Monday, August 21, 2006

Emptying the Brain

Yesterday's Short Story Sunday brought me back to Virginia Woolf. I read two stories from The Complete Shorter Fiction, "A Dialogue Upon Mount Pentelicus" and "Memoirs of a Novelist." Neither were fantastic, but both were interesting and worthwhile in their own way. "Dialogue Upon Mount Pentelicus" takes place in Greece. A group of six Englishmen are descending the mountain on donkeys accompanied by their Greek guides. The story was never published, nor a firm date for it's inception established. Though it is guessed to have been written sometime in 1906 after Woolf's visit to Greece with her sister and two brothers. Woolf makes an attempt at satire with the story. Her style has a hard edge to it up until the very end when we see a glimmer of the lyricism of her later writing style. The satire works. She makes neat fun of the Englishmen's high-mindedness and snobbery. She also makes a few writerly incursions into the story saying at one point that she was not going to write out the dialogue she was about to relate word-for-word because

dialogues are even more hard to write than to speak, and it is doubtful whether written dialogues have ever been spoken or spoken dialogues have ever been written, we will only rescue such fragments as concern our story. But this we will say, that the talk was the finest talk in the world.
Thus, she is able to save her young self the difficulty of writing out the dialogue in such a way that it would continue the satire of the story, but gets to make a smart-aleck remark on the nature of the dialogue in question. "Memoirs of a Novelist" was written is 1909 and rejected for publication by Cornhill Magazine. Here Woolf seems to be working out ideas of character and questions of biography. The novelist of the story is the invented Miss Willatt. The biographer is her friend Miss Linsett. Miss Willatt, while still alive, had made it clear that she did not want a biography and all of her papers published and pawed through by the public. But Miss Linsett, who perhaps convinced her otherwise, published a two volume life and letters with the permission of the family. The story is a sort of critical review of the two volumes. The narrator/critic asks some interesting questions:
What right has the world to know about men and women? What can a biographer tell it? and then, in what sense can it be said that the world profits? The objection to asking these questions is not only that they take so much room, but that they lead to an uncomfortable vagueness of mind.
The Critic goes on to discuss Miss Linsett's rendering of of Miss Willat's life. Wonders if Miss Linsett got it wrong; questions why some of the most interesting parts of Miss Wilatt's life are only demurely hinted at; and faults Miss Linsett for being more interested in the status the biography confers onto her than that is reveals anything important about Miss Wilatt. Woolf also examines why writers write. We are given suggestions as to Miss Linsett's motivations and through the review of the biography we are treated to speculation about the novelist. One explanation which comes across as part joke and part true is this thought:
After all, merely to sit with your eyes open fills the brain, and perhaps in emptying it, one may come across something illuminating.
I can easily imagine this is something Woolf could have applied to herself.