There’s no writer I admire more, on a line-by-line basis, than Virginia Woolf

18852I’m reading Woolf’s The Years now, which is the final book published within her lifetime. It’s the same family, shown in cross-sections, with each chapter taking place in a different year. And I guess that over time it’ll show some kind of social change or something. Woolf does not get enough credit for being a political writer. Anyways, that’s not what I’m talking about here. What I want to talk about is the writing.

Woolf is such a good writer! She has many, many virtues, I’m sure, but for me, my appreciation rests on two planks: i) her descriptions; and ii) her adroitness with point of view and narrative closeness.

Her descriptions speak for themselves. Virginia Woolf is one of the only writers who’s actually able to describe the same old shit in a new way. In the course of which, she reveals that it was not the same old shit at all, and that in her book you’re recognizing some object for the first time that you’ve never seen in any other book. She systematically rescues her images from cliche by being more careful and seeing with a closer eye than any author had before.

For instance, lookit here. She’s describing one of the most cliche images you can imagine: the quality of the light at sunset.

“Above the roofs was one of those red and fitful London sunsets that make window after window burn gold. There was a wildness in the spring evening; even here, in Abercorn Terrace the light was changing from gold to black, from black to gold.”

And yet, and yet, and yet, you can see something you’ve never seen before! The way the light glints in the windows and fills them with gold, then, as you move your head, the way that same light goes dark. It’s so fresh. Even eight years later, there’s a compression and specificity there that can’t fail to astonish.

I don’t know how Woolf comes up with this stuff. I feel like there’s no method to it. You just need to reject cliche, and, more importantly, to have a very clear eye. Unless you can scrape away other peoples’ words and describe what things actually look like (or feel like or sound like), you can’t be a good writer.

The other thing she does really well is handle point of view. Her writing contains so many voices: dozens, often. But she slips in and out of them with so much adroitness that the transitions are often invisible. For instance, take a look at this paragraph:

“The leading article bored Kitty with its pompous fluency. She searched the paper for some little piece of news that might interest her mother. Mrs Malone liked someone to talk to her or read aloud to her as she worked. Night after night her embroidery served to weave the after-dinner talk into a pleasant harmony. One said something and stitched; looked at the design, chose another coloured silk, and stitched again. Sometimes Dr Malone read poetry aloud — Pope: Tennyson. Tonight she would have liked Kitty to talk to her. But she was becoming increasingly conscious of difficulty with Kitty. Why? She glanced at her. What was wrong? she wondered. She gave her quick little sigh.”

At the beginning of the paragraph we’re in the daughter’s point of view. At its end we’re in the mother’s. And this isn’t omniscience: the narrator isn’t reporting their different states of mind. Instead we’re seeing their actual thoughts interpenetrate with the narrative. Most writers don’t do this shit even within the same scene, because it’s confusing. Woolf has no problem doing it for a paragraph. And she has no problem going into somebody’s head and then never returning to it.

Again, I don’t think there’s a set technique here. She pulls it off through line-by-line, word-by-word care. For instance, there’s always a transition between the voices, where one gets fuzzy and blends into another. Here the bridging image is the embroidery. Her daughter is thinking about it, while her mother is doing it. The two are for a moment inhabiting the same mental space, but then their minds diverge and now we’re in the other one.

She’s careful with her voices, too. The mother’s voice isn’t so terribly different from Kitty’s, but it is distinct. ‘Pompous fluency’ belongs to Kitty, who is younger and more bookish, while the mothers thoughts are choppier: a series of short declarations. Then, with ‘quick little sigh,’ I feel as though we’re returning to Kitty’s head, because there’s a clear exterior judgement there.

But it would be so easy to get this wrong. There is nothing about this paragraph or about Woolf’s technique that, per se, saves it from being confusing. And in the hands of another author, it certainly would be confusing. I recently read Hanye Yanagihara’s A Little Life, which only switches PoVs between chapters, and I found that to be incredibly confusing for some reason: the voice of the different characters felt too similar; they had the same concerns, same vocabularies, and same drama. Whereas with Woolf you just go with it.

Been reading lots of new releases lately

Lately I’ve been reading lots of new releases! Mostly books by friends and acquaintances. But not always! Sometimes just the books that’ve been getting a lot of buzz (for instance, Katherine Heiny’s collection Single, Mellow, Carefree and Rachel Cusk’s Outline both came out this year). In one case, I read a story collection that’s gotten no buzz (my review is one of only three on Amazon), just because it was discounted and I felt sorry for the author.

