Archives for posts with tag: Virginia Woolf

Winter of our discontent, book cover, steinbeck

The last three books I read were in depth explorations of the way that the mind blankets objects and situations with meaning. To the Lighthouse, The Mystery Guest, and The Mezzanine are all beautiful works that rely on objects as the vehicles for emotional content, for hope, for love, and for nostalgia.

In To the Lighthouse, there’s a pivotal scene towards the end of the first book where a character looses a brooch, and gains a lover. The brooch was a family heirloom, or something, but the interesting thing is how Woolf is able to use the object as an anchor for psychological and emotional experiences. Boulliere brings a pricey vintage bottle of wine as a gesture of his faith in the absurd, as a symbolic bridge across time and temperament. And of course there are the infinite close readings of quotidian objects in Baker’s The Mezzanine, the little book of a day in detail. There something about our stuff, the objects that we often touch more than we do our loved ones, something about these things that make up our lives.

I’ve been thinking about books as objects, the tactile book made of paper and glue, especially since I began this project.  What would ‘bookish’ mean without physical books? I know that the terrain of paper- vs e-books has been pretty well covered, and I have very little to add to the map. Just that these objects mean something to me.

When I was younger, I went through a pretty serious Steinbeck phase. My favorite was The Winter of Our Discontent, and still is by virtue of how much I loved it then. I have been carrying this object around, moving it from one place to another, from Calgary to Toronto, on buses, on planes, to the beach, to school, the subway, you name it, for over a decade. The edition I have is weathered and worn, the pulp cover having fallen off many times. Somewhere along the way someone taped the cover on upside down and backwards, as a prank, so that when I read the volume in public I look foolish. These memories are grounded in the physical object of the book itself, and no matter how I feel about Ethan Allen Hawley or Ellen or Mr. Marullo, I could never relive so many years of my own life in the same way if I were to read a digital copy.

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Sometimes, when I’m going to a party, I stand outside for a really long time. Like, a realllly long time, and I just listen in. Then my mind starts going, and I think about all of the possible interactions and outcomes; I write the party, I mentally rehearse the party; bare shoulders and bold thumb prints on the bowls of wine glasses, condensation on beer bottles, exclamations and padding around the kitchen, always the kitchen, in stocking feet.

Mystery Guesy Book Cover, Presents

Of course, if you’re partying at Sophie Calle‘s house, chances are pretty good that you’ll find yourself drinking from champagne flutes and wearing your shoes. Then again, Sophie Calle lives in France, where a house party means something else entirely. And for Grégoire Bouillier in particular, this party takes on such psycho-symbolic significance, that it becomes in and of itself a sort of cosmic event in the small universe of his life.

The Mystery Guest is an involuted party. The pre-party preening is a whorling cortex of pain and the pathetic, wrapped around the peculiar French take on spurned love. Because Bouillier’s relationship with a woman who remains unnamed was of the type that ‘died suddenly at home,’ Bouillier spends about a third of the book attaching meanings almost ad hoc to the objects that are in his orbit; turtleneck shirts, light bulbs, bottles of wine, cut roses in a vase.

In other parts of the book, Bouillier manages to gracefully connect his own prismatic and kaleidoscopic  interiority to another famous party; he traces the outline of Mrs. Dalloway onto the remembered flesh of his former lover, and in so doing reveals anew the circuitry of the mind.

I enjoyed this book immensely! Not having anything like fluency in French, I can’t say if Paris Review editor Lorin Stein’s translation was faithful, but I can tell you that it was beautiful. Great stuff!

Woolf, To the Lighthouse book cover

I read this little gem on my sofa, with tea, as the diluted winter light spilled in through my large front window; all in all the  pretty much perfect conditions for reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.

Now, I knew going into it that I was in for a treat (I’d read Mrs. Dalloway in school and “Street Haunting“on the bus), but I didn’t realize how pampered I would feel by the lush prose, or the lovingly rendered vignettes. The book is structured into three sections, and the first section is a psychological collage reflecting one end of summer afternoon on the Isle of Skye. The characters are the Ramsay Family and a loose collection of boarders in the their big country home, and the narrative is a tapestry woven together from the many dropped threads that make up each characters thoughts and impressions, which frays even as it is being woven.

Man, I liked this book. Woolf took on a lot of thematic content in this little volume, and I am not exactly qualified to unpack all of it, especially here. Nonetheless, I can’t help but come back, again and again,  to two specific little things that tie together a number of the characters. So many of the fragmented thoughts and observations that make up the bulk of the text are devoted to excellence, to creation, to worrying about being excellent, to the compulsive machinations of a mind racing towards excellence.  And yet, at the same time, these characters are equally obsessed with intimacy, with empathy, with sympathy, with that feeling of togetherness. They are always pairing off, teaming up, or taking measure of each others emotions, always crashing up against each other in search of admiration and intimacy. There’s something in the way that Lilly Briscoe, in particular, tangles up her ideas about love and about her work that is staggeringly beautiful.

I’m stoked to read some more Woolf this year! Flush and Moments of Being are both in queue.