There’s no writer I admire more, on a line-by-line basis, than Virginia Woolf
I’m reading Woolf’s The Years now, which is the final book published within her lifetime. It’s the same family, shown in cross-sections, with each chapter taking place in a different year. And I guess that over time it’ll show some kind of social change or something. Woolf does not get enough credit for being a political writer. Anyways, that’s not what I’m talking about here. What I want to talk about is the writing.
Woolf is such a good writer! She has many, many virtues, I’m sure, but for me, my appreciation rests on two planks: i) her descriptions; and ii) her adroitness with point of view and narrative closeness.
Her descriptions speak for themselves. Virginia Woolf is one of the only writers who’s actually able to describe the same old shit in a new way. In the course of which, she reveals that it was not the same old shit at all, and that in her book you’re recognizing some object for the first time that you’ve never seen in any other book. She systematically rescues her images from cliche by being more careful and seeing with a closer eye than any author had before.
For instance, lookit here. She’s describing one of the most cliche images you can imagine: the quality of the light at sunset.
“Above the roofs was one of those red and fitful London sunsets that make window after window burn gold. There was a wildness in the spring evening; even here, in Abercorn Terrace the light was changing from gold to black, from black to gold.”
And yet, and yet, and yet, you can see something you’ve never seen before! The way the light glints in the windows and fills them with gold, then, as you move your head, the way that same light goes dark. It’s so fresh. Even eight years later, there’s a compression and specificity there that can’t fail to astonish.
I don’t know how Woolf comes up with this stuff. I feel like there’s no method to it. You just need to reject cliche, and, more importantly, to have a very clear eye. Unless you can scrape away other peoples’ words and describe what things actually look like (or feel like or sound like), you can’t be a good writer.
The other thing she does really well is handle point of view. Her writing contains so many voices: dozens, often. But she slips in and out of them with so much adroitness that the transitions are often invisible. For instance, take a look at this paragraph:
“The leading article bored Kitty with its pompous fluency. She searched the paper for some little piece of news that might interest her mother. Mrs Malone liked someone to talk to her or read aloud to her as she worked. Night after night her embroidery served to weave the after-dinner talk into a pleasant harmony. One said something and stitched; looked at the design, chose another coloured silk, and stitched again. Sometimes Dr Malone read poetry aloud — Pope: Tennyson. Tonight she would have liked Kitty to talk to her. But she was becoming increasingly conscious of difficulty with Kitty. Why? She glanced at her. What was wrong? she wondered. She gave her quick little sigh.”
At the beginning of the paragraph we’re in the daughter’s point of view. At its end we’re in the mother’s. And this isn’t omniscience: the narrator isn’t reporting their different states of mind. Instead we’re seeing their actual thoughts interpenetrate with the narrative. Most writers don’t do this shit even within the same scene, because it’s confusing. Woolf has no problem doing it for a paragraph. And she has no problem going into somebody’s head and then never returning to it.
Again, I don’t think there’s a set technique here. She pulls it off through line-by-line, word-by-word care. For instance, there’s always a transition between the voices, where one gets fuzzy and blends into another. Here the bridging image is the embroidery. Her daughter is thinking about it, while her mother is doing it. The two are for a moment inhabiting the same mental space, but then their minds diverge and now we’re in the other one.
She’s careful with her voices, too. The mother’s voice isn’t so terribly different from Kitty’s, but it is distinct. ‘Pompous fluency’ belongs to Kitty, who is younger and more bookish, while the mothers thoughts are choppier: a series of short declarations. Then, with ‘quick little sigh,’ I feel as though we’re returning to Kitty’s head, because there’s a clear exterior judgement there.
But it would be so easy to get this wrong. There is nothing about this paragraph or about Woolf’s technique that, per se, saves it from being confusing. And in the hands of another author, it certainly would be confusing. I recently read Hanye Yanagihara’s A Little Life, which only switches PoVs between chapters, and I found that to be incredibly confusing for some reason: the voice of the different characters felt too similar; they had the same concerns, same vocabularies, and same drama. Whereas with Woolf you just go with it.