Category Archives: Books

What I learned by writing a critical history of Mrs Dalloway

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway was ninety years old this May, and in its lifetime it has been approached from a wide range of critical angles.  My Virginia Woolf: Mrs Dalloway in Palgrave’s Readers’ Guide to Essential Criticism series aims to provide a road map to the criticism and summaries of the most important works from various eras and schools. It also aims to place the critics’ works in the context of the literary criticism of their time. I also try to draw some larger conclusions, and I speculate a little about what might happen next.  This blog is more about what I learned about the history of criticism and about Mrs Dalloway in the process of researching and writing the guide.


(1) Critical histories don’t align neatly with decades

Some of the earlier guides in the series (when it began as the Icon Critical Guides) tidied up their works’ critical histories on a decade-by-decade basis, but even my earliest examination of the key critical texts suggested this wasn’t feasible.  A critic who learned his or her trade in the 1950s when the New Criticism was at its peak might write an insightful book twenty years later, and might have grown bold enough to break with some orthodoxies, but in many cases their work will still embody many of the assumptions that they began with.  I’m thinking here primarily of Avrom Fleishman’s 1977 book on Woolf, but also, more subtly, of Emily Jensen’s “Clarissa Dalloway’s Respectable Suicide”.  I place Jensen’s article on the chapter on sexuality, and it was first published in one of Jane Marcus’s pioneering collections of essays; but some of the critical language that Jensen uses harks back to the New Criticism.  At any given moment criticism might contain dominant, residual, and emergent elements (to borrow Raymond Williams’s terminology).  The chapters of the guide follow a broadly chronological pattern, but there are long overlaps.

(2) No-one can agree how many main characters there are

Mrs Dalloway is full of minor characters, some of them little more than names, but how many central characters are there?  The easiest answer is that there’s one, Clarissa Dalloway.  But to view the novel that way relegates Septimus’s story to being what one critic called a ‘grotesque … episode’.  If we see Septimus as a major character, then the novel has a different centre of gravity, and might even be said to have a different form.  What if we also see Peter Walsh as a significant character? And what if we see Elizabeth Dalloway and her relationship with her mother as important, as marking the presence of a future form of social organization?  As critics promote or demote different characters, the emphasis falls differently; the novel takes a different shape and means something subtly different.

(3) Interesting critical articles sometimes dissolve on closer examination

When Palgrave initially approached me about writing this book, the model for the series was closer to that of a critical anthology: long extracts (1000-2000 words) with generous framing commentaries and critical contextualisation. By the time I’d submitted a proposal, the model had changed, presumably because Palgrave were being asked to pay copyright fees. The change in model was good; it allows for a survey that is more generous in its range and that gives a better indication of the variety of criticism, both the big differences and the subtle.  It also changes the emphasis of the author’s task from being an anthologist to being a summariser, though of course in both models the author has to contextualise the pieces and indicate their strengths and limitations. The problem with being a summariser is that works of criticism in styles that are more performative or associative  don’t survive well.  They can be immensely stimulating, they can present fascinating neglected primary texts or cultural contexts, they can be full of brilliant generalisations, but if at the end the reader is left asking ‘What was the argument?’ or ‘Why was that worth saying?’, it’s much harder to find a place for them in a guide like this one.

(4) Interesting criticism on Michael Cunningham’s The Hours doesn’t always yield new insights into Mrs Dalloway

In writing my Virginia Woolf (2005) for the OUP Authors in Context series, I greatly enjoyed thinking about how adaptations (both filmic and textual) recontextualise the original work and might be taken as a form of criticism.  It seemed logical therefore, in writing this book, to include a chapter on criticism of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours.  But fairly early on I set myself the criterion that I wasn’t going to write about all criticism on The Hours: it had to be criticism that also looked at Mrs Dalloway, and in which The Hours cast Woolf’s novel in a new light and allowed us to see something about it more clearly. And when you do that, the number of eligible pieces of criticism reduces drastically. It must be said that some of what remains is among the best formalist criticism that I’ve read on Woolf’s novel: reading the two works side by side allows critics to bring out the brilliance of Woolf’s narrative form. I’m not sure I’d have read Kate Haffey’s ‘Exquisite Moments and the Temporality of the Kiss’ if I hadn’t been writing this book, and I’m glad I did.

(5) Mrs Dalloway looks different with different partner texts

One of the biggest struggles Mrs Dalloway had in the early years of its critical reception was the struggle to escape the shadow of Joyce’s Ulysses, a work crucial to the Kenner & Co. construction of modernism. But there were other, subtler influences. For a long time, To the Lighthouse was deemed to be Woolf’s supreme achievement, and it was the only one of her novels that Leavisite critics would give any time to. If you read Mrs Dalloway under the influence of To the Lighthouse, then it can easily  look like a knowledge about marriage — though a less perfect novel than its successor — and the main characters become Clarissa and Richard, with Septimus and Rezia as their parallels. I don’t give much space to this version of Mrs Dalloway in my book, but it was definitely present in the work of some critics.  Another way of partnering Mrs Dalloway is to find an essay by Woolf to read it with. For the decades where formalist concerns predominated, the obvious partners were ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ and the closely related ‘Character in Fiction’. What’s interesting to observe is how in recent years those essays have come to be taken as read, and with the rise of a more politically focused Woolf, ‘Thunder at Wembley’ has become interesting to several critics.

(6) Sometimes you can’t include interesting and important critics

I found that writing a critical survey of a single novel inevitably foregrounded a certain kind of criticism, one which culminates in, or at least dances around, a ‘reading’ of the novel.  In other words, the ghost of New Criticism can’t quite be laid to rest.  This problem was at its most acute when dealing with critics who wrote about Woolf’s philosophy, or Woolf’s relation to other philosophies.  Such work often involves connecting together a web of references across several different works. The weaving can build a substantial structure, but doesn’t necessarily have anything substantial to say about any single work. The same can also be true for some kinds of cultural materialist work. Inevitably, if a critical article has ‘Mrs Dalloway‘ in its title, it’s more likely to be considered for inclusion than if it doesn’t; if a book has a substantial section on the novel, rather than a generous scattering of references, it’s more likely to have caught my attention. A critical history of Woolf criticism in general — an immense undertaking — would give greater prominence to certain critics who feature here not at all, or who appear only as editors of volumes in which other interesting work was published.

(7) Where now for Mrs Dalloway criticism?

My approach throughout is historicist: how Mrs Dalloway has been approached has been influenced by institutional histories of literary criticism, and sometimes more directly by social and political movements outside the academy. Feminism most obviously: it’s impossible to tell the story of Woolf criticism without telling the story of feminist criticism, and later the story of theories of sexuality. Pacifism is important too: Mrs Dalloway, I suspect, became more prominent in Woolf’s oeuvre than To the Lighthouse because of the Vietnam War and the response to it.  But seeing criticism as historically determined makes it hard to identify future trends  While we can make a guess at trends in literary criticism that will be relevant to Woolf — eco-criticism, let’s say, and comparativism in the new guise of transnational criticism — it’s harder to know exactly how they will play out in the specific case of Mrs Dalloway.  I hope I’ve provided a useful road map, but we’re travelling through time, not space, and the edge of the map is inevitably hazy.