It would be easy to say that I’m reading new releases as a way of keeping up with what’s going on in the world of literature today, but that would be a lie. In reality, it’s mostly sympathetic magic. I have a book coming out, and I want people to read it. But for years I’ve mostly ignored new releases. So in order to convince myself that my book won’t be ignored, I’ve changed my ways and am starting to pay attention to new releases.

In reading new books, you do learn a few things. For instance, I’ve been hearing for years that Modernism was a sterile flower and that no one nowadays (except in the small presses) is writing formally atypical novels, But Rachel Cusk’s Outline (out from FSG) was a deeply strange novel: a book of conversations that the protagonist has with students and acquaintances over the course of a week or so in Athen.

And when you read contemporary books, you’re almost guaranteeing that the gender balance of the books you read is going to be much better. For instance, in the last six years, only 25% of the books I’ve read have been by women, but this year that number is more than 50%. 41orC4b88kL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

I do miss old books, though. I am fundamentally pretty conservative on issues like the worth of the canon. The canon is heavily weighted towards white and male authors, and that is annoying and fundamentally limiting. But the problem is that the books in the canon are often pretty good. Like, whatever you might say about, say, Ulysses or Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina or The Charterhouse of Parma or Cousin Bette or The Sound and the Fury, it would be hard to argue that those books aren’t worth reading today and that it’s a bad thing that we have cultural institutions which have kept them from being forgotten. The most you can say, I think, is that those cultural institutions ought to have kept other books–books by nonwhite and female people–from being forgotten as well.

But where does that leave you as a reader? You can rely on informal institutions–blogs and word of mouth–to teach you about what’s good, but those institutions often have a populist bias. They select for a certain kind of book. People don’t tend to get on Twitter and excitedly talk about The Charterhouse of Parma. They tend to talk about more accessible books: ones that will allow you to stir up conversation and build a community. And it’s a tough thing to do the sifting yourself, because it means that you have to read a lot of bad books.

Luckily, there are academics who are busily promoting books into the canon. Two of my favorites–Willa Cather and Virginia Woolf–would probably be forgotten to day if it wasn’t for academics who were interested in finding queer and female narratives in eras that’d heretofore been given over to male voices.

But now I’m rambling.

I’ve been retyping MRS. DALLOWAY

9780156628709_p0_v3_s260x420One learning technique that writers sometimes recommend is the practice of retyping a work that you really admire. The point is to make yourself slow down and think about this work on a word by word level, and also to get your fingers used to idea of typing complex and interesting sentences. I think this is particularly useful for me, since I’m so prone to getting caught up in the living dream of a novel and forgetting that it’s made of actual words. Anyway, about four years ago, I did this for my favorite short story of all time–F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Babylon, Revisited”–and learned quite a bit about how sparing it is possible to be. For instance, F. Scott draws scenes that feels much fuller and longer than they actually are: most of his dialogues aren’t really longer than ten lines, but they feel like entire conversations. He’s also (at least in “Babylon…”) very sparing with physical descriptions. It really taught me that it’s possible to be very vivid without spending pages and pages on things.

Since then, I’ve often wanted to try retyping a longer work. However, I’ve been torn about what it should be. For awhile, I was considering Cather’s My Ántonia. However, I wondered if that might not be too singular of a structure to really learn from (the novel is told in five parts that all deal with fairly different parts of life in turn-of-the-century Nebraska). And then I considered retyping Nabokov’s Lolita, but again I thought that maybe it wasn’t quite right: there was too much wordplay, and the prose style felt too singular.

Now that I have this month where I don’t have any projects and where I’m going to be driving around, I figured that it might be a good time to get underway on this task. And eventually I settled on Mrs. Dalloway. It might seem an odd choice: few novels are as singular and inimitable as Woolf’s masterpiece. However, the thing that I really wanted to learn from is the prose style. To me, Woolf feels like she has the prose style that seems closest to real life. When she writes, I feel like I am actually there, seeing things and experiencing what it is like to be that person.

