Thursday, August 25, 2005

Not Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf is one of my favorite authors so I was pretty excited to read Letters to Virginia Woolf by Lisa Williams. The book is a series of letters by Williams addressed to Woolf. The letters consider topics like terrorism, women's bodies and fertility, and war. Williams uses Woolf's ideas and thoughts and quotes from A Room of One's Own, Mrs. Dalloway and Three Guineas among others, as a jumping off point for personal reflections on her own life and on society at large. The letters are short, most only one to two pages. They are written in a smooth and soothing lyrical style making it no surprise that Williams also writes poetry. Some of the most affecting letters are about 9/11. Williams lives in New York and she writes about what it was like on that day, waiting for her husband who worked five blocks away from the Trade Center to call her and say he was okay. She nicely juxtaposes these violence and death of that morning with the quiet neighborhood park where she took her son to play later that afternoon. She reflects, watching the children playing, "And yet it was the children that day who took a defiant stance against terror. While the rest of use waded through a vague and undetermined sense of dread, the children played on, refusing, for now, to give up their short-lived innocence." My favorite letter comes late in the book. It is a letter that I think might have resonance for quite a few book lovers, so here it is in it's entirety:

Often at night as I lay in my bed, I felt frightened. While my mother slept in the room down the hall, her new husband would stay up late listening to modern and classical music, as he slowly sipped glass after glass of port wine. The discordant sounds--the notes from violins and viola speeding suddenly in a high-pitched frenzy of terror before slowing down into the drugged forgetfulness of sleep and dreams--made me toss and turn with fear. The screeching, nightmarish music seemed to uncover a reality obscured by daylight. It was during that time I first read Mrs. Dalloway. At sixteen, I did not understand a word of it. I only knew the words seemed to dance across the page. And then the words were my body, and I was dancing, as I lay there feeling the movement of language down my arms and legs, knowing what I could not comprehend was something I loved deeply nonetheless. Now after all these years, as I try to reconnect with my younger self, I know for sure it was books that saved me.
Letters to Virginia Woolf is a short book that can be read in an afternoon. There were places I lost interest--mostly the letters about Williams' struggle to get pregnant as she approached 40. I will not blame Williams for this though. I am not a mother and have never wanted to be a mother. Sometimes I find it difficult to understand why someone wants a child so badly she will go through the indignities of the fertility industry. So I count my lack of interest to be my fault, not the author's. While I don't think the book is amazing, it is, overall, well written and an enjoyable afternoon's reading.