What about the aeroplanes?

Gillian Beer

  • The Essays of Virginia Woolf: Vol. 1 1904-1912 edited by Andrew McNeillie
    Hogarth, 411 pp, £20.00, November 1986, ISBN 0 7012 0666 7
  • The Interrupted Moment: A View of Virginia Woolf’s Novels by Lucio Ruotolo
    Stanford, 262 pp, $29.50, November 1986, ISBN 0 8047 1342 1
  • Virginia Woolf and the Real World by Alex Zwerdling
    California, 370 pp, £24.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 520 05684 1

‘If one spirit animates the whole, what about the aeroplanes?’ queries a character in Virginia Woolf’s last novel, Between the Acts. Both Alex Zwerdling in Virginia Woolf and the Real World and Lucio Ruotolo in The Interrupted Moment engage with the implications of this question – though neither has much to say about aeroplanes. Zwerdling concentrates on Woolf’s ‘intense interest in the life of society and its effect on the individual’; Ruotolo emphasises ‘the rhythm of broken sequence’. Zwerdling and Ruotolo recognise the urgency with which Woolf responds to the current moment in her final work. Ruotolo discovers a hoped-for continuity: what is interrupted is resumed, though changed in form by interruption. Zwerdling emphasises the diaspora of the self and of English society that is chillingly written into the book’s gossip: ‘Negation regularly has the last word.’ Ruotolo, in his book’s only surprising move, proceeds from his analysis of Between the Acts to claim Woolf for anarchism, though the anarchism for which he claims her proves to be generalised (‘All great art is anarchy’ – Gertrude Stein) and muted, a matter of ‘the liberating space of unguarded moments’.

In Zwerdling’s analysis Virginia Woolf’s ‘real world’ is other people: monitory presences, like her mother; the pressure of feet shuffling on the pavement; political groupings; the emotional formations of the family. His excellently complex study engages thoroughgoingly with the social movements which conditioned Woolf’s responses and writing. These can be formulated in abstract terms such as socialism, fascism, feminism, patriarchy, imperialism, militarism: but Zwerdling never loses sight of how specific, how fundamental, and yet how unemphatically present, such issues are in her writing. Woolf’s method is not that of set analysis or argument, though she is very conscious of ‘the immense forces society brings to play upon each of us, how that society changes from decade to decade; and also from class to class’. The image she uses is that of the fish in the stream ‘deflected, held in place’. The fish cannot see the whole stream: nor, she suggests, can she. But she can describe the experience of being the fish in the stream, and in Between the Acts, written at around the same time as ‘A Sketch of the Past’ from which this passage comes, she plays on this idea. She jokes about the literal realisation of metaphor and the instability of reading. Dover sole is ordered and eaten for lunch (the distance of Pointz Hall from the sea vacillates); Giles thinks of himself as a fish in the stream, and, unnoticing, eats the ‘sole’; the old carp, as old almost as pre-history, occasionally rises to the surface of the pond.

Ruotolo remarks that great writers disrupt ‘the reader’s harmony with his world’: Ruotolo’s own work would have been improved by more disruption or interruption. He takes us through each novel from beginning to end, sometimes saying intelligent things or registering odd congruences between the works, but never disturbing the sequence of the written, or of the already thought. The idea of interruption is a potentially exciting way of reappraising Woolf’s work, but here it is made to cover the writing, not stir it up. It comes as a disappointment, for instance, that he gives no account of the significance of particular linguistic effects, such as Woolf’s use of speech-tags. Woolf frequently suspends the unbroken cadences of the speaking voice in such a way as to point an alternative meaning for the sentence, usually a meaning not noted by the speaker. In Between the Acts, for example, she tweaks sentences apart to give an awkward emphasis to the word ‘origins’: ‘What’s the origin,’ said a voice, ‘of the expression “with a flea in his ear”?’ Woolf emphasises, too, the specious congruity of rhyme with its buried messages and apparent reasonableness. Retrospectively, an absurdly insistent ‘I’ assonance and rhyme emerges in this passage from Orlando. The interjected comment forces us to notice it.

Blue, like a match struck right in the ball of the innermost eye, he flys, burns, bursts the seal of sleep; the kingfisher; so that now floods back refluent like a tide, the red, thick stream of life again; bubbling, dripping; and we rise, and our eyes (for how handy a rhyme is to pass us safe over the awkward transition from death to life) fall on – (here the barrel-organ stops playing abruptly).

‘It’s a very fine boy, M’Lady,’ said Mrs Banting ...

The interruptions are underpinned by auditory repetition. Within the thoughts of Woolf’s characters, rhyme affords a comforting narcissism and seems often to mark the threshold of the unconscious as it emerges into language. Ruotolo, despite the sensitivity of his reading, avoids all such dangerous junctures.

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