Its been ages since I’ve read any Woolf–far too long, really, considering she’s my favorite author. I’ve had my nose stuck in various compilations of poetry, many of them haiku, for the last few months, and for a nice change of pace I picked up a collection of Woolf’s short stories. I’ve read all of her novels and longer prose, so I’m moving on to her shorter works. Now that I’ve finished A Haunted House and Other Stories I can’t wait to get my hands on more of her shorter stories.
Woolf’s style actually lends itself better, I think, to shorter works. Woolf is well-known as a pioneer of the modern novel, famous for her stream-of-consciousness writing style. Much as I love her longer works, at times this stream-of-consciousness style can feel exhausting and a bit drawn out. In short stories, however, it provides the perfect foundation on which to build a beautiful, complete piece of art. As I was reading, I felt like each story was its own jewel, perfectly complete and artfully crafted and totally distinct from the other stories in the compilation.
The book is replete with expert writing and imagery, such as “… burning roses alight like lamps on the straight posts of their rose trees,” or, speaking of the tree from which her desk was made, she describes it as “a naked mast upon an earth that goes tumbling, tumbling, all night long.” Haunting. But she sums this up, speaking again about her desk, with: “Even so, life isn’t done with; there are a million patient, watchful lives still for a tree, all over the world, in bedrooms, in ships, on the pavement, lining rooms where men and women sit after tea, smoking cigarettes. It is full of peaceful thoughts, happy thoughts, this tree.”
It must be noted that “short stories” is a loose term for what you’ll find in this collection. Many of them are more nonfiction than fiction–for example “The Mark on the Wall” is mostly just Woolf ruminating about an inscrutable mark on the wall and what it might be. Other works had me wondering whether or not I was reading poetry or prose. “Monday or Tuesday” could easily be defined as either.
This is what I love about Woolf: her ability to push these boundaries in a way that is palatable. Generally works that probe the boundaries of poetry and prose tend to be too abstract for my taste, but Woolf somehow normalizes the rules she’s breaking, and I believe she does this by focusing on very ordinary, everyday things. Woolf continually works to show us two worlds: the ordinary world we see around us and the extraordinary world of meaning, emotion, and experience that is inextricably linked to it. That she is able to do this so beautifully and effortlessly is the real key to her genius.
Unlike her longer works, I found that I could see Woolf herself reflected in these stories, which was fascinating. In “A Mark on the Wall” I felt as though I was sitting alongside her, trying to decipher what the mark was and why it was so distracting. “An Unwritten Novel” is a fascinating glimpse into her writing process. I felt as though “The Lady in the Looking Glass,” which may have been my favorite in the collection, was perhaps something of a self portrait, and I couldn’t help but consider “A Summing Up” to be about her as well. This was Woolf in real life: constantly accompanied by the chatter of everyday life, searching for the moments of insight when the mundane became almost magical.
I worked my way through Sylvia Plath’s major works this year and found them to be strickingly lacking in any overt feminism, despite their being touted as feminist works. I feel the exact opposite about Woolf’s writing. The feminism in Woolf is clear, though it is delightfully dignified rather than antagonistic. In these stories we see images of powerful women who have defined their lives for themselves, despite an social expectations. In “Moments of Being” she describes Julia Craye, an older woman who has never married, in this way: “She was so thankful that she had not sacrificed her right to go and look at things when they are at their best–before people are up, that is to say she could have her breakfast in bed if she liked. She had not sacrificed her independence.” The statement is not totally overt or aggressive, but it is strong. It is a feminist statement summed up as an image of a woman having toast and tea in bed sans husband or children to tend too, and she is happy. And whats more, her happiness is perceived by a younger woman in her life, who admires her for it. At the time Woolf was writing, this was a radical statement. These stories are peppered with images such as this. The entirety of “The Lady in the Looking Glass” is about depicting a well-rounded, happy woman who has never married, who is rich, who has lived a life of romance and travel, who is happy and independent. The gambit of the mirror is simply Woolf warning the reader not to reduce a woman such as this down to her image only–a message that has resonance today.
If you’re new to Woolf, this book would be a wonderful introduction. These stories, though perhaps at times more abstract than her longer works, are a beautiful representation of her writing style and her literary focus. If you’ve read Woolf’s major works but haven’t ventured into her short stories, I can’t recommend them highly enough. This is a wonderful collection.