Saturday, June 8, 2013

Just finished reading...

...Virginia Woolf's second novel NIGHT AND DAY from 1919.

I love Virginia Woolf's work and have listed TO THE LIGHTHOUSE, a stunning piece of literary artistry that literally made me weep, as one of my favorite books on my "Important Books That Have Influenced Me" list to the right on this blog. But I recently realized that the Woolf I love is the Woolf of the deconstructed novel, the Woolf of the stream of consciousness narrative device, the Modernist Woolf. So in an effort to rectify this perception, I have been reading some of her earlier works. I started with her first novel, THE VOYAGE OUT which I wrote about here, and now I have just finished reading her second novel, NIGHT AND DAY.

There are some differences between this early Woolf and the Woolf who later produced master works like THE WAVES and TO THE LIGHTHOUSE. Most notable is the relative lack of the stream of consciousness device, the internal monologue, the deep study of the psychological state of an individual through their thoughts, perceptions, and reactions to the world. This highly stylized internal approach had not yet been explored by Woolf but one can see the beginnings of it in NIGHT AND DAY which is mostly composed of relatively straight forward exposition and dialogue. But lengthy passages are devoted, in her exquisite, angelic way of using language and description as a tool to induce a meditative Alpha state, to lyrical interludes that foreshadow her method of slowly exploring a psychological, metaphysical state. So both the traditional narrative device and Woolf's later stream of consciousness device are at work.

The title NIGHT AND DAY is itself a reference to two different modes of thinking, being, perceiving. It speaks to the idea of two people being as different "as night and day," a way of being part of convention or of blazing one's own trail, of accepting staid rules of behaviour or accepting one's own ideas of how to respond to the world, the oh-so-British preoccupation with the differences between class (I have said that every piece of British literature produced after 1750, or any British film, is really about the class struggle in English society...and I am only half joking), even of the difference between what traditional ideas of what "masculine" and "feminine" are supposed to be and how the qualities that are assigned to each gender do not actually have gender themselves (it is possible for a woman to be analytical and mathematical and for a man to be emotional and artistic, without either one suffering). Woolf's exploration of these themes came at a time in world history when societal mores were shifting, the suffrage movement was gaining traction, and the cobwebs from the Victorian era were being cleared away. The traditional ideas of the origin and function of love, relationships, and marriage are questioned in NIGHT AND DAY, but not so much as to actually upset the patriarchy. Woolf would later write more forcefully and convincingly of women's rights and the destructive effects of the patriarchy in works like A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN. I don't fault her for just getting started in NIGHT AND DAY.

In the novel, we follow four, then five characters who are alternately drawn to each other, fall in love with each other, are repulsed by each other, become engaged, become unengaged, fall in love, and become engaged again. This rather old-fashioned, nearly operatic structure (if one were not paying close attention, one could almost confuse it with Mozart's "Così Fan Tutte") is reminiscent of Shakespeare... and not by accident. The mother of one of our main heroines adores Shakespeare and there is frequent discourse about him... late in the book, she even goes on a pilgrimage to Stratford-upon-Avon only to return with an arm load of flowers she says are from Shakespeare's grave! But unlike Shakespeare's light hearted, identity-confusion love stories, NIGHT AND DAY is full of poignant observations, longing, and yes, love. But a more realistic kind of love filled with doubt and fear. Though some in the story never stray from a well-worn route and thus are sort of guaranteed a "happy ending" as it were, others never really commit to that route. True to the personalities and natures of these individuals that Woolf created, they appear to want a life that has yet to be created, a life that does not yet have a blueprint. By the time the novel ends, we certainly have the sense that these characters and their struggles will continue on well past the last page as they discover and create a life for themselves that has nothing to do with anyone else.

Recommend? Yes but I am aware that the book may be too slow for some, and the hemming and hawing and back-and-forth, maddeningly indirect nature of Edwardian courtship could try the patience of those more used to a 20th or 21st century approach to relationships and romance. But it is a useful glimpse into the highly structured, rigorously tight-laced culture of the past. And Woolf's gorgeous prose and sublime skill in phrasing and exploring abstract matters that normally remain floating in our heads is worth the price of admission right there.

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