I’ve been doing it for three days now, and I’m about 25% of the way through (although I’ve slowed down lately because my wrists have been hurting). And I’ve learned quite a bit. For instance, Woolf writes a lot of short clauses that are joined by semi-colons. Many of her descriptions are just lists of things. She often has big similes that overpower the thing that’s being described in a way that, in another writer’s hands, would seem pretty comical. She uses lots of exclamation marks in her dialogue. She uses way more adverbs and adjectives than any writing instructor says you should. And she doesn’t describe the way that things look; it’s more like she describes the impression that they give. There’s also a lot of repetition in Woolf, both repetition of individual words and phrases, and repetition in terms of including multiple clauses or adjectives that describe the same aspect of the same thing. For instance, take this sentence:

She had a right to his arm, though it was without feeling. He would give her, who was so simple, so impulsive, only twenty-four, without friends in England, who had left Italy for his sake, a piece of bone.

Look at the way that the bolded clauses build, giving us a gradually escalating picture of both her helplessness and her bravery. Also look at the description of his hand as “a piece of bone.” It’s not a visual description. It’s very impressionist, very much a description of what it feels like when she holds it.

In terms of how she describes important moments, I was surprised by how little actual description there is. Take for instance, this section, which is one of the mini-climaxes of the novel (it describes Mrs. Dalloway’s first kiss a childhood friend, Sally Seton):

Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it. Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world might have turned upside down! The others disappeared; there she was alone with Sally. And she felt that she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep it, not to look at it–a diamond, something infinitely precious, wrapped up, which, as they walked (up and down, up and down), she uncovered, or the radiance burnt through, the revelation, teh religious feeling!–when old Joseph and Peter faced them:

As you can see, the kiss is stated baldly. And then there’s an immediate retreat inwards, into metaphorical language.

I’m enjoying the exercise immensely. I already feel like my own prose style has improved immensely. Part of that is illusory, for sure, but I’m also thinking about things that I never thought about before (and thinking about them in a way that I never thought about them before), and that’s surely going to have some effect.

How I select the next book I’m going to read

betweenactsI’m sure that everyone out there has an extremely rigorous “next book” selection process. It’s really something of a necessity for modern life. You can’t just pick up whatever’s at hand, because a book cannot be consumed in a single sitting. You need a book that speaks, not merely to your current setting and mood, but to the current moment in your life. And that takes some serious thought.

Over the years, I’ve developed three rigorous book selection principles:

  • I must actually enjoy reading the first sentence (and the second one and the third one, etc) — If I pick up a book and the first sentence bores me, then I put it down. It doesn’t mean that the book is bad, but it does mean that the book is not what I’m looking for right now.
  • My whim is law – After I finished reading Jenny Offill’s novel, I decided that I kind of wanted to read a book that had something of an atypical form. This led me to consider Padget Powell’s The Interrogative Mood and Tao Lin’s Taipei. But then, I thought to myself, “Hmm…It’d also be really good to read a book by a woman,” so those two options were out.
  • Don’t look too far beyond the current book – It’s very easy to make elaborate reading schemas (for instance, last fall I decided that I’d read ALL OF GERMAN LITERATURE). And there’s something very satisfying about making those schemas. But when you’re following them, they become kind of a straitjacket. I’ve learned to dispense with the planning. It’s hard enough to figure out what book I want to read now, much less what book I might want to read in a week or a month.

Anyway, long story short, when I looked around within my parameters (less-typical form, written by a woman), my mind naturally drifted to Virginia Woolf. I picked up The Years, but the first sentence didn’t interest me. Then I picked up Between The Acts and the first sentence was:

It was a summer’s night and they were talking, in the big room with the windows open to the garden, about the cesspool.

And I found myself intrigued….anyway, that is the book I am reading now. It is good. I am enjoying it. Virginia Woolf really is one of the most powerful writers I’ve ever read. All of human existence is mirrored in her novels. For instance, this one is about some folks in a little country house who’re putting on an amateur theatrical (shades of Mansfield Park, there)…and it’s also about the imminence of World War II. That’s a pretty neat trick. Virginia Woolf is so political and so aware of current events, but she gets no credit for it, because she doesn’t engage with politics in the expected way.

[Wrap Up 2013] This year, I learned that I shouldn’t bank on any reading project that involves more than 3 to 7 books.

At least half the people who've read this book on my recommendation have disliked it (although the other half have loved it!) But Gone Girl is still one of my favorites of this year.
At least half the people who’ve read this book on my recommendation have disliked it (although the other half have loved it!) But Gone Girl is still one of my favorites of this year.

