Modernism

Woolf Comes Out Second Best

Virginia Woolf and James Joyce

Perhaps she was tired of the comparisons, or of being perceived as a practitioner of someone else’s art form, but when Virginia Woolf famously dissed Ulysses–and she held absolutely nothing back in her assault–she created one of the unintentional ironies of the time.

Her criticism came after she had written the subject of today’s post: Mrs Dalloway.  Incensed by the comparison between her work and Joyce’s magnum opus, she claimed that Joyce was just striving for effect, doing schoolboy tricks to make his work stand out.  She also claims to have been bored by the book and abandoned around page 200… so I assume she never read Molly’s sentence at the end, which would likely have enraged her…

Now, while I’m not going to say that Ulysses is either fun or particularly entertaining–and she joins millions of other readers in having given up on the Joyce–calling any book boring is a bit rich coming from a woman who defended Middlemarch–a paragon of absolute stultification–as one of the few novels suitable for grownups.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Woolf’s problem is that, unlike Joyce, she appears not to have realized–at least in this book, I still need to read To the Lighthouse to give a final verdict–that interior monologue doesn’t need to be prim and proper.  Where Joyce delves into the deeper depravities of the psyche, Woolf contentes herself with excellent writing and conventional morality.

Joyce has been proven right by history.  His work is more widely read today (or more widely abandoned, at least), and the prurient passages are a big reason for it.  I bet millions of undergrads have opened the book to scan for the masturbation scene.  And the schoolboy tricks–the endless sentence, for example–have attracted an equal number.  I’ve heard Molly’s monologue referred to as “that sentence”.

In contrast, Mrs. Dalloway is… properly experimental in form.  (No matter what we might think of the plot and its comparisons with Joyce today, we need to remember that Woolf was helping to build the foundations of modern fictional style.  Even if her work is dull by today’s standards, it is still hugely influential).  But it’s boring and unmemorable.

My conclusion is that Woolf encountered the same problems that Joyce did in the development of modernist literature: where to cut off the internal monologue to keep the reader from becoming bored.  Joyce decided to use the literary equivalent of clowns and dancing bears to keep his readers with him, while Woolf stuck strictly to the manifesto.

Joyce, apparently, chose more wisely.

So Woolf still has one book that I recommend heartily, A Room of One’s Own, but apart from that, I’ve been unimpressed by both her fiction and her criticism of others’ work.  Perhaps To the Lighthouse will change all that, but I’m much less enthusiastic about reading that than I was after reading A Room of One’s Own.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer with more than two hundred published stories.  His latest collection is Virtuoso, which you can check out here.

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The Defining Moment of Modernist Literature

There are certain literary works about which it is universally agreed that everyone should read them once in their lives.  The traditional classics, of course: Homer, the other Greeks, Virgil and certain other Romans.  Dante and Beowulf.  Then there are the more modern works such as Cervantes and Chaucer and Shakespeare.  Voltaire.  There are books among the Romantics and Victorians that are considered mandatory: Austen, two of the Brontë sisters (probably the wrong ones, but that’s a post for another day), Dickens and Thackaray.  Melville.  After that, perhaps Hemingway and Fitzgerald, maybe interspersed with some Salinger and Woolf to keep people honest.  The list above does not attempt to be comprehensive, it’s just off the top of my head… but most people know which classics they should have read by now.

Ulysses by James Joyce - First edition

There are some gaps in my own reading, even of the limited list above.  I haven’t read enough of the non-Homer and Virgil classics.  And I’m missing a boatload of poets and dramatists, mainly because I prefer prose (which made reading Chapman’s Homer and Longfellow’s Dante a chore).

But I can finally hold my head up high despite all of this.  You see, I read James Joyce’s Ulysses from cover to cover.  In fact, I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.

Why, I can hear people asking as they scratch their heads, is Ulysses so significant?  It won’t change the fact that I’m woefully lacking in Yeats and Cicero, after all.

Well there are a couple of answers to that one.  The first is perhaps more banal: even among people who self-describe as extremely well-read, there are many who only pretend to have read the thing.  No one likes to admit that they haven’t cracked a significant volume open, but unless it was specifically mandated in college, most won’t have.  That, alone, makes me happy to have taken the effort.

The second reason is because Joyce was anointed as the absolute master of modernist literature and, since the Modernists (note capital M), like all -ists believed that their movement was the be-all and end-all of artistic relevance, he was therefore the greatest writer to ever live.

I wouldn’t go as far as that, but it’s fair to say that, by  adopting a number of then-revolutionary techniques, modernism (unlike its successor, post-modernism, which has contributed little to anything but irrelevant and impractical political stances) did help to mold what we consider contemporary prose.  If nothing else, stream-of-consciousness has become a perfectly valid modern-day tool.

And which book is the standard-bearer for stream-of-consciousness?  Well, it has to be Ulysses, doesn’t it?  An argument might be made for Woolf, but it would be a short one, mainly because most people agree that Joyce was the writer who epitomizes this technique, and Ulysses is the novel where he shows it off.

Joyce Ulysses Period REview Clipping

OK.  So the book is relevant.  But how is it to read?

That answer also has two facets.  The first is that of a reader approaching it for the first time.  The amount of ink dedicated to explaining how to go about that is astounding (it’s a good thing we don’t get our ink from squids, or mass extinctions would have ensued).  They tell you to first familiarize yourself with homer, then read the manuals and commentaries and then…

No.

If you’re a reader of this blog, then you are likely to be pretty well-read and of above-average intelligence and culture.  In fact, the mere fact that you’ve heard of Ulysses and are thinking of picking it up probably means that you don’t need to do all that to read a mere novel.  No matter if that book is the vaunted champion of the modernist world.

Pick it up.  Turn to the first page.  Read to the end.  You will catch some of the allusions.  You will miss others.  But, crucially, you will have formed your own opinion about it.  The book will have a shape inside your head unaffected by what others have said or thought.  It will be your reading.  And that is priceless.

Only afterwards does the second facet of the answer come into play.  Only once read and digested should you go back through it and understand its relationship with the classic material and the underlying irony of the comparative faithfulness of the two Penelopes, as well as the differing attitudes of the parallel Odysseuses.  And all the rest of what is hidden below the surface.

But whether that effort is worth your time must come from your first reading.  Does your mind get pulled in by the dangerous undertows of the underlying narrative?  If so, it is a book worth studying.  If not, onto the next.  Ultimately, the book needs to stand on its own.

Does it?  Well, I’m not going to answer that.  If you want to find out, you’ll have to take join the honorable ranks of those who have finished Ulysses.

As for me, I’ve read the supposed bugaboo of the twentieth century.  But we all know that this one is just the famous sibling.  The true elephant in the room is Finnegan’s Wake.  Kind of like Ulysses, but at night, while in a fever dream.

Hmmm…