King Crimson gigs, September 2015

This month I’ve been lucky enough see King Crimson perform not once but twice, and I’m not sure anything I can write here will ever convey how amazing they were.  That, of course, is why I want to write about it.

I first became aware of Robert Fripp in the early 80s, as the guitarist on David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’;  around 1984 or 1985 Dan Coggins (always generous) lent me a tape of Three of a Perfect Pair.  Both the title song and the atmospheric side two material stayed with me, but I didn’t follow it up for some time.  With Fripp’s appearance on David Sylvian’s Gone to Earth (1986) I grew more intrigued, and around that time must have got Fripp’s solo album Exposure, perhaps to check out the alternative version of Peter Gabriel’s ‘Here Comes the Flood’. I was intrigued by the J. G. Bennett samples on both those records, though I wasn’t sure what to make of them. Then some time in the late 90s or early 200s I started listening to Brian Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets, and was blown away by Fripp on ‘Baby’s on Fire’, and at that point started listening to King Crimson from various eras.  All of which is to say, I’ve been waiting for these gigs for a long time.

I was a little sceptical when I heard the band was reforming with three drummers.  Two drummers had worked well, but three seemed to risk the sound becoming too percussive and too bottom-heavy.  I needn’t have worried.  The three-drummers interlock their beats in a way that’s mesmerising: the gamelan style of playing that characterised Fripp and Belew’s guitar parts in the early 1980s lives on it the drums.  Although it’s hard to keep up with which sounds are coming from where, at times Gavin Harrison and Bill Rieflin take the main drum part, while Pat Mastelloto fills in with percussive noises (wobbly sheets of metal, maracas, squeaky toys).  All three had some sort of electronic trigger device for tuned percussion. There’s an almost comical contrast in scale between Rieflin’s very basic kit, and Harrison’s sprawling one, which has enough drums for two. On some pieces, Rieflin didn’t touch his drums, and played mellotron (or mellotron emulator).

Visually, they aren’t a spectacle in the usual rock performance way: every player stays pretty much where he is; only Tony Levin makes any significant amount of eye contact with the audience, and the occasional wryly amused smile. That gives him strong stage presence, though it may also be the case that as a one-time bassist — a recovering bassist — I was more than usually interested to see what he was up to. The Stick is a baffling instrument; the Funky Fingers (on ‘The Talking Drum’, I think) were fascinating to watch.  The lighting was minimal, remaining the same except when the lights turned red at the end of ‘Starless.  At Edinburgh Levin laughed when a drum improvisation we thought had ended started up again.  At the same gig, Jakko Jacszyk was laughing openly at the wild idiot-dancing during the final song of the encore, ‘Twenty-First Century Schizoid Man’ — but that was an exception.  But they’re still visually interesting to see, particularly because of the three drummers spread out across the full width of the stage: you’re constantly looking from one to another, to locate the source of a particular sound, and it’s intriguing to watch them watching each other.

When Mel Collins began to play his instruments, I was slightly surprised, and likewise when Jacszyk began to sing: I had’t heard these sounds within the Crimson mix for a long time, and in  Jacszyk’s case never (only since the Aylesbury gig have I caught up with A Scarcity of Miracles). It took a few moments to get used to, and they didn’t seem to blend with the other instruments; but it was immediately apparent how well Jacszyk’s voice suited the early 1970s material.  At the Edinburgh gig both elements seemed to fit more comfortably: I think simply because I’d got used to it, not any change in the mix. At both gigs, Collins’s baritone sax was particularly impressive, adding a rich forceful sound at the bass end of the spectrum, complementing Levin’s bass.

At both gigs Fripp’s playing was unostentatious, with there being nothing akin to his solos on ‘Baby’s On Fire’ or the Sylvian/Fripp material, but this didn’t register as a disappointment; the pleasure is to hear the entire band interlocking. Where there were extended solos — Gavin Harrison did an extended piece in ‘Schizoid Man’, though it seemed shorter at Edinburgh than Aylesbury — it was a pleasure to hear players I’m unfamiliar with.

Fripp has written often on his blog about his irritation with people recording and photographing gigs, primarily, it would seem, because he would prefer listeners to be living in the moment with the music, rather than living in anticipation of a later playback.  There’s something high modernist about his belief in art as a sacred or quasi-sacred space, and philosophically I’m not sure I buy the idea of the rigorous exclusion of contingency; however, I’m comfortable with the exclusion of cameras.  I wondered at Edinburgh how Fripp felt about people dancing in a mock-Bacchanalian way to ‘Schizoid Man’: I was relieved to see that Jacszyk saw the funny side, but Fripp’s expression gave nothing away. The Aylesbury audience was impressive though: complete silence, which meant that the quite and the silent moments in the music, between the loudness and heaviness, were all the more gripping.  The Edinburgh audience was significantly more restless: there was more coming and going between songs (which I find baffling) and, especially by the end, more cheering and singing along. Much as I appreciated the Aylesbury audience’s concentration, it made them seem staid by comparison. But in both cases the kind of relation the audience’s took to the performance, much more like that of a classical music audience, allowed for a better appreciation of the music.  These were performances of power and precision, muscularity and delicacy, invention and wit. One review spoke of them as valedictory, which I hope isn’t to be the case; but if it is, I’m lucky to have seen them.

Use Your Illusion I and II, by Eric Weisbard (33 1/3 series)

I not quite sure why I chose this 33 1/3 book; possibly I thought it might be interesting to read about music that I’ve never deliberately listened to.  My partner plays Guns n’ Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine” from time to time, and I’m in some way fond of its closing section and the way it runs through every heavy rock cliché in the book and pushes them all that little bit further.  But “Sweet Child of Mine” didn’t appear on Use Your Illusion. The only track I’ve ever knowingly heard off it is the cover version of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.”  I’d never been keen on heavy metal, even less so hair metal, and when the album came out in September 1991 I was mostly listening to indie rock. For me, 1991 was dominated by The Jazz Butcher’s Condition Blue and the Blue Aeroplanes’ Beatsongs. I was nowhere near the scene of the crime.

