Thursday, 31 July 2014

Moments of Being by Virginia Woolf.

Last weekend I finished Moments of Being by Virginia Woolf, a collection of autobiographical writings (edited by Jeanne Schulkind, and first published in 1972, and again with new material in 1985). It's divided into three:
1. Reminiscences, from 1907.
2. The Memoir Club Contributions: 
  • 22 Hyde Park Gate, 1920 or 1921.
  • Old Bloomsbury, 1921 or 1922.
  • Am I a Snob?, 1936.
3. Sketches of the Past, 1939 - 1940.
It largely focuses on the early life of Virginia Woolf, from her birth to around 1907, and it also gives biographical details of her parents, Leslie and Julia Stephen. Before getting into it all, though, I think it might be helpful to have in mind who is who in Virginia Woolf's family:

The Stephens

Leslie Stephen,
Woolf's father.
1832 - 1904.
Julia Stephen,
Woolf's mother.
1846 - 1895.
George Duckworth,
Woolf's half-brother from Julia's first marriage.
1868 - 1834.
Stella Duckworth,
Woolf's half-sister from Julia's first marriage.
1869 - 1897.
Gerald Duckworth.
Woolf's half-brother from Julia's first marriage.
1870 - 1937.
Laura Stephen, Woolf's
half-sister from Leslie's first marriage.
1870 - 1945.
Vanessa Bell née Stephen,
Woolf's sister.
1879 - 1961.
Thoby Stephen,
Woolf's brother.
1880 - 1906.
Virginia Woolf,
née Stephen.
1882 - 1941.
Adrian Stephen,
Woolf's brother.
1883 - 1948.

It is, as I've said, a collection of writings: the 'Reminiscences', which would appear to have been started in 1907, contain Woolf's memories of Julia Stephen, her mother, her sister Vanessa Bell and half-sister Stella Duckworth. They were addressed to Julian Bell, Vanessa's son, who was born in 1908. The exact dates of the first two essays from 'The Memoir Club Contributions' are uncertain, though it is believed that '22 Hyde Park Gate' was written either in 1920 or 1921, and 'Old Bloomsbury either 1921 or 1922. 'Am I a Snob?' was written in 1936, and all these essays would have been read at Molly MacCarthy's Memoir Club, which formed in 1920. Other members include Vanessa and Clive Bell, Leonard Woolf, Adrian Stephen, Saxon Sydney-Turner, John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey, and Desmond and Molly MacCarthy. It's unlikely she would have read faithfully from these essays. Finally, 'Sketches of the Past', which were essentially a sort of draft for what could have been her memoirs, was written between 1939 and 1940.

My favourite of these five essays is the final part, 'Sketches of the Past' from which the title Moments of Being derives. She began writing on Tuesday the 18th April 1939, a time where she was preoccupied writing Roger Fry (published in 1940) and, from 1st September 1939, the beginning of the Second World War (Neville Chamberlain was to declare war on 3rd September 1939), to around November 1940 (she died four months later in March 1941). In it, she writes again of her early life: her difficult relationship with her father, particularly after her mother's death, her mother, her sisters, her first memories, her thoughts on Victorian family life, family holidays, her relationships with her half-brothers George and Gerald (so far similar themes from the previous sections of the book), and, wonderfully, her thoughts on the nature of writing biographies and memoirs:
Often when I have been writing one of my so-called novels I have been baffled by this same problem; that is, how to describe what I call in my private short-hand - "non-being". Every day includes much more non-being than being. Yesterday for example, Tuesday the 18th April, was [as] it happened a good day; above the average in "being". It was fine; I enjoyed writing about Roger; I walked over Mount Misery and along the river; and save that the tide was out, the country, which I notice very closely always, was coloured and shaded as I like - there were the willows, I remember, all plumy and soft green and purple against the blue. I also read Chaucer with pleasure; and began a book - the memoirs of Madame de la Fayette - which interested me. These separate moments of being were however embedded in many more moments of non-being. I have already forgotten what Leonard and I talked about at lunch; and at tea; although it was a good day the goodness was embedded in a kind of nondescript cotton wool. This is always so. A great part of every day is not lived consciously. One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner; ordering dinner; writing orders to Mabel; washing; cooking dinner; book-binding. When it is a bad day the proportion of non-being is much larger. I had a slight temperature last week; almost the whole day was non-being. The real novelist can somehow convey both sorts of being. I think Jane Austen can; and Trollope; perhaps Thackerary and Dickens and Tolstoy. I have never been able to do both. I tried - in Night and Day; and in The Years. But I will leave the literary side alone for the moment.
I love this. For this is why I read, and why I read Woolf.

