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.)

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