Weisbard 333 jacket

Weisbard was near the scene, and spends most of the book being embarrassed about the fact.  There’s some comedy in this, as in Geoff Dyer’s book about not writing a biography of D. H. Lawrence, but — in both cases — not enough to sustain a whole book.  The book begins with some interesting reflections on the larger changes in rock and its relation to rebellion and corporatist consumerism, and if there’s something worthwhile in the whole exercise, it’s Weisbard’s well-informed awareness of the historical moment of the double album: above all, the moment where the idea of releasing two double albums was possible, and necessary for the kind of band whose career was posited on excess, and where the gesture was about to expose the emptiness of the entire genre.  Part of Weisbard’s running joke is that the albums are just too long for him to be bothered listening to; back in 1991 he had made a manageable tape-length selection.  In Chapter 2 he runs through his reduced length version, before reminiscing about Spin magazine and its place in the historical moment of the early 1990s.  In this, Guns N’ Roses front man Axl Rose becomes symbolic of rock at the moment of its last gasp, where it (seemingly) can’t sustain the hopes that have been attached to it. At this point, Weisbard seems to lose interest, or focus, and although Chapter 3 has many anecdotes of Axl Rose’s infantile misbehaviour and wasted talent, and although these are incidentally amusing, the book becomes incoherent.  Chapter 4 takes us through the various ways in which band and record company repackaged the album.  Finally, in Chapter 5, we have the conventional element of a 33 1/3 book, the track-by-track discussion, here rendered unconventional by Weisbard’s reluctance to do it.  Inevitably, his accounts of some tracks are perfunctory; that wouldn’t be so bad were it not that he also gives short shrift to tracks that would be interesting to discuss within the frame that he had earlier established. He might, for example, have discussed the way that “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”, in its bloated and epic scale, becomes “about” rock, about ambition, about the band’s ability to remould and remake Dylan’s song, and the way that in doing so it loses touch completely with the song’s emotional core; it becomes as self-referential as any postmodern ironist could wish, only without the ironic self-knowledge. There are signs in Weisbard’s book that an interesting work could be written about the Use Your Illusion albums, but this one is a missed opportunity.

Cyclogeography, by Jon Day

Cyclogeography: Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier (Notting Hill Editions, 2015) is, in two ways, a book I’ve waited for for years.  One because I know the author, in the perhaps distorting context of having supervised his M.St. dissertation and his D.Phil. thesis; neither work concerned bicycles, but he mentioned a long time ago that he was writing about the cyclist as flâneur, and my ears pricked up.  The other reason I’ve been waiting for this book, and the reason for my interest, is simply that being a cyclist has been, at various stages in my life, very important to me.  At an early stage in my love of bikes, when I was maybe thirteen or fourteen, I devoured the Penguin Book of the Bicycle by Roderick Watson and Martin Grey, which I recall (hazily) as being a mixture of history and technical detail; but on the whole cycling has been something I’ve done, but rarely read or talked about.

Jon Day's Cyclogeography: beautifully printed and bound

What’s revelatory about Cyclogeography — though much of this material is concentrated in the early chapters — is that it’s an account of the bodily, physical experience of cycling and the connection it gives you to the landscape — and not ‘landscape’ as it would be understood by painters, but landscape understood primarily as road surface, as the micro-contours of road cambers and curves, and only then as something involving the middle distance and the broad panorama; and, because of that immediacy of perception, it’s also about the heightened awareness you acquire when a significant part of that environment has the potential to maim or kill you; and about the heightened awareness of your body’s aches and frailties that you acquire when you’re doing sixty to a hundred miles a day. Cyclogeography starts from Jon’s experiences as London cycling courier, but it also takes in his experiences riding out into the country beyond London, and ends with his retracing the route of Edward Thomas’s 1913 cycling-travelogue, In Search of Spring. My cycling experiences are very different from Jon’s, being primarily rural; apart from a couple of journeys through Paris, the most dangerous place I’ve cycled in is Oxford. But there’s a lot in the book that articulates familiar feelings  and muscle-memories.  Some of this comes in vivid set-piece accounts:

I join the peloton, attacking when I see a gap until I’ve moved to the front of the bunch. I cast a wide loop around a pedestrian on a zebra-crossing, grabbing the side of a bus to pull myself through a gap. I weave between the taxis that are cruising the road in search of fares. Cycling in traffic like this is an opportunistic business, part instinct and part analysis. You have to move from gap to gap, navigating the flow of traffic with the detached concentration of a boulderer addressing a climbing problem.

At the lights the exhaust of a bus blasts my feet like the warm nuzzling of some enormous dog.  The aerial of my radio sticks out form the strap of my bag at an angle and extends for a few inches beyond my shoulder, functioning like a cat’s whiskers, alerting me to the width of gaps as I squeeze through them. My shoulders are no wider than my handlebars, so I know that if I can fit them through the rest of my body will follow (pp.23-24).

But some of the particular and peculiar form of knowledge that comes from cycling is dropped in more casually, as when he mentions the awareness of the changing quality of the road surface with the changing seasons, or the awareness of the peculiar smells of different quarters of town.  And his being able to articulate these sensations comes from a wider collective knowledge in the community of couriers: he describes how in slack time between jobs, they would ‘memorialise the city … discussing our favourite streets and the perfect runs we’d made along them, hymning serendipitous formations of tarmac, those sweet-spots of camber and incline we had discovered hidden in the grid.’

But as well as articulating things I’d wanted to see written down for years — without ever having fully realised it — Jon gives an insight into a subculture that I knew nothing of, that of the London courier: I knew nothing of who tends to do the job and why; nothing of their informally organised races (‘alleycat races’); had no idea how jobs are allocated or just how far a courier might ride in a day; nothing of how the preference for fixed wheels originated. He’s interesting too on the place the courier occupies in the employment pecking order, and there’s an interesting dissonance between his account of the immediate pleasures of cycling through the city, of owning the spaces as you make them, and his account of the informal and temporary nature of the work, on account of which the couriers own next to nothing. The tone is often elegiac, as the fax machine and the email have reduced the need for couriers; and because the working life of the courier is always shadowed by an awareness that most bodies can’t endure the kinds of pressure that the job places on them; and  though the author doesn’t foreground it, there’s an awareness throughout of death and serious injury.  With my supervisor’s hat on I found myself asking ‘what’s your argument’, but that’s the wrong question for this kind of work; Cyclogeography is exploratory and non-linear in its approach, and all the richer for it.


Dangerous, by Susan Fast (33 1/3 series)

Even though I was never a Michael Jackson fan, Thriller was so omnipresent in the early 1980s, when I was listening to the radio a lot, watching TOTP, etc., that the music from that phase of his career feels quite deeply embedded in me, and even though he later became a figure of fun — “I’m forever blowing Bubbles” — when the music manifests itself as an earworm, the earworm is not unwelcome. That said, by the time Dangerous came out in 1991, my tastes had cohered around indie and its forerunners and I wasn’t taking much interest in chart pop.  I can honestly say I read Susan Fast’s 33 1/3 book without having listened to Dangerous, and I’m fairly sure I’d never even heard it.  And to my surprise, having read her book, I really wanted to listen to it.  That’s a rare achievement for a book in this series.  How does she do it?

Fast 333 cover

Parts of this book are fairly predictable academic stuff — identity politics, postmodernism, and so forth — but Fast does them concisely, and they earn their keep. The book is worth reading because, firstly, the passion of Fast’s advocacy of this album comes across, and by implication her feeling that we should take Jackson seriously as an artist across his career; and secondly, because she’s brilliant at evoking the music and at following up her evocations with analyses of what the music means.