Manuscript of 'A Sketch from the Past'.
These Sketches, whilst dwelling on similar "events" or "moments of being" (from which the title derives, and note that this is not the title given by Woolf herself: these memoirs are incomplete and were not intended for publication), differ in perspective. This is Woof 32 years older than the Reminiscences: she has written already about her troubled childhood not only in The Memoir Club Contributions but most notably To the Lighthouse. She has read Freud. She has (of course) matured, and has grown more accepting, and has more insight: the slight shift on perspective of her mother Julia is quite telling. From this aspect alone we learn a lot about Virginia Woolf.

There are so many biographies of Virginia Woolf, but to learn about her in her words we must depend upon the diaries (there are at least five volumes), a plethora of letters (many, many volumes), and this: Moments of Being, a short (less than 200 pages) collection of autobiographical writings. For the Woolf fan it will naturally be essential reading, but I dare say this would also be a good introduction for those who are unfamiliar with her, and for those who enjoy reading about and studying the Victorian age. From one who has lived through the later years of Queen Victoria we learn so much, and there are some beautiful details perhaps not yet realised. And it's Woolf: carefully considered and beautifully written, however much it may be a "draft". I love this book, and I wish she had have moved beyond 1910 and written about the whole of her life. Sadly her suicide in 1941 prevented this. Nevertheless, this book is an essential read.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Ten Authors I Own The Most Books From

This week's Top Ten Tuesday is
Ten Authors I Own the Most Books from:
Émile Zola (30) 

Of course Émile Zola is at the top: since reading Germinal in April 2012 I haven't looked back!

My Zola Books:

Claude's Confession
Thérèse Raquin

The Rougon Macquart Novels
The Fortune of the Rougons, The Kill, The Belly of Paris, The Conquest of Plassans,
Abbé Mouret's Transgression, His Excellency, L'Assommoir, A Page of Love,
Nana, Pot Luck, The Ladies Paradise, Zest for Life, Germinal,
The Masterpiece, The Earth, The Dream, The Beast Within, Money,
The Debacle, Doctor Pascal

The 'Three Cities' Triology
Lourdes, Paris, and Rome.

The 'Four Gospels' (of which there are sadly only three)
Fruitfulness, Work, and Truth.

Two short story collections
For a Night of Love, and
Dead Men Tell No Tales.

Virginia Woolf (27)

Virginia Woolf is another great love of mine: I started reading her novels (the first being To The Lighthouse when I was in university, probably around 2002).

My Woolf books:

Five volumes of Letters
Two diaries (1897 - 1909, and 1925 - 1930)

The Novels
The Voyage Out, Melymbrosia: A Novel, Jacob's Room
Night and Day, To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway 
The Waves, The Years, Between the Acts

The Biographies
Orlando: a Biography, Flush: A Biography 

Short Stories
Haunted House and Other Stories
The Death of the Moth, 

The Common Reader First Series and Second Series, 
A Room of One's Own, Selected Essays, London Scene, 
Carlyle's House and Other Sketches
Moments of Being: Autobiographical Writings

Anthony Trollope (20)

My first novel by Trollope was He Knew He Was Right, which I read, I think, early in 2012.

My Trollope books:


The Chronicles of Barset
The Warden, Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne,
Framley Parsonage, The Small House at Alington,
The Last Chronicle of Barset

The Palliser Novels
Can You Forgive Her?, Phineas Finn: The Irish Member, The Eustace Diamonds,
The Prime Minister, The Duke's Children

Dramatic Novels
Is He Popenjoy?,  Lady Anna, Cousin Henry,
He Knew He Was Right, The Way We Live Now

Comic Novels
Rachel Ray, The American Senator 

Irish Novels
 The Landleaguers 

Charles Dickens (17)

For most of my life I've hated Charles Dickens, but then I read Oliver Twist in 2011 and went on to read all of Dickens' novels.

My Dickens books:

Sketches by Boz,  A Tale of Two Cities,  Bleak House, Nicholas Nickleby,
   Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, Pickwick Papers, Hard Times,
   David Copperfield, Our Mutual Friend,  The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Other Stories,
 The Old Curiosity Shop, Dombey and Son,
Martin Chuzzlewit,  Little Dorrit

 Pictures from Italy, A Child's History of England

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (14)

My first was Crime and Punishment, which I badly need to revisit, and after that I can't remember which is was that made me love his work and want to read all of it! But I do, all the same.

