Some mornings, I use Virginia Woolf’s diaries as a form of divination. I’ve been reading her since I was 16 (that’s nearly 50 years!) and I return to her diaries over and over for a glimpse of her mind at work. Some mornings, I dip in to see what she was thinking around this time of year. I suspect I’ve posted this before but here’s what she was writing in late August, 1930, about The Waves, perhaps my favourite of her books.
The Waves is I think resolving itself (I am at page 100) into a series of dramatic soliloquies. The thing is to keep them running homogeneously in and out, in the rhythm of the waves. Can they be read consecutively? I know nothing about that. I think this is the greatest opportunity I have yet been able to give myself; therefore I suppose the most complete failure. Yet I respect myself for writing this book—yes—even though it exhibits my congenital faults.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I finished writing a novella loosely based on Mrs. Dalloway. I loved working on it, creating an ideal day (which of course contained a lot of history) in the life of the narrator Alice and her family, who are gathered for a party. It will be a final party for reasons known only to Alice and her husband Nick. It’s every party we’ve ever had in high summer, the table laid with the best crockery and silver, wine chilling in the big galvanized wash tub, salmon on the barbecue, jugs of flowers at every turn, someone whipping cream for the blackberry pies, and….see what happened there? I gave away the story’s source. And that might be the problem with this particular novella. Too much of us, not enough fiction. Though there is certainly fiction in it. The house has more bedrooms than ours, the family has one more child than we do (and the children are composites, they’re not equivalents), and when the former friend comes up the driveway carrying a knife, well, maybe she’s fictional too.
Right now it feels like something to tuck away in a drawer, maybe forever. Some of the people I was commemorating in the novella are dead and some aren’t. Some never existed in the first place. But given what’s happened with the world and how we don’t know how our lives will unfold in the mysterious future that we hope is still possible, I’m very happy to have written it. There are soliloquies in it, cello solos, a series of calls and responses. The writing of it felt very much like an opportunity and yes, a failure in some ways. I’d hoped for more originality, more depth to the actual work. I had so much to say and I wonder why I didn’t manage to say it all.
In the meantime, summer is almost over. This morning, walking into the lake for our swim, we noticed bear tracks in the sand. I’d better pick the apples when we get back, John said, and he did. Exactly 60 pounds of Merton Beauties, from a small tree he thinned by a third when the little apples were forming. Whatever else the unfolding future holds, there will be pies and crumbles and French apple cake flavoured with rum. In the Before Times, these would have been desserts for parties, served on the plates John’s family brought from England in 1953, with the little silver dessert forks. People would laugh and eat and not mind how close they were sitting to their neighbour. We’d hug (hug!) at the end of the evening and walk our guests to their cars under stars so beautiful I’d dream of them.
Yet I respect myself for writing this book—yes—even though it exhibits my congenital faults.
90 years ago, Virginia Woolf was finishing a book and I think of her so often, her troubled and radiant life. I’m sitting at my desk, with the scent of apples finding their way to me, grateful to have opened her diary for this message about doing what we need to do.