At times Fast presupposes that we share her estimation of Jackson and the shape of his career, Early on, when she’s dealing with those critics who feel he went into a decline as soon as Thriller left the no.1 spot, she’s content to groan sarcastically “OK, got it.” But generally speaking she’s explicit about her position and her strategies, and in particular about the need to establish a new narrative to counter the one of Jackson as a weird recluse.

Fast argues that the album falls into four major chunks, and divides her book up accordingly. This thematic grouping gives her chapters some depth and length, which can be a problem in 33 1/3 books, where authors sometimes cram the analysis of the actual songs into a single chapter (which is never long enough), or sometimes give each song its own chapter (which makes for short chapters).  The first of Fast’s chapters, “Noise,” focuses on the opening group of tracks and the way their noisiness relates to hip-hop: one of Fast’s larger contentions in the book is that in Dangerous, Jackson revitalised his relation to African-American music. There’s some slightly stale discussion of what postmodernism was, and more purposefully, whether it’s a category worth using in relation to African-American culture; but where the chapter really takes off is in Fast’s discussion of the musical details of “Jam”.  She’s not afraid to ask us to listen to what’s happening on the sixth beat in a group of eight; not afraid to note how the melody dips down, in a blues style, from a C to a B.  This precision of detail complements Jackson’s own music, of course — as she puts it early on, his “love of crisp, staccato, complex, knock-you-down rhythms” (p.13) — but would be welcome in relation to anyone’s music. She’s also very good at recognising that Jackson’s voice was an instrument of great range and variety which he played with intelligence and skill: she’s good at evoking the changes of tone in his voice, even within a single song: “The woundedness and angst — and the clean timbre and heavy vibrato — give way to a choked up, stuttering and distorted sound the likes of which we’ve never heard from Jackson before” (p.41).

Ever since the appearance of the “Thriller” video, the appearance of a Michael Jackson album was a multi-media event, and so it’s almost unavoidable that Fast gives attention to other aspects of Jackson as an artist: to the “short films” that were made for some of the songs, to Jackson’s dance performances within them, and to Jackson’s changing image. While at times these discussions feel like a distraction from the music, Fast brings the same precision and insight to them that she brings to the analysis of the record itself. She sees his image as a carefully contrived work of art: “He revived and transformed soul man masculinity and played it against signifiers that were way outside its range: he mashed up traditional machismo with high femme glamour and soft-spoken sensitivity” (p.49).

The third chapter, “Utopia”, begins with a more general discussion of what Jackson was trying to achieve.  Should his work be dismissed as merely escapist? Is entertainment politically conservative? Against that position, Fast draws on Ernst Bloch’s account of astonishment to think about how it might be politically liberatory: ” Astonishment helps one surpass the limitations of an alienating present-ness and allows one to see a different time and place” (Bloch, quoted p.75). The more general discussion leads into an account of “Heal the World,” which Fast sees as the “thematic pivot” of the album; she sees the centre of the album as being composed of this and two other “utopic songs” (p.78). The musical analysis is sharp, particularly her account of the way that Jackson modulates up the chorus about four and a half minutes into the song. She’s away of the way that such modulations are conventionally used “to up the emotional impact with a bang” (p.83), and, by implication, how such conventions have become stale; and she argues that Jackson manages to refresh the convention by “absent[ing] himself completely from this uplifting moment” and, when he does appear, by singing with a curious degree of restraint.  What’s great about Fast’s analysis is the way that she combines a formal account of the device with a larger perspective on its conventional use and a careful analysis of what makes it distinctive in this particular instance.  Although I’d have happily settled for a slightly shorter book that gave less space to the “short films” and to Jackson’s image, I’d also have been happy to read more musical analysis.  Writers dealing with albums that have more complex lyrics often get so intensely focused on ideas, meanings, and ambiguities that they forget that they’re dealing with songs; they could benefit from reading about Dangerous.


Entertainment! by Kevin J. H. Dettmar (33 1/3 series)

Kevin Dettmar is an academic at Pomona College, California, who works on modernist literature, particularly James Joyce, but who has also written extensively on popular music, in magazines and in books such as Is Rock Dead?  (I was introduced to him briefly at the London Modernism Seminar and I contributed a chapter to the Companion to Modernist Literature and Culture that he co-edited with David Bradshaw).  His book on the Gang of Four’s 1979 album Entertainment! is one of the stronger ones in the series, and avoids some of the structural weaknesses that earlier volumes suffered from; but it still left me wanting something more or something different.

Dettmar 333 cover

I came to the book as someone who had heard the album a long time ago, and could see the merit in it, but never felt strongly about it one way or the other.  Dettmar first heard the album as an Anglophile Californian around 1980, and he begins the book from a personal perspective, confessing that the “strident mumblings of art students from Leeds” weren’t always fully intelligible — in the sense of fully audible — to him.  Through the book Dettmar has recourse to the  idea of the “mondegreen” (coined by Sylvia Wright in 1954), as a way of excusing his mis-hearings. It has a function similar to the “boy in the room” in Jonathan Lethem’s book on Talking Heads’s Fear of Music; Lethem is Dettmar’s colleague at Pomona, and is thanked in the Acknowledgements.   Like the “boy in the room,” the repeated recourse to the mondegreen risks being perceived as self-indulgent — one might be inclined to ask why Dettmar doesn’t admit he was wrong and write about the correct lyrics, rather than parade his errors as if they were virtues — but it gradually acquires significance in terms of the Gang of Four’s ideas about the nature of commodified entertainment:

The album’s made up of debate and dialogue: it’s not concerned with figuring out (never mind presenting) answers, but in opening up interesting questions, engendering productive confusion.  Part of this comes through the staccato syntax of the lyrics […]; part, through the staging of different voices and positions in the song […]. In part, too, through mondegreens: this isn’t something a band can program or plan, but when it happens, it’s another way of making  the listener an active producer of meaning, and co-owner of the politics of the songs. (p.140)

The structure of the book also owes something to Lethem’s, in that Dettmar intersperses his discussions of songs with short chapters on “Keywords,” inspired by Raymond Williams, much as Lethem intersperses his chapters with wider exploratory questions about the album.  The other innovative aspect, different from Lethem’s or any other book in the series that I’ve read, is Dettmar’s pairing of songs in each chapter.  While each song is given its own substantial sub-section in each chapter, this arrangement both allows for chapter of a satisfactory size, and more importantly allows Dettmar to break from the sequence of songs as given on the album and to make thematic connections across sides.  And while this rearranging of the album might seem a symptom of a culture of i-shuffling and MP3s, Dettmar is alive to the fact of Entertainment! being a vinyl-era artefact, and, for example, the first song on the second side being a key position on the album. (I’d have liked him to expand a little further on why that was so, and what listening practices were involved with vinyl.)

