Note: every year, I revisit the books of Virginia Woolf. This year is no exception. The Waves, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse…Reading these books, I am taken with the beauty of sentences that unravel backwards, backwards, through the years, to my younger self, alone in a room, wanting to write my own sentences. Reading this post, from June, 2012, 7 years ago, I am reminded again of those urgencies.
It might seem that I don’t read much. These entries focus on my garden, or mushroom gathering, or encounters with lizards, snakes, and bees. Or recount a meal with friends, or a brief (or extended) trip to destinations near and far. But in fact I read all the time. I don’t have what I think of as a television metabolism. Ditto for dvds, unless I know ahead of time that I’m going to love the film and not resent the two hours taken from books. Each evening I go up to my bed, settle all four pillows behind me, and take up a book from the stack beside my bed. This week the stack is composed of Ian McEwan’s Solar, William Boyd’s new novel (which I’ve just begun and which takes place in Vienna), a travel book by Frances Mayes which is beautifully written but almost unbearably self-congratulatory.
Lately I’ve been thinking a fair bit about my early twenties, when I was finding myself as a writer. Or beginning to: this is perhaps more accurate. I felt so vulnerable, almost porous: the world seemed to enter my body in every breath of wind, each unfolding hill ahead of me on the walks I took regularly with my family’s dog. I knew I had to find a way to express and contain my experience of the world and poetry was that gift to me. For me.
And books too, particularly biographies and collections of what is now called creative non-fiction. (What was it called then, I’m wondering? I think of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, for example, which I read shortly after it was published in 1974, when I was 19.) When I first began to read Virginia Woolf, it was such a revelation. Her work was so precise, yet lyrical too, closer to poetry sometimes than other prose I was reading. I devoured her novels and then discovered her essays. The Common Reader was so engaging and encouraging, somehow, to a young woman on the west coast of Canada; I felt emboldened to take myself a little more seriously. I loved A Writer’s Diary, too, which led me to the complete diaries, edited so intelligently by Anne Olivier Bell; and then Quentin Bell’s wonderful biography. Over the years I read many other Woolf biographies and their focus shifted as the times changed. Lyndall Gordon’s, for example, and Hermione Lee’s – they explored Woolf’s sexual abuse and looked at the arc of her life from a feminist perpective; useful and important scholarship.
I thought of Virginia Woolf a lot during the week we spent in Bloomsbury in early March. On Marchmont Street, for instance, where we drank coffee on stools looking out at the sunlight and ate pastries from a wonderful bakery, I recalled her diary entry: “Can I collect any first impressions? How Marchmont Street was like Paris… Oh the convenience of the place and the loveliness too… Why do I love it so much?” When I came home, I reread The Waves and Mrs. Dalloway, I reread The Years, and the diaries, wanting her voice in my head as I went about my days. I need her courage these days, feeling a little as though my writing is a little too old-fashioned for these hyped-up times.
Yesterday we were in Vancouver to see a play and I thought I’d check out the Woolf shelf at Macleod’s Books. And there was Quentin Bell’s biography, in two volumes, in a slipcase with that gorgeous photograph of Virginia as a girl, soft and dreamy, on one side and a later photograph, still dreamy but also older, haunted, on the other, a fourth printing of the Hogarth Press Edition. I looked to see how much it cost and was delighted to see that Volume 1 was inscribed by Quentin Bell to one Elisabeth Jenson. And the price? About what a lunch would cost, with a glass of wine. So I bought them and they’re on my bedside table.