Thursday, February 25, 2016

10 Books for the Virginia Woolf Fan

Virginia Woolf - goddess among women - is one of the greatest writers, one of the most galvanizing feminist icons, and one of the most influential intellectual minds of the twentieth century. Her output is impressive: ten novels, four volumes of short stories, an experimental biography (or three - some consider Orlando and Flush experimental biographies, rather than novels), three book-length essays, including A Room of One's Own, dozens of shorter essays including criticism and memoir, letters, diaries, and a comedic play. Even with a such a rich oeuvre, sooner or later one comes to the end of her work and is left forlorn. Here are ten books for such a forlorn reader:

Chéri by Colette
Usually classified as a modernist in company with Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, Colette is unmistakably one of the most important female writers of the twentieth century, a writer that explored with an aloofly surgical eye love, sex and sexuality, including queer sexuality, and sexual morality. Colette's exquisite prose is both decadently gorgeous and bitterly precise in this novella about the love affair between a very young man and a middle-aged courtesan. Fred Peloux, known to his friends as Chéri, is only nineteen when he begins sleeping with Léa de Lonval, already forty three; their six year affair is cut short when he marries a virginal woman chosen for him by his mother. The book has a decidedly absinthian taste, reveling in the wanton excesses and splendors of Paris in the Gilded Age, while delicately, rather like a cat with its prey, dissecting the inevitable fate of the aging woman.

At Fault by Kate Chopin
Chopin is widely recognized as an important forerunner to feminist writers like Woolf, since her fiction, especially her best-known novel The Awakening, deals with the psychic, economic, and social difficulties faced by women navigating marriage and motherhood even as those roles prove constrictive, undesirable, or even destructive. Her frank writing about sexuality, at a period when such subject matter, especially for a "lady writer," was taboo in the extreme renders her work particularly significant and precious, offering a rare window into the sexual lives of women at the end of the nineteenth century. At Fault is about Thérèse, a Creole widow running her deceased husband's plantation in Louisiana, who falls in love with a divorced man she refuses to marry on religious principles. In addition to examining gender and marriage, the book also delves into the bitterly complex nature of race and political and economic power in the American South.

Cosima by Grazia Deledda
I have designated myself something of a champion for this Nobel prize-winning Italian writer, author of more than thirty novels, few of them ever translated into English, for she truly is one of the great unheralded geniuses of the twentieth century. Deledda was very much a regional writer, setting the vast majority of her works in her native Sardinia, and she excels at evoking its strange, pagan landscapes, so distinct from other places in the Mediterranean. Cosima, one of her last books and published posthumously, is something of a swan song, a tender and unsentimental autobiographical story of a young Sardinian girl determined to become a writer at whatever cost, though her family, her community, her priest, and even the house she lives in seem to set themselves against her. Few books demonstrate so beautifully the essential truth of Woolf's central thesis in A Room of One's Own

Herself Defined: The Poet H.D. and Her World by Barbara Guest
Given Woolf's fascination with biography, I wanted to be sure to include some works of biography and this is a particularly fine work of scholarship. H.D., or Hilda Doolittle, was an American imagist poet and modernist, who also became a significant figure in both feminist and queer studies because of her unabashedly frank avowal of her bisexuality and her refusal to closet either herself or her work. There is a cool, ethereal quality to her poetry, hearkening back to the exquisite opacity of Sappho, and her language is unfailingly lucid and precise even as her poems occupy the ambiguous gaps and chasms of experience. Her biographer, Barbara Guest, was herself a distinguished poet, and this lends both beauty to the prose and an especially discerning perceptivity to her analysis of the poems.

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
Lessing, like Woolf, was a major voice in feminism and politics, and again like Woolf, her fiction was at the vanguard of the British literary scene. The Golden Notebook is her best-known novel, a monolithic work that examines feminism, sexuality, colonialism, communism and Stalinism, writing and what it means to be a writer, motherhood, and the psychology of women. The novel is framed as the synthesis of a number of notebooks that protagonist Anna Wulf writes in, trying to make sense of the various facets of her life by dividing them into discrete pieces, only to then unite them together holistically in one, golden notebook. The novel's no-holds-barred examination of mental illness and breakdown and how breakdown intersects with womanhood is of especial interest to readers of Woolf.

Collected Lyrics by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Like Woolf, Millay was a feminist activist and passionately bisexual, pursuing romantic liaisons with people of both sexes both before and after her marriage, but more importantly she is one of the best American poets of all time. This collection of selections from all the major volumes was put together by the poet herself and is therefore representative of her best work from the beginning of her career until the book's publication. From her most famous poem, "Renascence": "God, I can push the grass apart/And lay my finger on Thy heart!" Millay is also the subject of one of the finest biographies I've ever read, Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford. 