The keywords idea works well, except that the concepts chosen (Ideology, Nature, Theory, Alienation, Consumer, Sex), and / or the perspective  that Dettmar takes on them, are essentially sympathetic to the band and to the record.  For example, Dettmar uses the chapter on “Ideology” to think about “the popular image of a guy who uses the word ‘ideology'” as “a bit of a bore,” and to explore how Gang of Four avoided the earnestness that might have followed from their having such a clear political position:

No one buys an album, or attends a concert, to be scolded, and the ideological critique undertaken by Gang of Four always contains a wary consciousness of their own inability simply to quit those behaviours, to transcend those attitudes, that they critique in their songs as a species of bad faith (p.32)

These are keywords needed for a full appreciation of the record, but not necessarily the keywords that would provide a critical perspective on it.  How might the book have looked if Dettmar had explored, for example, the critical history of “reflexivity” in the post-punk era: the tendency of the more intellectual end of the music press to praise bands who were highly self-conscious about their processes and their position in the music industry; and who, more to the point, displayed that self-consciousness prominently. And how might it have looked if Dettmar had noted that such self-consciousness became just a little too straightforwardly assimilable into the discourse of literate rock journalism?  Other keywords that might be explored would focus on the music and the sound of the band and of others in that post-punk era: “funkiness,” let’s say, but also “space” to encompass the tendency of bands to eschew reverb and echo effects in favour of a hard, dry sound.  

Generally speaking, Dettmar’s account of the record is led by the ideas and the lyrics, and if you didn’t know the record you could be forgiven at the end for not knowing what it sounds like; more seriously, if you did know the record, at the end your understanding of the lyrics would be much deeper and more nuanced, but I’m not sure the same could be said of your understanding of the music, or of the lyrics as things that exist within music.  When he does talk about the music, it’s always interesting and attentive to detail: for example, the way that “I Found that Essence Rare” begins with the same four-note figure repeated sixteen times, and the difference it makes in the John Peel sessions version when they repeated the figure only eight times before properly beginning the song.  With sixteen repetitions

they begin to call attention to themselves . . . and to the structure of the song . . . and, by implication, to the structure of pop songs writ large.  It’s another example of Brecht’s “alienation effect”: when the opening phrase is played eight times, it’s invisible; when it’s held for twice as long, the listener is forced really to listen. It’s just one of the ways that Gang of Four messed with pop song conventions (p.111)

Dettmar is also alert to the way that the “drama” of “Damaged Goods” is sharpened by the technique of instrumental dropouts borrowed from dub reggae, as are other songs, though his conclusion on this point — that the effect is to provide “different kinds of framing for the vocals” (p.125) — is frustratingly generalized.  I’d have liked to hear more about what effects those altered frames have on the lyrics, and to hear speculation about how the lyrics might work differently with different frames.



Fear of Music, by Jonathan Lethem (33 1/3 series)

I hesitated before reading this one, on account of an Amazon review which complained that there was no original research into the making of the album, and implied that Lethem put himself and his own subjective response at the centre of the book. I probably should know Lethem’s novels, but I don’t, so Lethem himself isn’t of interest to me.  But I’ve enjoyed Kevin Dettmar’s book on The Gang of Four’s Entertainment, and in it Dettmar thanks Lethem, who’s a colleague at Pomona; and I’ve enjoyed the sheer variety of ways of writing about music that you find in the series, so I took the plunge.

Lethem 333 cover

The big conceit running through the book is that Lethem the narrator is also trying to account for and take into consideration the feelings of the person he was when he first heard the album, “the boy in the room” in 1979 in New York City.   At times the playing between the two positions is self-conscious and showily written, as in this passage in first “Prelude,” where Lethem recalls hearing an advert on the radio for the new album:

But we’re ahead of ourselves. The boy hasn’t heard Fear of Music yet, just the words “Fear” “Of” “Music”. (Is it “Fear-of” music?  Of what would “fear-of” music consist? Is fear made of music?  Can an album be afraid of itself?)  For the signal peculiarity of the long-lost Fear of Music radio spot is that though it was a commercial for an album, it didn’t consist of any actual music.  It was a map that not only wasn’t the territory, it didn’t consist of more than the word “map.” A connect-the-dot diagram with only one dot. An artifact inviting you to consider your now possible future encounter with a subsequent artifact.  To presume to say more would have been to betray the spirit of not-yet-knowing which still shrouded, for the boy in room, merely the whole area of everything that matters most: cities, drugs, sex, music, memories, life. (p.xi)

Reading this, I wondered whether this book was going to irritate me on an epic scale.  I turned out to be wrong.  Much later on (p.103), in his account of the song “Animals,” Lethem digresses self-indulgently into an account of himself as a forty-something father who walks the family pet and how he connects to the nine- or ten-year old proto-boy-in-room who also owned a dog.  The passage is witty enough in its own right, but I’m not sure it takes us any further forward in understanding Fear of Music.  But that passage isn’t typical.

If you recognise the boy-in-his-room a trope, then Lethem can largely be acquitted of the charge of self-indulgence.  The trope allows Lethem to negotiate between what he knows as forty-something adult and writer and what he residually feels because of the intense reactions of his teenage self, and as such it’s interesting and subtle.  There are songs that I heard with great intensity when I was fifteen or seventeen that still feel spine-tinglingly astonishing when I hear them again: I can’t be sure whether these are simply very good songs with sufficient depth to survive repeated listenings, or whether I’m simply being transferred back to the earlier state of mind. So I recognise the problem that Lethem’s dealing with, even if I wouldn’t have dealt with it this way myself. And I also suspect that the emphasis on personal response (setting aside the boy-in-room trope) allows Lethem more freedom when it comes to describing Talking Heads’ music. For though of course he has plenty to say about the lyrics and the underlying ideas, he’s also great at writing figuratively and evocatively about the way this record sounds:

The lunatic optimism of “Mind”‘s ascending guitar pattern and squirting keyboard noises (sound effects for screwball-comedy chemists brewing novelties in a beaker) together with the chipper can-do-ism of the rhythm section, present a burbling wind-up toy that mistook itself for a machine of some great and important purpose (p.22).

Judging by the singer’s tone of panic, those rays passing through paper and self and love affair all too absolutely unmake this song’s effort to “hold on”; the guitars, hypervigilant in their foxholes, seem to agree (pp.29-30).

There is a piano in “Heaven.” The guitars defer to it, This is “the slow song,” not because the tempo’s so different from “Memories Can’t Wait” or “Mind” (and “Drugs” will be far slower), but because the song demands it be understood that way.  The guitars, to this point always doubled up as if in laughter or gasping for breath, now unkink themselves, quit scratching and jeering (p.88).

While I could wish that Lethem would pursue these insights and ask how it is that a song can “demand” to be understood as slow, or how it is that a guitar “defers” to a piano, the basic means of evocation is great, and I wish there were more writing like this in the 33 1/3 series.  And as a one-time bassist, I like it that he’s appreciative of what’s going on down in the engine room, even when it seems to be a mutiny.

Lethem’s figurative mode of expression also allows him to slip some insightful hypotheses into the mix, giving the reader the option of moving straight on, or unpacking them at greater length.  E.g.:

Basically, “Cities” is “Life During Wartime”‘s younger brother, as disco is a younger sibling to funk, more frisky and free, not bearing so many of the burdens of its progenitors. Like a lot of younger brothers, “Cities” parrots some of its older brother’s cherished notions and cheekily contradicts others, or declares them irrelevant, not such a big deal (p.39)

The remark about funk and disco is almost throwaway, but worth chewing over.

