Monday, March 7, 2011

a statuesque look for a moment, as if they were carved

Reaching the end of The Years today (Woolf) I thought of Elizabeth Jolley -- why? -- for her musicality, which, at that moment, seemed a lot like Woolf's -- where? -- in the phrase "something shining in her hair" which Woolf applies twice to Lady Lasswade. The character doesn't start off with it, but after a while, in the chapter called 1910, she picks it up and starts to come in with it, as Prokofiev's Grandfather comes in with the bassoon or Homer's people come in with their attributes in tow, desperate Thetis in The Iliad followed around by her hair and feet, "silver-footed Thetis," "Goddess of the silver feet," "Thetis bright-haired," "azure hair'd" "radiant-hair'd" in Cowper's translation.

Two times is not much, but it was enough to leave me with the feeling that I had been set up to receive, and that I had received, a cue, or that I had been tapped with a tuning fork, and ringing around me was the note that meant Lady Lasswade.

Very briefly the whole importance of The Years seemed to reside in "something shining in her hair," or not the phrase itself but the repetition of the phrase, because it was that repetition that linked it to Jolley, and her own repetitions, the aunt in Lovesong eating the éclair over and over again, or the teenagers in one of her '80s novels (is it Mr Scobie's Riddle? All of my Jolleys are lying in a Melbourne storage unit, further away than Ferdinand's father at the bottom of the ocean) who keep coming into the book singing the lyrics to pop songs, and all of those lyrics are more or less the same, something like hep hey baby baby love baby hey love hep.

(I imagine these attributes, like interchangeable units, interchanged, and the teenagers coming in silver-footed, and Thetis singing hey baby hep hep hey baby hey. What stops them? The rest of the book.)

And then (my mind, primed to find another connection, expanded it) there are those moments in their books when the prose takes on the behaviour of a visual art, theatre, or cinema, the scene at the end of Years, with most of the primary characters standing in evening dress near a window, freezing in position, and other characters looking at them to emphasise the freeze -- and the protagonist of Lovesong watching a boy caught in a panel of light -- and, even more, Jolley's pacing, which resembles the quick and enigmatic edits of a film, as I've said before, in particular David Lynch -- and the way Woolf's frozen characters, like actors who have paused to give the audience a deliberate impression, break at the end of that evening dress tableau, as if the curtain has gone down and everybody can finally run away to the dressing rooms now and do practical things, remove makeup, put the costumes back on their hangers, then go home.

And there against the window, gathered in a group, were the old brothers and sisters.

"Look Maggie," she whispered, turning to her sister, "Look!"

The group in the window, the men in their black-and-white evening dress, the women in their crimsons, golds and silvers, wore a statuesque look for a moment, as if they were carved in stone. Their dresses fell in sculpted folds. Then they moved; they changed their attitudes; they began to talk.

"Can't I give you a lift back, Nell?" Kitty Lasswade was saying. "I've got a car waiting."

So Woolf solves the problem of an ending in a book that doesn't have a straightforward plot to bring to a climax; the freeze is the climax and for the next two or so pages the author strikes little notes, cooling, cooling, diminuendo, introducing lesser complications ("Morris brushed the crumbs off his waistcoat," "In the stillness they could hear the branches rustle"), and then throwing open the aftermath of the freeze until it seems infinite ("'And now?' she asked, holding out her hands to him"). Then perhaps a suggestion of death, the final line, ascent: "The sun had risen, and the sky above the houses wore an air of extraordinary beauty, simplicity, and peace."

With that the world of this tangled book is eased and simplified, the details of separation and life, which have singled the characters out from one end of the story to the other, giving one a damaged roof, another a set of tapering asparagus fingers, all of that is gone; there is nothing left to bother the reader, no details to arrest us, only peace, which is an absence of details that stand out. The mind is not caught any more. It is released, it rests, it sinks back, the hard pinpoint of the attention softens and goes from solid into liquid, the brain can stop concentrating, the book dies, and the reader of this book dies, and becomes the reader of no-book, with the possibility of becoming, in the future, the reader of a different book.

If you're me you think of Elizabeth Jolley and spend several minutes finding similarities between the author of The Years and the author of Lovesong, but then the fit fades, the differences begin to occur to you, the inspiration goes down like a punctured balloon, and you wind up watching an Underworld* marathon on one of those US cable television stations with the ads.

* Kate Beckinsale is a vampire in a rubber corset and everything takes place in grey-blue darkness as per the interior of a hussar's pocket.

An article in The Independent tells me that The Years in draft form was "far more explicit about both queer relationships and politics" than the published item.

Snaith agrees, suggesting that in the manuscript of The Years, Woolf is far more explicit about both queer relationships and politics. It's received little attention before, partly because it's so long: 1,000 pages of difficult handwriting. "There's definitely a mutually homoerotic relationship between a pupil and tutor. You can see Woolf's scoring out and re-writing this part; you can see her anxiety about it." There's also a scene which is apparently more clearly a masturbation fantasy in the manuscript than in the final novel. Snaith explains that these – and more explicit references to the political hot potatoes of the era in which the novel is set, such as Irish Home Rule and the Suffragettes – would have been edited not only to get the book down to a more manageable size, but because of Woolf's "absolute fear of propaganda, a fear of being dogmatic".


  1. I've just picked up The Years as an audio book at the library, so I'll save reading your review till after I've listened to it.

  2. Considering that I spend the last part of the post telling you how it ends that's probably a good idea.

  3. Love this, though I haven't read The years, but the fact that you seen connections and then suddenly they fade. A bit like me with Jolley and Austen. I feel it, but I can't necessarily quite explain it. So, is it there or isn't it? That is the question!

  4. And it's so tantalising, the feeling that there's definitely something there -- and then I begin to examine it, and it fades and fades until there's nothing left but the memory of that bit of absolute certainty and insight. (Which reminds me of Teresa Peterson's Christina Stead: a Provocative Rereading, a book that struck me as one long academic struggle to recover the moment when the author's brain said to her, "Christina Stead sounds really lesbian!")