My Dostoyevsky books:

The House of the Dead, The Insulted and the Injured, Notes from Underground, 
 The Gambler, The Eternal Husband, Karamazov Brothers, Crime and Punishment, 
The Adolescent, Crime and Punishment, The Devils, The Idiot,
 Netochka Nezvanova, The Poor Folk,
 The Village of Stepanchikovo

Thomas Hardy (12)

Thomas Hardy remains very hit and miss for me: some I love, some I hate.

My Hardy books:
Far from the Madding Crowd, Jude the Obscure, Mayor of Casterbridge, 
 A Pair of Blue Eyes, The Return of the Native, Tess of the D'urbervilles, 
 Thomas Hardy: Poems,  A Mere Interlude, Desperate Remedies, 
 Wessex Tales, The Well-beloved, Satire and Circumstance

John Steinbeck (12)

The first novel I read by Steinbeck was in around 2012, and it was The Grapes of Wrath. One of my favourite novels of all time.

My Steinbeck books:
East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, 
 The Pearl, Travels with Charley, The Long Valley, Sweet Thursday, 
 Cannery Row, The Wayward Bus, Tortilla Flat, 
 The Winter of Our Discontent, A Russian Journal

Henry James (12)

Too late did I discover, when collecting these, that I have a tendency to hate the novels and favour his novellas and short stories!

My James books:
The Ambassadors, The Aspern Papers and The Turn of the Screw, Daisy Miller, The Europeans, 
 The Portrait of a Lady, The Turn of the Screw, What Maisie Knew, Washington Square, 
 The Wings of the Dove, The American, The Awkward Age, The Golden Bowl

George Eliot (8)

Like a few others on here, the first book I read I hated (Middlemarch, but then I re-read it and loved it). It was my second, The Mill on the Floss, that made me love her.

My Eliot books:
Adam Bede, Daniel Deronda, Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, 
Felix Holt, the Radical, 
 Romola, Scenes of Clerical Life

P. G. Wodehouse (8)

No explanation needed, surely. The Jeeves books are the finest comic books of the 20th Century.

My Wodehouse books:
Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit, Jeeves in the Offing, Much Obliged, Jeeves, 
 Aunts Aren't Gentlemen, Carry On, Jeeves, Right Ho Jeeves, 
 Very Good, Jeeves!, Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves

Saturday, 26 July 2014

The Master and Margarita by Mikhaíl Bulgakov.

The Master and Margarita (Ма́стер и Маргари́та) by Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov was began in 1928, the manuscript burned (by Bulgakov) in 1930, began again in 1931, completed in 1940, and published in 1967 (having first appeared in the magazine Москва in 1966). It's a mixture of magic and mystery, fantasy and farce, against, largely, the backdrop of Soviet Russia. It's the exact sort of book that sends my rather literal mind running to Anthony Trollope, and a great deal of the time I could barely keep up: I found it so difficult. And yet I did like it: I liked it a great deal.

It begins with the ominous chapter heading 'Never Talk with Strangers' and describes Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz and Ivan Nikolaevich Ponyrev's encounter with Professor Woland, who is eager to prove the existence of Jesus. Within a few chapters, Berlioz is dead and it is revealed that Woland is the Devil, who has come to Moscow with his entourage, which includes Behemoth the talking cat (Behemoth is also a beast mentioned in Job 40:15–24:
Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox. Lo now, his strength is in his loins, and his force is in the navel of his belly. He moveth his tail like a cedar: the sinews of his stones are wrapped together. His bones are as strong pieces of brass; his bones are like bars of iron. He is the chief of the ways of God: he that made him can make his sword to approach unto him. Surely the mountains bring him forth food, where all the beasts of the field play. He lieth under the shady trees, in the covert of the reed, and fens. The shady trees cover him with their shadow; the willows of the brook compass him about. Behold, he drinketh up a river, and hasteth not: he trusteth that he can draw up Jordan into his mouth. He taketh it with his eyes: his nose pierceth through snares.)
Behemoth and Leviathan, from
The Book of Job illustrated by
William Blake, 1825.
The plot is essentially three-fold:
  1. Following the death of his friend Berlioz, Ponyrev chases the demonic gang and ends up in a lunatic asylum. There he meets...
  2. .... The Master, who has shunned the world (and his lover, Margarita), and who has written a novel (since burned) about...
  3. ... Pontius Pilate and the crucifixion of Christ.
It is a highly complex novel, set partly in what was the USSR, and partly in Jerusalem (Yershayalim) in the time of Christ, and has a lot of Goethe's Faust and Dante's The Divine Comedy about it (not so much Paradiso, but certainly Inferno and Purgatorio). It's full of music and shadows, a thunderous black and red nightmare; all very intoxicating despite, as I admit, I had great difficulties in keeping up with it. There are demons, succubi, witches, vampires, and an angel of death, as well as the aforementioned talking cat, with a most hellish, fiendish party that ties all the narratives together.

