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Virginia Woolf, Jacob's Room

Woolf, Virginia. Jacob’s Room. New York: Norton, 2007 (1922).

This is the earliest Woolf I’ve read, and they say it’s the Woolf where she starts writing like Woolf; at any rate it’s as assured as Mrs. Dalloway and I may like it better. The net goes wider; we get a (truncated) life beyond a single day, an anthology of European landscapes beyond London, a confident movement between social classes without forced correspondences. Whatever Woolf may have to answer for in life, in this book she is no snob.

It gives nothing away to say that Jacob’s surname is Flanders, i.e. that he’s going to die in the war; if you can explain how a protagonist so clearly marked for death can avoid being determined by his end, then you have divined the heart of Woolf’s method, and I salute you. Obviously it has something to do with a calendar that answers neither to public time nor to individual memory; the book is full of virtuoso chronology, as when a kitten ages into a decrepit cat in the space of the page. And the balance between thinking and feeling is just right, since Jacob’s active intellectual life is generally alluded to rather than transcribed, and when he is naive and wrong, it is in very winning ways. He hurts his head reading the Phaedrus and has conversations with his friends about how they’re the only people who really understand Euripides, then goes off to Athens and gets sunburned and watches the guns fire off Piraeus. In sum he’s young and real, and I don’t think Woolf could have pulled him off had she not had one foot in and one foot out of British high culture.

(Note: one of these days I would like to do a study of the modernists and the Greeks, pitting Woolf’s gentle ironies against H.D.’s Bacchic-Sapphic landscapes or the pedants from America; respondebat Eliot: ἀποθανεῖν θέλω; and Pound’s “If you want to read Homer and all you know are modern languages, I can’t help you out; there are no good translations!” None of us actually know Greek, and Woolf had no problem pointing that out.)

 

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