technique has started to remind me a bit of when I was studying linguistics, and was introduced to the idea that people talking face-to-face hardly ever use nouns. Think about it – if you’re dress shopping, you’ll go, “I like that one, what about the blue one, oh, this is nice, let’s try these on”. Then the listener must try to piece together what’s being talked about, especially if they’re analysing a tape of the discussion without the context. Following Miriam’s thought processes, preoccupations and discussions, we lose track of people then find them again way later: for example, early on, she meets a man during the holidays, then we get absorbed in the world of school again, and it’s only much later that we obliquely hear what happened to their relationship – because Richardson selects rather than giving everything, and the selection is almost random, as one’s own thought processes tend to be.
Miriam is growing up in this book, but she odes seem like a mardy teenager in places, for example when she’s on holiday with two sisters and a prospective brother-in-law and finds the other holiday-makers’ perfectly normal plans “silly” in the extreme, but then engages in some sort of slightly desulatory flirtation with a man they meet, or using slang terms in front of her older, staid employers. She is given more responsibility than she was in Germany, and her interactions with her acolyte / admirer (who is actually more natural with the pupils than she is) highlight the gap between perception and reality (opening up interesting ideas about how our perception of her life through her eyes might relate to reality).
The book ends on another point of change for the characters and I look forward to the next volume. Why did I think this was so difficult and put off reading it? Again, thank you to the booky friends who have encouraged and joined in this readalong (and please post links to your reviews in the comments).
This book would suit … see above, if you want a lost woman of modernism to contrast with the well-known one!
Currently reading – I’ve been a bit tired this week, so I decided to pick the “Chalet School” omnibus off the shelf because it’s a nice big one and will make more room! I’ve also just started Margery Sharp’s “The Foolish Gentlewoman” which I’m reading for Jane at Beyond Eden Rock‘s Margery Sharp’s 111th Birthday Read – seems very good so far although I’m not completely sure I’ll have it read and reviewed for Monday (apparently that’s OK, though!).
Are you doing Woolfalong or the Dorothy Richardson readalong? How is your January reading going?