The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield
Mansfield wrote some of the most perfectly executed short stories of modernism, but sadly her career was cut short when she died at age thirty four and thus her complete oeuvre is easily collected in one volume. Her stories generally focus on small occurrences that ripple psychologically and take on ever greater meaning and resonance. They stay in the domestic sphere (her most famous is "The Garden Party") and yet traverse, it seems, the entire range of human emotion. Her language is delicate, exquisite, and tempered with a gentle gravity cut with a sly, fleeting sense of humor. There is a lovable quality in her work that makes it difficult to criticize, a perfection that doesn't smart because it lacks hubris. Mansfield is the only writer (that I'm aware of) of whom Woolf expressed envy - enough of a recommendation in and of itself.

Delta of Venus by Anais Nin
Nin's erotica lay the groundwork for a new way of writing about sex, deconstructing the male gaze and insisting on a gynocentric understanding of sexual desire and how it intersects with love, power, and an organic sense of the (female) self. Her stunning command of sensuous language, her almost magic ability to evoke even the strangest, most abstract, and most taboo longings in that language, her unembarrassed frankness, her capacity for writing from within the body and creating through that writing a strikingly modern and desperately needed female subjectivity: these qualities have made her especially beloved among feminists.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath 
Plath's tragic personal history has clouded a clear reading of her only novel and it's undoubtedly true that the book is at least somewhat autobiographical. However, the focus on the book as a sort of confessional memoir, a revelation of her personal misery of depression and attempted suicide, has detracted from an understanding of the book as a work of feminism. Esther Greenwood does suffer from depression, but the root of her depression, the force that holds down the bell jar that suffocates her, is patriarchal oppression. Esther's despair is a mixture of fury that the person she feels she is can't be the person she is expected to be, anguish that to be accepted she must be subsumed into a role, that of the housewife, that feels alien and unendurable, and fear that she might fail, either to become what others want her to be or what she wants herself to be. Though the book shares many themes in common with Woolf's novels, it is this feminist reading that makes The Bell Jar so enticing for the reader of Woolf.

The Bugatti Queen: In Search of a Motor-Racing Legend by Miranda Seymour
Miranda Seymour's biography of Hellé Nice is a fascinating exploration of the life of a woman who never played by the rules. Nice began her colorful career as a dancer and cabaret performer, but turned to auto racing after a knee injury put her out of commission. Impossibly glamorous, Nice became a sensation, inspiring fashions and gracing magazine covers and glossy advertisements, one of the only female race car drivers of her day and often the only woman in any given race. The story is enthralling to begin with, but Seymour's nuanced, evocative writing makes the book difficult to put down. I don't know if Woolf was aware of the flamboyant French race car driver, but I imagine she would have had something to say about her if she was.

(For those who read Italian, the work of Clotilde Marghieri, never translated into English, is highly reminiscent of Woolf's writing, so much so that I think it's no exaggeration to call Marghieri her Italian counterpart. Of her nine books, none are easily accessible in the United States, but I most highly recommend Vita in villa and my favorite, Amati enigmi.)

Monday, February 15, 2016

Valentine's Day Hangover: 8 Books for a Post-Romantic Mood

Valentine's Day, especially in the age of the internet, is the day when single people are expected to lament their single state with copious amounts of wine and chocolates (that were not a gift) and couples are expected to have a photogenically uber-romantic evening involving the presentation of flowers, boxed candies, and goopy protestations of affection. While singles have the day to bitterly scroll their social media to see what lovey-dovey public tributes their coupled friends have posted, the couples try to top each other in gag-me sentimentality, whether through photo slideshows of themselves and of the food they are supposedly going to eat, or gross euphemisms about how much sex they are going to have after they put down their phones. February 14 in the age of the internet is a nightmare of mawkishness that even the Victorians - inventors of the valentine card - would find nauseating. It's too much for me and I cried, twice, watching Goodbye, Mr. Chips. All of us, single or coupled, enthused Valentine's Day celebrants and skeptical grouches, could use a palate cleanser. Here are eight books that relegate romance to the dustbin:

Notes from Underground - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
This bitter, existential novella is narrated by an unnamed man, a retired civil servant who spends his days masochistically obsessing over his own suffering and planning elaborate schemes of revenge against everyone he dislikes, including his old colleagues and a prostitute who he manipulates into believing him her savior only to crush her with the knowledge of her inevitable, anguished destiny. Dostoyevsky's narrator wields his philosophies in an attempt to prove his own self-superiority, his own unique value over the rest of society, and the book becomes an indictment both of the idealistic creeds the narrator loathes and the conclusions he clings to to boost his own ego. The romantic, the utopian, the charitable and humane, are exposed as self-serving lies. This book should prove a more than adequate antidote to even the most cloying Valentine's Day romance.