Of course the nature of good and evil in humanity is a major theme of this work, so to is love: the love of Margarita and The Master. Censorship is also a predominant theme: like The Master, Mikhail Bulgakov suffered greatly from censorship under Stalin (his career was effectively ruined when the government prevented the publication or staging of his works). Above all, I think, the novel is run on the steam and theme of confusion, which is what The Master and Magarita is all about: how easy it is to throw everything off balance. That is ultimately how I felt when I finished this book. I found it intensely difficult, and this level of fantasy is not something I'm used to reading, but all the same it's a fascinating and seductive read, head-spinning though it was. I finished it only a day or so ago, but I'm already wanting to re-read it. I can't help but feel discussion and re-reads are the keys to understanding it.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (with illustrations by Edmund Dulac).

My own copy of Jane Eyre.
Last night I finished Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, the first title on my new (and not quite finalised) Classic Club list. It was first published on the 16th October 1847 under the pseudonym of Currer Bell and was Charlotte Brontë's first published novel (her first novel was The Professor, not published until 1857 after her death). 

Charlotte Brontë by
Evert A. Duyckinck, 1873.
Jane Eyre isn't just one of my favourite books: it seems everyone has a great deal of affection for it. Without a doubt it is one of the best books ever written, and one of the most read classics, so in a sense I feel this review is a little unnecessary. It's a special book, to me and to many: it was one of the first, if not the first, classics I've read and it's one of the few classics I love that I don't wish to study in some way (or any way). What I mean is when it comes to writing reviews for this blog I always have in mind what it is I want to write about, and then I do some reading around that area (what I read is linked at the end of the post under the 'Further Reading' heading). But with Jane Eyre I don't want to. I don't want to discover critiques, evaluate its strengthens, weaknesses, and techniques, nor do I wish to consider Brontë's intentions and her success in those terms. This is a very personal book for so many readers, and I'm no exception. The feeling I get from it is incredible warmth, joy and happiness, and sharing with Jane Eyre her pain, admiring her, and sharing her hopes and her sadness. 

Jane Eyre manuscript: Chapter One.
It's a bildungsroman which begins when Jane is ten, where we learn of her childhood living with her cruel Aunt Reed and her cousins John, Eliza, and Georgiana. She leaves them to attend Lowood, a charity institution for orphans, and, when she is eighteen she finds a job as a governess at Thornfield Hall where she meets Mr. Rochester. Jane's character and strength is tried and tested continuously from the very first page where she sits in the window reading ("There was no possibility of taking a walk that day"). Such is the power of Charlotte Brontë's writing it is easy to forget about her: this novel truly becomes an autobiography, and very quickly too, and because of that I felt such an attachment to Jane, such love and compassion as though she was real, which is why, as I said, I don't want to read about the "novel". Analysing it shatters this illusion. I want to forget about Charlotte Brontë, this is by Jane Eyre, her life in her own words. It's a beautiful novel, and so intense, so very highly charged. There are scenes so electric it's unfathomable to even try to explain why or how. Jane is strong, she is moral and has a great sense of dignity, and she is passionate and wild also. She is flesh and blood, and so loving and affectionate: for too long she was denied the pleasures of loving and being loved. At the beginning of the novel she is already wise beyond her years, but she ensures her suffering will be a tool to learn to sustain herself:
Still indomitable was the reply: "I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth—so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane—quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot."  
For this and the many other parts like it, Jane Eyre is an essential read for anyone has suffered or felt ill-used in anyway, however petty others may judge it. Jane gives voice and so gives strength and hope. It's exciting to read too because of the electric in it I mentioned, and, quite simply, the plot is enough to make anyone want to read and never stop. Her passion is exciting and invigorating: she writes, for example, about women:
It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, to absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.  
And the famous,
I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.
There are a hundred quotes at least I would share, but they should be read and re-read in context. I envy people who haven't read Jane Eyre because they have this pleasure to come, but I will return to Jane Eyre again and again and love it more each time because it is one of the finest, most timeless novels ever written. What more can I say?

I'll end by sharing some illustrations by Edmund Dulac, one of my favourite illustrators (I was so excited to find these!). They come from the 1905 edition published by J. M. Dent & co.

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