Lethem’s approach to the lyrics has the virtues of flexibility and the vices of inconclusiveness.  He tends to quote single lines and playfully explore their implications, but is reluctant, perhaps reasonably enough, to make prominent claims about larger units of the lyrics. Perhaps that reluctance is acknowledges that the lyrics are always fragmented; “I Zimbra”, which he discusses in terms of Hugo Ball and Dadaism, is the most extreme instance.  The readings of the lyrics are an entertaining performance, but I’d be hard pushed to summarise Lethem’s argument.

The structure of the book is also well thought out: it’s basically a song-by-song account of the album, but the analyses of the songs are interspersed by more general reflections about the album: “Is Fear of Music a David Byrne album?”; “Is Fear of Music a New York album?”; “Is Fear of Music an Asperger’s Record?” and so forth. Sometimes these questions are prompted by the track that has just been discussed, sometimes their relation to the surrounding material is more arbitrary; but they allow Lethem to take a wider perspective about the band without straying too far from the record itself. And that’s another virtue of this book: it’s informed by a clear opinion about Fear of Music‘s place in the larger history of Talking Heads, but it’s still seriously interested in the record itself; the album isn’t just a pretext for larger musings about the band.

There isn’t any original research in this book in the sense that there is in J. Niimi’s book on Murmur, or Wilson Neate’s on Pink Flag: neither the musicians nor the technicians have been interviewed; Lethem hasn’t looked at contemporary reviews to see whether his views were typical or idiosyncratic.  But there’s research in the sense of thinking about the record, and thinking about how first responses survive in later listenings, and thinking about how to put all of these ideas and impressions into words.  As a book about popular music it’s not perfect, but it’s original and inventive.


Horses, by Philip Shaw (33 1/3 series)

Horses, by Philip Shaw (33 1/3 series)

Shaw Horses

I was particularly intrigued to read Philip Shaw’s 33 1/3 book on Patti Smith’s Horses (1975) because, like me, Shaw is an English Literature lecturer at a British university: he’s a specialist in Victorian poetry working at Leicester. The usual criticism levelled at literature specialists who take on popular music is that they focus on the lyrics and understand the music only as setting–something mentioned, for example, in at least one review  of Christopher Ricks’s Bob Dylan book.  Given that Patti Smith began in part as a poet, such an approach might be more excusable and more relevant than it would for bands where there lyrics are a pretext for a vocal performance; but not ideal. As it turns out, this book isn’t perfect, and the imperfections might have something to do with Shaw’s day job, but he does give a decent account of the music.

The track-by-track account of Horses is very much the end-point of the study. It was, of course, Smith’s first album, so much of the book is a patient and detailed account of how she developed her aesthetic in the years leading up to its recording.  Shaw frames his account with a sketch of his own first encounter with the record, one in which his teenage religious belief plays an important role; it complements Smith’s family background as a Jehovah’s Witness.  His opening chapter takes Smith’s performance at St Mark’s Church in the Bowery on 10 February 1971 as a pivotal moment: it allows Shaw to sketch the cultural context that Smith found herself in as she made her way in the New York music and arts scene.  It’s a really impressive and dramatic way of opening, made possible, as is much of the study, by a bootleg recording. Smith’s early career is as well documented as anyone might hope for.  Shaw ends by noting that the alliances and networks that Smith formed in her early years were crucial to her breakthrough: what he’s quietly aiming to do is qualify the idea that her success was the result of individual genius.

After this opening scene, Shaw backtracks chronologically to sketch how Smith came to find herself in St Mark’s in February 1971. We learn something of the influence of her father, mother, and sister, of the music she listened to, and of the working-class milieu in which Smith grew up.  Shaw is good at treating Smith’s self-mythologisation sceptically, while acknowledging the importance and value of such myth-making. However it’s in this chapter that one of the less successful (to my mind) strands of the book emerges, as Shaw tries to account for the power of music in terms of Julia Kristeva’s theory of the ‘semiotic’, a pre-linguistic babble that has strong associations with the maternal bond.  ‘Wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom!’, as they say on the Left Bank: it’s interesting to see the power of Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’ in these terms, but there’s an abrupt shift of discourse when Shaw does it, and the strand never feels fully integrated with the other materials.  I should say that my objection isn’t to psychoanalytic literary theory being used in relation to rock music; Shaw reflects very interestingly on the clash between the  kinds of visceral reactions we have to popular music and the cautious attitude to evaluation that characterises most academic engagement with literary artefacts. My problem is partly with the tendency of this kind of Kristevan reading to find the same thing wherever it goes, and that Shaw doesn’t allow himself space to think through the implications, or to make comparisons with other artists, in a way that would make the conclusions more nuanced and less generic. I wonder if what this appeal to theory stands for is the impossibility of finding a descriptive language to trace all the inspired things that Smith does with her voice and the inspired scratches and squeals that the guitarists produce, and the impossibility of finding a language that wouldn’t weigh down that inspiration with a clumsy pedantic heaviness.  But those inspired things aren’t the semiotic: they’re difficult to talk about, but they’re not beyond the symbolic order.

By the end of Chapter 2 we’ve reached the Spring of 1967, and Smith has moved to New York. Chapter Three takes us through the various alliances and explorations that Smith made in 1967-1972: Robert Mapplethorpe, Sam Shepard, the Chelsea Hotel, among others.  Shaw’s key texts are the poems Smith was writing at this time.  The Mapplethorpe connection is well known, but Smith’s period acting in Shepard’s work was news to me, and Shaw convincingly argues that it helped Smith become a compelling performer of her own work, inhabiting her songs and delivering contradictory feelings (p.57).

Chapter Four, covers the years 1973-1975 in which Smith moved from being a poet to being a singer and musician, and accordingly it’s in this chapter that Shaw begins to take music seriously as music. Smith secured a support slow for the New York Dolls, and Shaw is interesting on the ambivalent relation of the Dolls to the Rolling Stones, both ‘camp parody’ and an attempt to ‘rekindle the fire’ of 1960s rock.  He’s especially interesting on the influence of the film musical Cabaret (1972) in reviving the validity of cabaret song and Sprechstimme as a musical style: I can’t help wondering if there’s not a whole book to be written about Cabaret and 1970s rock music.  He’s also evocative about the way that in this period Smith learned to break with regular rhythm, both in her poetry and in her song performances:

Smith […] was allowing her voice to discover its own rhythm, choosing in the instant whether to slow down or increase the pace of a line, adding or deleting emphasis as required. But while this new voice was liberated, in formal terms, from the predictability of rock’n’roll, it was also, in its way, becoming more musical.  Partly through her interest in free jazz, and partly as a result of her ongoing fascination with torch song, Smith was learning how to measure a phrase, how to stretch or compress a syllable in order to convey a certain effect. (p.74)