I’m a big fan of grand reading plans. A few years ago, I read all the Russians. The year after that, I read Proust. And last year I read lots of Victorian literature. At the beginning of the year, I announced that I was going to spend this year reading all of the 19th century classics that I hadn’t already read. And I got a decent start. I read Nicholas Nickleby and Les Miserables and  Last Chronicle of Barset and then…I tried to read Daniel Deronda. And it was bad. Can’t put my finger on it. Just really boring and poorly structured. I gave up halfway through. And after that I was put off by the Victorian thing. So I kept looking around for a new project.

In the interim, I did do some little little reading projects. Like, I read Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan  and realized that maybe what I needed was more crime novels! So I read Gone Girl and Strangers on a Train and the Talented Mr. Ripley and Murder on the Orient Express and Silence of the Lambs.

But then I was distracted. I signed with my agent and was all, “Hey, shit, I should read some more YA novels, since that’s apparently what I write now!” So I solicited recommendations from the internet, and read some amazing YA, including Flora Segunda, The Forest of Hands And Teeth, Every Day, Eleanor & Park, and The Disreputable History Of Frankie Landau Banks.

But then I randomly started reading Mrs Dalloway and was really blown away by it and I decided, “Oh, okay, I’ll read the great works of modernism.” And I read Jacob’s Room and The Good Soldier and Invisible Man and Nightwood and As I Lay Dying and Ulysses (p2, p3and re-read To The LighthouseBut that didn’t continue either! Because my journey through the modernists led me to Buddenbrooks, and then I was like, “Wow, you know what? This is amazing! Maybe I’ll read a bunch of german novels now!” And I decided to be really concrete and systematic this time! I’d spend the whole rest of the calendar year reading German novels.

And I was pretty good. For a good two months (from mid-August to mid-October), I only read German novels. And this period included some great and thrilling reads like, A Man Without Qualities, The Magic Mountain, Radetzky March, Beware of Pity, Skylark, The Rider on the White Horse, and Every Man Dies Alone. But after I finished that last novel, I somehow just had no more enthusiasm for German novels. That was the reading initiative that I felt the most bad about. I had some great German novels that I was gonna get to: The Sleepwalkers, The Glass Bead Game, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and The Confusions of Young Torless. But I just didn’t want to do it…

So I started reading protofeminist novels. And I came across some great ones: Heartburn, The Dud Avocado, and Lolly Willowes. And I made a list of all kinds of other ones I was gonna get to next (The Unpossessed, The Old Man And MeAngel, Speedboat, etc…)

But that got derailed because I read and fell in love with The Closing Of The American Mind. And after Bloom took down Nietzsche, I just had to read Beyond Good And EvilAnd then that led to The Social Contract and An Enquiry Concerning Moral Sentiments.

I wanted a more modern look at the meaning of happiness, though, so I also read Flow. And I don’t even remember how that led me to books on communication, like Made To Stick and Influence. But I do remember that the really cold-blooded manipulations described in the last book made me interested in psychopaths, so I read some books on that. But then a Facebook post made me interested in a contemporary novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, which made me wonder about other contemporary fictions and…well…I’ve pretty much abandoned all my reading schemas.

I don’t know. I’ve been served well, in the past, by reading projects. But they lack a certain spontaneity. They cause joy when you think about adopting them, because you imagine yourself possessing all this knowledge about and mastery of a certain genre. But when you’re actually doing it, the scheme eventually starts to become a chore. Leaping around naturalistically seems to maximize my happiness.

The only worry is that if I don’t watch myself, I’ll stop reading “difficult” books. But I don’t know how true that is. Certainly The Closing Of The American Mind is not a hugely easy book. I mean, it’s readable…but it’s also a book that’s repulsed me in the past. So we’ll see. Maybe this time next year I’ll be writing about the return of the reading scheme!

Woolf’s _Orlando_ was about everything and about nothing

tumblr_m1d8146kkl1qc93qfo1_500Over the weekend, I read Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. It was really fantastic. Another of those book that makes you want to re-read it the moment you finish it, because the act of reading it has taught you so much that re-reading the beginning would be an entirely different experience.

I never quite understood Orlando before I read it. I knew it was about a dude who lives three hundred years and has various adventures and turns into a woman and such. But I couldn’t quite see what it was about. In fact, even after I was about a third of the way into the book (which is around where Orlando turns into a woman), I was thinking, “This is great and all…but what is this book about?”

And I still can’t really answer that question, because the book is about a lot of things: changing gender roles; the Empire; industrialization; the art world; the development of an artist; the meaning of life, etc.

