Reading Virginia Woolf
Read and subscribe to this thing where it was originally published, over at that other place
I like this image because it’s obscure — that is, covered over > concealed > clouded > unclear. It is a lighthouse out of reach — which feels right to me because I’ve lately been re-reading Virginia Woolf’s astonishing, masterful novel To the Lighthouse — which I’ll also be teaching in September. See below for details.
- Read with me
- Constructed dialects
- Inescapable personal darkness
- Previous editions
- inlooking: Eating trees
- A last subtle reminder about the class I’m hawking here
I haven’t taught a class in over a year — being shepherd of a place like the Writers Grotto, even as a part-time job, is pretty consuming on top of my writing schedule and everything else — so I’m happy to get back into it with a book club in which we’ll read To the Lighthouse over the course of five weeks, with lectures and conversation courtesy of yours truly. Here’s part of the class description from the Grotto site:
TUESDAYS, SEPT. 14 — OCT. 12 | Revisit perception and perspective in a guided reading of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. First published in 1927, Woolf’s fifth novel is not only one of the most important works of early-20th-century Modernist literature, but also a deeply affecting portrait of a woman and a family beset by the forces of the modern world. Over the course of five weeks, we’ll read this masterpiece together, and explore its sitting rooms and hidden byways in search of not just lessons we might use in our own lives as readers and writers of literature, but new ways of perceiving (for it is nothing if not a novel of perception) the world around us and ourselves.
I am very much looking forward to this, and hoping for some interesting conversation and a variety of perspectives brought by students. If nothing else, it’s an opportunity to read (or in my case, re-read for the manyth time) an amazing novel. And I’ve tried to price it comfortably: You can select a registration that costs anything from $75 to $225, or let me know if you’re in need of additional support. See you next month!
Astute readers may recall that in the previous edition of this newsletter I provided a list of a few other books I’d been considering for this class. For your reading pleasure, here’s the extended list of candidates. These are books I love, but which, for whatever reason, I felt would be a harder sell right now. I offer them here in case you’re interested in discovering something amazing between two covers (or in your e-library index). And who knows, maybe I’ll teach one or more of them one day.
- The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers: I love this book. It’s a stunning piece of writing and portrait of a person and place and time. But it is wrenching, just so difficult. It will wring you out. But it’s well worth it.
- Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban: One of my favorite novels. A perfectly constructed post-apocalyptic world that is that rare thing for post-apocalypses: far-out enough to be truly strange, while retaining enough elements of its past to let the reader draw the connection to their own time. I’m just not sure it’s wise to give everyone the idea they can write a whole novel in a constructed dialect. Unless they’re Paul Kingsnorth. (Actually, I would love to see more writers trying this kind of thing.)
- Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon: Apparently, no one but me has ever actually finished reading this book. They’re missing out.
- Lanark, Alasdair Gray: Another far-out selection. Not sure I’ll ever get anyone to even try to read this. A friend describes it as “one of the great obscure-yet-influential masterpieces of British literature, and like most of them it is problematic and peculiar and far less popular than the things it inspired.” How could I resist? It’s difficult, but rewarding. And surprisingly touching, for a book that commits so insistently to obscurantism. (There’s that word again: obscure.)
- Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry: Updating Graham Greene’s “whiskey priest,” Lowry’s whiskey consul is one of the best portrayals of inescapable personal darkness I’ve ever read.
- A Fan’s Notes, Frederick Exley: As Wikipedia puts it, this novel concerns “a longtime failure who makes good by finally writing a memoir about his pained life.” Riotous (along the lines of Martin Amis’s Money, another candidate), if you find alcoholism and inescapable personal darkness entertaining. (Are you detecting a theme here?)
I’m keeping it short this time because I’m in the midst of that rare thing, a vacation with my family (though I am using my early mornings to catch up on things I had hoped to wrap up before we left, like this newsletter). We are off to the Adirondacks — where, two summers ago when we were there, I rediscovered a favorite book I once owned, my copy of which has been lost to the mists of time and moving house too much: The Adirondack Reader is a terrific collection of essays (and some fiction) over four centuries of views on the Adirondack region of upstate New York. (My memory of this book is with the cover from a previous edition, of course.) It is a special place, one that retains much of the wilderness flavor it has had for thousands of years. Not many people ever lived there, apparently; even native American peoples such as the Mohawks and Oneida seem to have lived mostly on the fringes of the region, and used the mountains as hunting grounds. (The National Parks Service has a good account of this history.) And though the mountains are not terribly mountainous from my perspective as a transplant to California (Mount Marcy, the tallest Adirondack peak, reaches only 5,344 feet above sea level, while Mount Whitney, the tallest in California — and the tallest in the contiguous United States — is nearly three times as tall), they are still grand.
The region’s name itself is testament to its inhospitable nature. The word Adirondack is apparently a derogatory term that was used by the Iroquois to refer to their Algonquian neighbors, who sometimes had to resort to eating the bark of trees to survive the region’s harsh winters. August, fortunately, is somewhat more pleasant.
And so it’s off to the wilderness. See you in September.
Til next time,