Tuesday, August 29, 2006

"The Mark on the Wall"

My short story of the week(end) on Sunday was Virginia Woolf's "The Mark on the Wall." Now that I have finally read it, I know why it is touted as groundbreaking. While Woolf plays with narrative style in her earlier pieces, they are all fairly straightforward, nothing too out of the ordinary. In "The Mark on the Wall" she suddenly breaks into stream of consciousness. Her first novel, The Voyage Out was published in 1915. "The Mark on the Wall", coupled with a short story by Leonard Woolf, was the first publication of Hogarth Press (owned and operated by her and Leonard) in 1917. Woolf's next novel, Night and Day would not be published until 1919. Also published in 1919 was a collection of her short fiction called Monday or Tuesday which includes a slightly revised from 1917 version of "The Mark on the Wall." "The Mark on the Wall" is so different from the stories that came before I can't help but wonder what happened. I've read that portion of her diary but nothing springs to mind. Maybe I need to read Voyage Out for some clues? In case you have not read "The Mark on the Wall," the story is simple. It is a woman sitting in her living room in the middle of January smoking a cigarette. She glances up to the wall above the mantel and sees a small, black mark on the wall that she has never noticed before. She does not get up for a closer look at the mark, she sits there smoking, allowing her mind to wander and wonder about the mark. Her meandering thoughts take her to thinking about the previous owners of the house, "the mystery of life," the "inaccuracy of thought," the "ignorance of humanity," Sunday luncheons, the nature of knowledge, Whitaker's Table of Precedency, the life of a tree, and over and over, what is that darn mark on the wall? We find out in the end when the narrator's husband appears. In typical Woolf style she manages in a single sentence to inject humor and irony into the story and astonished and worshipful awe into this reader. Woolf's ability to do so much with one sentence used to make me mad because I didn't see it for the brilliance that it was. My first Woolf fiction was To the Lighthouse, something I picked up over the summer when I was an undergrad in college because I had read A Room of One's Own the previous the semester and thought I should read the fiction of someone who was supposed to be so Important. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. My reading of the book was so inept I was ten pages past where Mrs. Ramsey dies before I realized she was dead. I went back, thinking I had missed a big scene and found that it had all happened in one sentence. Utterly ridiculous! Whatever it was that kept me reading Woolf, I am grateful for it. Now I see how very difficult it is to write one of those sentences. Woolf earns every one of them by building up, word after word, page after page. In my book, "The Mark on the Wall" is five and half pages of build up to The Sentence. Without The Sentence, the story would just be an interesting story. As for The Sentence, it couldn't exist without the preceding five and a half pages. The story is a delight to think about and marvel over. I've been dancing around in it since I read it Sunday afternoon and wishing that the Hand of God, or the Muses or whoever is in charge of these things, would suddenly bless me with the ability to write like Woolf. That's not too much to ask, is it?