But what struck me most was how the book is about the changing conception of the self over time. As you read through Orlando, you can almost feel it’s tenor and tone and shape changing with the times. During the 18th century, it’s very much a Romance: Orlando serves as an ambassador and gets involved in a weird, secretive marriage and hangs out with gypsies and all kinds of stuff. Then, during the 19th century, it becomes very somber and introspective. At some point, Orlando looks at his housekeeper’s wedding ring and is like, “What’s that?” And then he realizes that marriage is a necessary part of life.

What I love is that the book never stops. Even after Orlando becomes a successful artist, even after she finds the love of her life, even after she has a child, it keeps going–it has no answer. No milestone is the culmination of a life; she just has to keep going and going and going. By the time Orlando hits the 20th century, the book has become very jagged and stream-of-consciousness, and it finally terminates in a grand image, in a very 20th century fashion.

A really excellent book. At around 70,000 words, it’s perfectly weighted, too. I read it through in about three hours, while sitting in a coffee shop. By the end of it, I couldn’t keep still. My knees were bouncing and I was shifting positions. It was a very exciting reading experience.


Literary novels only have two kinds of endings

JABCI am a huge believer that reading books should not be work. And that, conversely, there is a right time at which to read every book. And if you read a book at the wrong time, then you rob yourself of the chance to read it at the right time. That’s why I hate being assigned books for a class: the time for them is rarely right.

I just finished rereading To The Lighthouse. It was fantastic, and I enjoyed it so much more than the first time I read it, three years ago (when I don’t think I really understood what was going on). But, somehow, I think that the time for me to read it was still not right. I found my attention wandering. I wasn’t locked-on in the same way that I was for Mrs. Dalloway.

But, after finishing TTL, I picked up the used copy of Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club, which I got for free a month back, and I instantly knew that it was the right time for me to read this book.

First of all, I’ve read every Jane Austen novel.

Secondly, there’s just something about it that transports me back to a very specific time in my life: a time that I rarely think about. It makes me feel like I’m eighteen again, and it’s the summer before college, and my reading tastes are just starting to broaden, and I’m reading tons of these science fiction short stories that I have (quite literally) ordered in wholesale lots from eBay.

Fowler’s book is not science fiction. It’s a very realist novel. But there is something about the world of the novel that is very reminiscent of humanist SF from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. It’s a calm and clean world. Nowadays, science fiction is very busy and cluttered: so much is happening, there are so many eyeball kicks and fantastic technologies and strange slang words. But in the stories I’m thinking of—the stories of John Varley, John Crowley, Howard Waldrop, Nancy Kress, Maureen McHugh, Robert Reed, Joe Haldeman, etc—there was a sedateness and an orderliness that I found very comforting, without being able to really define it.

Those stories did not take place in amoral universes, not in the way that the stories of, say, William Gibson or Kij Johnson or Elizabeth Hand feel a bit amoral. Terrible things might happen to people, but those things were aberrations: the world was not of a piece with those things.

In the same way, the Jane Austen Book Club is about a world that is fundamentally nice. You might dip into peoples’ lives and see terrible things, but you also see them sitting around a fire and discussing Jane Austen and you know that they’ve found a way to endure and even prosper.

I think that’s a worthwhile thing to have in fiction. It’s true that we’re born alone and we die alone and that eventually the universe will destroy us all. But it’s also true that life is full of graciousness and decency and niceness. To The Lighthouse recognizes both of these things, but Woolf mixes them in an odd way, so that the tragedy is woven through with the grace, while Fowler’s book always makes sure to end things with a note of niceness.

In some ways, that is what marks Fowler’s book as a genre novel. I often joke that there are only two kinds of literary short stories: the ones what descend into a bottomless pit of sadness at the end; and the ones that descend really, really deep into the bottomless abyss of sadness, and then curve up just a tiny bit, so as to end on the most minute note of hope (for the best examples of the latter, see the endings of“Babylon, Revisited” or Gone With The Wind).

I don’t know why this is. I don’t think a happy ending is necessarily falser than a sad one. An ending is a very arbitrary thing, and since people do sometimes have happy moments in their lives, I don’t think it’s terrible to end a story while inside one of them.

Just finished Mrs. Dalloway, it was one of the most engrossing reading experiences of my life

Mrs._Dalloway_cover            Three years ago, I got my first Kindle and I almost immediately loaded a whole bunch of classic novels onto it. One of those novels was Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. I’d just finished reading To The Lighthouse, and I really wanted to read more Woolf.