Chapter Five brings us to 1975 and the recording of Horses in New York and a track-by-track analysis of the songs in their recorded versions.  Shaw is again convincing in his accounts of Smith’s vocal performances, and alive to her modulations of tone, but less detailed when it comes to the other instruments.  Here he is discussing part of ‘Gloria’:

In the space of a single line, for example, ‘I I walk in a room you know I look so proud’, the voice moves from an impassioned sobbing effect (‘I I walk’), to breathiness (‘in a room’), to hard and nasal (‘you know I look’), to clipped and cocksure (‘so proud’).  Further along, the sense of solitary defiance is emphasised by the casually slurred ‘I go to this here par-ty,’ the closed croaked effect of ‘bored.’ (p.104)

Shaw is more willing than some writers in this series to talk about the particular sequences of chords that are being played, and to speak about modulations; but very often his discussion of the music follows the discussion of the lyrics, and is less detailed, as if music were merely the setting for the lyrics and not a thrilling and energizing thing in itself.  One might argue this is appropriate to Horses, that what’s most original and distinctive about the album are the lyrics and the vocal performance, and that however brilliant the band were, they didn’t do anything that wasn’t implicit on the Velvet Underground’s studio albums; but they extrapolate certain elements from the Velvets, and are more various in their influences than that would make them sound.  And, listening to the album again, I wondered if there were even some things in Smith’s distinctive vocal mannerisms that Shaw hadn’t fully accounted for.

A short final chapter considers the reception of the album, though its chronological frame is restricted to 1975: listening to Horses again after reading the book I wished Shaw could have traced at least some of the lines of descent, influence and straightforward theft: I can’t help thinking that the Spacemen 3 borrowed a few chords from Gloria, and more importantly the spacious relaxed vibe of the opening; and more obviously, James’s Village Fire EP and their first album, produced by Lenny Kaye, owe a lot to Patti Smith.  I can see that such a task would be very open-ended, and frustrating because there would always be some line of influence that went unnoticed, some stray dandelion seed that landed on the other side of the fence; but it would make a more persuasive case for the importance of the album.

Virginia Woolf in recent novels

26 March 2015 was the centenary of the publication of Virginia Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out.  That’s an extraordinary and disconcerting fact for me.  In so many ways she still feels so in touch with modernity, and not just an abstract ‘modernity’ that you might read about in a textbook on modernism, but our observable, lived modernity.  But at the same time, there are things in her novels that feels as if they come from another world.  Her works are not unique in this: modernist writing and culture can seem simultaneously contemporary and antiquated.  Daring adventures in fragmentation and self-consciousness: contemporary.  Hierarchical ideas about race, class, and gender: antiquated.  A conception of modernity and the modern city as an endless flux of bodies, vehicles, and information: contemporary.  Actual pictures of London in 1922: horse-drawn carriages and men loafing in straw boaters.

Two recent novels take Virginia Woolf as a central character, and this, along with other novels that adapt her work — Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Robin Lippincott’s Mr Dalloway, and Gail Jones’s Five Bells — suggests that there might be a continuing relevance in her works, or a continuing viability in the tradition that she represents, or something about the woman herself that is interesting.  What might it be?  The two recent novels are Maggie Gee’s Virginia Woolf in Manhattan and Priya Parmar’s Vanessa and her Sister.

Gee Maggie jacketParmar P jacket

The scenarios of both are relatively simple to describe; the interest lies in their tone and in other aspects of their handling.  In Maggie Gee’s novel, Virginia Woolf reappears in the present day, in the Berg Collection of New York Public Library (where many of Woolf’s diaries, letters, and manuscripts are held), and latches on to Angela Lamb, an English critic and novelist who has gone to New York to research Woolf’s papers.  Angela has to help Virginia through her sometimes shaky transition into a new life into our modern world; Woolf comes across like a much-loved but eccentric elderly relative who can provoke delight and anxiety in rapid succession in those charged with looking after her; Woolf’s enthusiasm and curiosity come across.  Eventually Virginia and Angela travel to Turkey, where Angela is due to speak on Woolf at a scholarly conference.  Meanwhile, Angela’s feisty and hard-to-impress teenage daughter Gerda has run away from boarding school and followed Angela to New York, only to find that her mother has already left for Turkey.

Priya Parmar’s novel fictionalises the period of Vanessa and Virginia’s life from 1906 to 1912: the core of the narrative is the disruption to the sisters’ relationship caused by the death of her brother Thoby Stephen and by Vanessa’s marriage to Clive Bell soon afterwards; and then the further disruption caused to Vanessa’s marriage by Clive’s infidelities, particularly the close relationship he struck up with Virginia; and then the happiness that came through Vanessa’s relationship with Roger Fry.  As the title suggests, the story is told primarily from Vanessa’s perspective, in what is ostensibly a diary form, though interleaved with Vanessa’s diary are letters between other members of her circle.

There are all sorts of great and admirable things happening in both novels.  Gee’s is the easier read: its narrative form is simpler, both in the sense of the straightforward rhythm of passages alternating between Virginia’s and Angela’s perspectives (as well as Gerda’s), and in the sense that the plot has a clearer outline.  Parmar’s diary and letter form is more fragmented, and keeps us on our toes.  Gee’s command of tone is brilliant: essentially the novel is light, and yet it raises serious questions about our relation to the great cultural figures of the past, and the ethics of reading them. Her Virginia can be a two-dimensional cartoonish figure at times, and yet at other times she’s a figure of great pathos; in saying she’s two-dimensional I don’t mean that those passages are weaker; Gee keeps the tone light so that the deeper moments can resonate.

Parmar’s crafting of a diary-voice for Vanessa is an impressive achievement. Although there are a few moments where Vanessa’s reflections echo those of Virginia in her diaries, essentially Vanessa speaks differently, with more sustained concentration on a subject, and less of Virginia’s rapid flitting about; Virginia’s diary voice would be hard to turn to the requirements of narrative. (At the Oxford Literary Festival, Parmar said that her main source for Vanessa’s voice was the published and unpublished letters by Vanessa.)  As someone who has intensively researched Woolf and her circle in the period 1908 to 1919 for the purposes of my edition of Night and Day, and as someone who can’t quite shut down the scholarly urge to annotate and investigate, I’m not the best reader for this novel. With my historicist hat on I felt there were some phrases and grammatical constructions in Vanessa’s and Leonard’s voices that were later twentieth-century, and that someone from her background wouldn’t have used at that date. The phrases in question aren’t on the same scale as the errors of idiom in Lippincott’s Mr Dalloway, where British characters are found speaking (or thinking) American English; they’re much subtler and harder-to-call; indeed, one might argue that a degree of cross-period intermingling of idioms is valuable, as it allows Vanessa to speak to us now.  But a detailed account of that question may have to wait for another blog.  What’s impressive about the voices in Parmar’s novel is that she’s clearly steeped herself in the writings of the originals and then allowed herself to cut loose. When, in The Hours, Cunningham has Virginia worry about Mrs Dalloway being “too tinselly”, it felt at best like a piece of undigested research (Woolf writes exactly that in her diary), and at worst like a deliberately paraded piece of research.  When Parmar has characters assess someone or something by how “civilised” it is, it sets the right Bloomsbury flavour, but it’s not conspicuous in the sentence or the paragraph.