Look at Me - Jennifer Egan
Egan's novel attains more relevance as our lives, or rather the images we create of our lives, on social media play an ever greater social role. Threading together the stories of a fashion model whose face has to be completely reconstructed after a car accident, a depressive and homely teenage girl, a man with a half dozen identities who may or may not be a terrorist, and a private investigator on the edge of falling apart, the novel examines the gulfs that open up between what we look like and what we are, what we project to others and what others project onto us, how we present ourselves and what we are like when we're alone. The greatest violence that the book perpetrates on its characters is their unmasking, the exposure of those titanic gulfs. Though there are moments of tenderness and brief flashes of compassion and pity, this novel has a razor-sharp edge and is anything but romantic.

The Talented Mr. Ripley - Patricia Highsmith
In Tom Ripley, Patricia Highsmith created one of the single most charming monsters of literature. Tom has expensive tastes and few talents, but among the talents he does possess is the ability to inspire utterly undeserved trust, confidence, and affection in others. In this novel, Tom uses that ability to get himself to an idyllic seaside town in Italy, the chosen haunt of Dickie Greenleaf, heir to an American fortune, and, while he may not exactly want to get his hands dirty, when his friends won't cooperate he doesn't have much choice in the matter, or so he believes. Highsmith is the mistress of suspense, but the book also has a sly, winking, sinister sense of humor and not a single shred of sentimentality. 

Lust - Elfriede Jelinek
Austrian feminist writer Elfriede Jelinek writes novels that, even in our jaded age of limitless internet pornography, never fail to shock. In interviews, Jelinek has said that her original intention for this novel was to write feminist erotica, but she found that the paradigms of sexual language were too contaminated by a male, violent point of view to do so. Lust is, absolutely, about sex, but this is sex as violence, sex as the brutalizing use of the female body by men and boys. The novel's protagonist, Gerti, is daily abused by her husband, who believes himself entitled to sex as a marital right; Gerti tries and fails to indulge in escapism by fantasizing about a sexual encounter with a lover that might offer her some trace of sexual satisfaction. Jelinek's writing is not for the queasy, the easily disgusted, or the prudish, but few writers write so vividly of the physical intersections of the animalistic and the human. Her militant expression of feminism leaves no space for dream romances and is the absolute antithesis of the bodice-ripper.

Ignorance - Milan Kundera
Kundera's novel probes the shortcomings and self-serving selectivity of memory by narrating how two former lovers, Czech expatriates Irena and Josef, recall, or fail to recall, their long-ago affair. Devastating in its unsparing depiction of the impossibility of returning to the past, the book rejects facile notions of love with its surgically precise examination of how ignorance, whether willful or unconscious, shapes our understanding of ourselves, our lovers, and our homelands. In stark contrast to the bathos of films like An Affair to Remember that assume an eternal perpetuity of love and an absolute truth of memory, Ignorance, in deconstructing the pasts of Irena and Josef, forces the reader to question her own memories, what they mean, and what they might mean to others.
On Chesil Beach - Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan has tirelessly, and from myriad points of view, examined violence, desire, and selfishness; in this novella, Edward and Florence arrive at Chesil Beach, just married, for their honeymoon. Their union is unconventional given their backgrounds - Edward's family is not especially well-off or privileged, while Florence's family is wealthy, cultured, and sophisticated - but they are convinced, and have convinced their families, that their love for each other will bridge over the gaps. The disasters of their wedding night, however, as they realize how little they know or understand each other and become profoundly disillusioned, destroy their romantic hopes and reveal how very fragile those hopes were to begin with.

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. - Adelle Waldman
Waldman's debut novel made a splash when it was published in 2013, garnering almost universally positive reviews and a spot on many critics' best-of-the-year lists. Though decidedly gentler than the other choices on this list, the book skewers the hipster literati culture of Brooklyn in its story of Nate, an up-and-coming writer about to publish his first novel who embarks on a relationship with a fellow writer, Hannah. Waldman brilliantly captures a very male, very white literary voice without succumbing to it, exposing the unrecognized misogyny of male privilege and egotism, without completely losing sympathy for her deeply flawed, but nevertheless appealing protagonist. The novel ridicules the absurdities of contemporary dating, its politically correct rhetoric riddled with stubborn assumptions about men, women, and what they want and think, and might very well compel the reader to delete her OkCupid account.

The House of Mirth - Edith Wharton
Wharton's first masterpiece is a clear-eyed, unflinching depiction of the constraints placed on women when the only ambition permitted her is matrimonial. Lily Bart, high-born and raised to expect fantastic prospects from marriage to a wealth man, is beautiful, vivacious, and seductive; men want to bed her and women envy her, shepherding their husbands and fiances out of her scope of influence. Her best efforts, however, fail, and unable to snag a husband and totally unsuited and untrained to pursue employment in the few lines of work open to women in 1905, she succumbs to addiction, poverty, and despair. Through this story, Wharton advances a feminist polemic: a woman barred from work and expected to fulfill herself solely through marriage is failed by her society, her only recourse being the prospect of money, without which she loses value as fast as berries left to rot in the heat.