However, my reaction to To The Lighthouse (three years ago) was a bit mixed. I was 60% bored and 40% astonished by its brilliance. Still, Mrs. Dalloway is a classic. It’s one of those books that you’ve got to read. So, roughly every two months for the last three years, I’ve opened up that file, read the first thousand words of the book and been like, “No. This is too unfocused and too meandering. I can’t tolerate 70,000 more words of this.”

But on Saturday night (well, morning) at around 2 AM, something changed. I read the next thousand words. And the next thousand. And I got about a tenth of the way through the book and I became really excited by it. There was something in it that wasn’t just interesting; it was intensely gripping.

I read it in about four hours on Saturday afternoon and late night. And it really was one of the most purely pleasurable reading experiences in my life. Even though I was tired and someone headachy and not my best self at all, I was totally absorbed in the novel. For those who don’t know, it’s the story of one day in the life of a Clarissa Dalloway, the wife of a member of Parliament. She walks around town a bit, talks to a bunch of people, then gives a party. Of course, the novel doesn’t stay with her: it zips into the heads of her husband, a former lover, and a random shell-shocked WWI veteran. It has no chapters and not even that many section breaks, it’s just one long stream.

And it’s perfect. Like, you know when you read a short story and you think, “Everything fits up exactly right” and you know that there is no way the author could’ve managed to hold all those threads for even a thousand more words? Well, Mrs. Dalloway is 70,000 words of that!

On a sentence level, it’s a joy to read. The mechanics of the novel are brilliant. Woolf eschews all the technology of action: the walking around, the doing things, the opening doors and getting into carriages. Basically, you know what the characters are doing by what they see. If they see something different, then you know they’re walking down the street. If they see the inside of a house, then you know they’ve gone inside. It’s so subtle and so intuitive. It actually feels much more natural than the standard way of doing things: you feel like you’re inside the protagonists’ heads.

Everything in the novel is so vivid and so heightened. At times, I was almost resentful towards the characters: they felt so much more alive and so much more interesting than I am. I wanted to live my life on the level that they were living theirs. They feel things so deeply. An aeroplane passing overhead is a mystical moment. A motorcar stopping in front of a store is a majestic occurrence.

It really didn’t have any dull bits. Every page had its pleasures. Every page had something startling and fascinating. At times, the novel felt like it was touching upon every possible theme: art, religion, war, aging, youth, mental illness, happiness, politics, social stratification, career success, colonialism, feminism, everything! Although it is primarily told through the eyes of this very narrow set of very upper-class people, there are so many characters who walk on for just a moment. And even if they have just a few pages, they feel like people. Like at one point, we spent just a thousand words in the head of Miss Kilham, who is the tutor of Mrs. Dalloway’s daughter. Kilham is very religious and very politically radical, and she desperately wants the daughter to like her. There’s something so palpable about her desperation, but also something very heroic about her.

Honestly, this is the first book I’ve read in a long time where I said to myself, “I wish this book didn’t have to end.”

Reading it was like being a kid again, and reading without any kind of agenda or expected outcome, just for the pure pleasure of tooling around between the lines of the page. Honestly, I am a little astonished that books still have the power to affect me in that way. You know, I’ve often wondered whether modernism was a solution that was in search of a problem. To me, all these new narrative techniques and advanced plotlessness didn’t necessarily seem to offer a better reading experience than Tolstoy or Chekhov.

Now I am a convert. Mrs. Dalloway definitely gave me a type of involvement and a type of pleasure that I’ve never gotten from a conventionally-structured novel.

P.S. Also, yay for lesbian subplots! Every time someone is like, “Oh, of course [some novel] had to be coy about the homosexuality, because it was published in the fifties or in the sixties,” I think about 1920s novelists like Woolf and Proust who were being pretty darned explicit about it. The lesbian subplots were the absolutely best part of Mrs. Dalloway, and they unfold in such a clear way. Mrs. Dalloway is lying in bed (she sleeps separately from her husband), and she’s basically thinking about how she could never please him in bed, because she lacked a certain kind of passion, and then she immediately starts thinking about her childhood friend and how her love for that friend was similar to what a man’s would’ve been. It’s just an aspect of the story, obviously, and Dalloway’s lack of sexual fulfillment isn’t played up as a huge tragedy (the way it would be in a modern novel), but I thought it was nonetheless super interesting.