In The Hours, the representation of “Virginia Woolf” allowed Cunningham to ask questions about the posthumous presence of authors in later lives; the connection between the Laura Brown and Virginia Woolf sections is a demystified version of the relation between Nicholas Hawksmoor and Nicholas Dyer in Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor.  But while the relationship of past to present (Laura Brown’s present) doesn’t have the uncanny quality found in Ackroyd’s novel, there’s still a celebration of the greatness of the “great” author and her power to reach across generations that amounts to a kind of mystification; Cunningham’s novel draws its power from the fact of Woolf’s suicide, and while it can’t be said actively to glorify it, it makes it a significant fact in her life, the end which gives meaning to every act and sign.

If Gee’s novel were to be read as a response to Cunningham’s novel — and it’s richer and more interesting than that reading would allow it to be — then it’s asking us to realize what a terrible loss her suicide was; not so much to us as readers, as to Virginia Woolf as a living, lively, inquisitive human being.  It’s getting us to think about how much she missed by her untimely death. At some level I think Gee’s novel still needs Woolf to have died by suicide, but it wants to undo the romanticisation attached to it.  When Virginia first reappears, she smells dankly of pondweed, as while there’s a degree of emotion attached to the fact, Gee mostly plays up the comic incongruity of it, and the awkwardness for Angela.  As Virginia establishes herself in the modern world, her curiosity becomes her most prominent quality.  At times she is comically unable to grasp present-day technologies — she can’t understand paperless typing on a laptop, for example — but she generally grows accustomed to them.  Much more than correcting the emphasis of Cunningham’s novel, the presence of “Virginia Woolf” allows Gee to investigate our modernity, to render it strange to us, and in particular to investigate the place of America in the modern world. For those purposes, perhaps any revenant from the early twentieth century would have sufficed, but Woolf in particular allows Gee to think about the awkward ethics of reading a dead writer’s diaries: there’s a section where Angela realises that Woolf’s doesn’t know that Leonard did not destroy the diaries and that they have been published; and that Virginia doesn’t know how many personal secrets are now public knowledge.  And having a revenant of Woolf’s gender and class allows Gee to raise questions about the material advantages that enabled Woolf to succeed as a writer.

Virginia isn’t central to Priya Parmar’s novel, but she’s essential to the narrative. The title captures this peculiar centre of gravity quite neatly: you know, it implies, who the sister is; she’s the famous one; but this novel is about Vanessa.  However, at the Oxford Literary Festival, Parmar said that at her first public reading from the novel, the first audience question was “Who was Virginia Woolf?” and she had to rapidly recalibrate.  It’s interesting to contemplate how the novel reads to someone who knows nothing of Virginia, and presumably therefore nothing of the other personages; but I’ll have to skip those speculations.  For the reader with some knowledge of Woolf, there’s an odd sensation throughout of seeing a familiar person and familiar events from an unexpected angle.  It’s not a comic change of perspective like Woolf’s Flush sometimes is, or Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is, because Vanessa is fully realised as a presence and there’s too much emotionally at stake in what unfolds.  Notoriously, the Bloomsbury Group “lived in squares and loved in triangles”, and the main love-triangle in this novel is that involving Vanessa, Clive, and Virginia; and later another involving, in a subtler sense, Vanessa, Clive, and Roger.  And in a novel full of triangles, the reader who begins it more knowledgeable about Virginia than Vanessa find him- or herself in a sort of triangle, registering Virginia through the medium of Vanessa. The nature of the passions reminded me of René Girard’s ideas about “imitative” or “mimetic” desire: we desire a person or thing not because of any inherently desirable qualities in the thing, but because we want to be like another person who also desires the object of desire.  (Sure, this raises the problem of whether there was ever an original “pure” or “real” desire, but I’ve leave that for now.)  In this novel, Virginia “desires” Clive because she wants to be Vanessa; and at the close, Clive’s feelings for Vanessa are rekindled because he wants to be Roger.  And one wonders whether the desirability of the Stephen sisters to their various Cambridge suitors was because the suitors wanted to be Thoby Stephen.  As a theory, it seems to work best when discussing affections that seem creepily empty; it’s less successful in explaining Vanessa’s love for Roger, for example.  And Virginia’s responding to Clive’s advances can be explained more simply as her attempt to regain her sister’s attention.  She emerges as not entirely likeable: exasperating to her sister; emotionally insecure and thoughtless in her means of securing affection, but not consciously calculating.  The final letter of the novel indicates that the sisters’ bond has been irreparably weakened by Virginia’s involvement with Clive.

I’ve suggested that the reader gets drawn into these triangles too, but it’s also the case that the narrative form of the novel places a certain distance between readers and characters.  I think this would be the case if the story were told solely through Vanessa’s diary, just because diaries are necessarily fragmentary and immersed in the day of their writing; but by interspersing the diary with others’ letters, Parmar distances us in another way. The contents of the letters don’t ever place Vanessa as the unknowing one in a situation of cold dramatic irony, but they make us aware that her tone and attitude isn’t the only one available: most conspicuously, Lytton Strachey’s brilliantly done letters, witty, detached, epigrammatic (all somewhat Wildean, in fact), offer a sharp contrast to Vanessa’s more deeply felt diary.

If Gee’s novel refocuses our attention away from Woolf the tragic suicide onto Woolf the lively and inquisitive mind, Parmar’s refocuses it away from the mature Virginia Woolf altogether and on to the as-yet-unmarried Virginia Stephen, a young writer who is publishing her first book reviews and essays, and working on her first novel, but who is far from an established figure. Moreover, Parmar’s Virginia is presented to the reader only through the medium of other characters. If the two novels have something in common, it could be that they both start from the point of view that we know — or we think we know — a great deal about Woolf, and while that’s mostly to the good, sometimes the various strands of knowledge tighten into a mythology, and we need to unknot them, and try to reshape our knowledge in a different way.

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and the country house

My blog post on Woolf’s Orlando is now available on the OUP blog:

The source for the quotations from Angela Carter is a YouTube video of Tom Paulin’s notorious J’accuse programme about Woolf. The two parts available are labelled as parts 2 and 3, but I’ve not been able to find part 1 anywhere:

Angela Carter’s contribution comes just after 1m 27s in “part 2”; I’d first come across the ‘slobbering valentine’ bit in a newspaper review of the programme.  I must admit I’ve not watched both parts: the arguments are so tendentious that it’s hard to take seriously: for example, Clarissa Dalloway’s patriotic statement in The Voyage Out is offered as if it reflects its author’s views (which it obviously does not); the error in the reading is acknowledged, and then Paulin ploughs on regardless, treating a piece of unpleasantness in the diaries as if it rescued his argument about Clarissa.