Saturday, June 11, 2011
suddenly protruding with animation
Somewhere in this Diary: Volume 1, on a page that I can't find any more, Virginia Woolf is thinking about the incongruity of two people kept below in the kitchen so that the lives of two people upstairs can be smoother and easier. (Here it is, and not as I've described it: "But the fault is more in the system of keeping two young women chained in a kitchen to laze & work & suck their life from two in the drawing room than in her [the servant's] character or in mine.") She is self-conscious about her servants, Virginia Woolf, as I would be too, I think, and so I would not have servants even if I could afford them, because the idea of people waiting around in far corners of the house making fretting noises (if I lived in a house), would worry me so much that it would be less stressful to do the job myself, whatever it is, eg, cooking an egg or wiping the bathroom sink.
Although if I had a house I might also have a garden, a large garden, and I could put my servants in a small house at the end of this garden, and pay them to leave me alone and keep burglars away while they're at it, and yet in that case it would be cheaper possibly to buy a dog.
And if I could not afford a servant I would not want to be one either; I would hate whoever hired me. I'm bad with flatmates. But Marcel Proust's mother was good with servants and once ran out before breakfast to buy one of them a blouse. Her son would go to to his friends' houses and give the servants generous tips, and the same in restaurants. Servants liked him. So Evelyne Bloch-Dano writes in Madame Proust. I have never come across a Proust biography that contradicted this point of view. It is one of the accepted facts about Proust. And in Lost Time he makes the cook and the kitchen maid as heraldic as the aristocrats. They are all Ancient France.
(The cleaning women in the middle of Woolf's To the Lighthouse are like Fates or embodied Time, but their creator doesn't dwell on them and extrapolate and love, as Proust extrapolates Françoise the cook; he is enthralled and horrified by her who kills the chicken and cries, "Filthy creature!" as she slits its throat below the ear and then cooks it so beautifully, presenting it "in a skin gold-embroidered, like a chasuble." (Moncrieff))
In her fiction Woolf unites everyone, pointing out that they all live under the same sun and the same sky, the same weather, or the same music in The Years, "From behind crimson curtains, rendered semi-transparent and sometimes blowing wide came the sound of the eternal waltz -- After the ball is over, after the dance is done -- like a serpent that swallowed its own tail, since the ring was complete from Hammersmith to Shoreditch. Over and over again it was repeated by trombones outside public houses; errand boys whistled it; bands inside private rooms where people were dancing played it. There they sat at little tables at Wapping in the romantic Inn that overhung the river, between timber warehouses where barges were moored; and here again in Mayfair," -- and she unites them too by sealing them all inside one stomach of the serpent prose, roaming from one character to the other in The Waves, for example, and yet the tones of those characters, and their thoughts, are brisk and separate, they are together and yet alone, some in Hammersmith, some in Shoreditch, all united and yet also set apart by circumstances, which tear at them, making them ecstatic and lonely.
In the Diary she unites her characters (who here have the names of real people and are less dimensional than the ones in the Waves) with a new tactic: her own automatic sense of repulsion, touching people with her mind the way others touch slugs with their thumbs, and in this she is like Christina Stead's Henny, who in her hatred compulsively transforms people into animals or food, bearing witness to "a dirty shrimp of a man with a fishy expression … and a common vulgar woman beside him, an ogress, big as a hippopotamus, with her bottom sticking out, who grinned like a shark and tried to give him the eye … silly old roosters, creatures like a dying duck in a thunderstorm, filthy old pawers, and YMCA sick chickens, and women thin as a rail and men fat as a pork barrel."
Woolf isn't as monomaniacal as Henny but she has her own good menagerie, "a ridiculous figure" of a man "precisely like the false Mandrill," another man who "drank a whole bottle, bubbled like a tipsy nightingale,"a "stout widow" who "chose 10 novels; taking them from the hand of Mudies man, like a lapdog," and "Mrs Hamilton, who strains at her collar like a spaniel dog, & has indeed the large staring hazel eyes of one of them." "How pale these elderly women get! The rough pale skin of toads." Or she sees inanimate objects in people, one man "stiff as a clod; you can almost see the docks & nettles sprouting out of his mind," and a woman who "is pasty & podgy, with the eyes of a currant bun, suddenly protruding with animation." Woolf modifies her judgments. "But her animation is the product of a highly trained mind." Yet the annoyed and the negative judgments often come first and sound more inventive than the kinder ones, which tend to come slower -- cruelty gives her the gift of vivid inventions, and kindness takes patience, and patience of course doesn't have the strict flash of the immediate response, which is also the strict flash of cruelty, those docks and nettles growing out of a man's head;, sprouting and living; her patience doesn't spring to life in the surreal and clashing way that hands her that lovely description, "bubbled like a tipsy nightingale."
By the end of this volume of the Diary she is primed to write a great Epic of Disgust, filled with people, clods, buns, and animals, and in fact if you'd read nothing else by Virginia Woolf but this diary then you might expect her to do absolutely that very thing. "Her strength," you'd think, "is this power of metamorphosis." You'd narrow her down to that one quality as though you were Dickens. You wouldn't expect her to write Jacob's Room and yet she wrote Jacob's Room. Why did she write that, you would ask. Where did it come from? And you would have to synthesise her all over again, and mourn for your beautiful lost Disgust.