Monday or Tuesday

First of all, the dramatic reading of Edna O’Brien’s play about Virginia Woolf was very enjoyable.  It took place in a little theater in the basement below the Drama Bookshop, and I got to chat with some students who are in the grad program I graduated from.  Anne Fernald started off the program by reading a beautiful personal essay connecting her family reading history, her scholarly interests, and Virginia Woolf.  And then three actors read the play, which basically covered important events in Woolf’s life, most memorably her relationships with Leonard Woolf and Vita Sackville-West.  I would like to read the play, partly because this performance didn’t include the entire script, but mostly because it was beautifully-written, capturing Woolf’s spirit and her brilliant use of language.

I recently finished a book by Woolf herself — her short story collection Monday or Tuesday.  It doesn’t feel quite right calling it a short story collection, because many of the works are more like sketches or essays, and only one or two have anything like a plot (and that’s a bit of a stretch).  The book is very short — less than 60 pages in my edition — and it contains eight stories, some of which are only a page or two.  Each piece is experimental in some way; some of them are like prose poems and others, my favorites, follow a character’s thoughts or Woolf’s own thoughts, as they move from subject to subject.  The story with the strongest sense of narrative, “A Society,” is a humorous take on patriarchy.  It tells of a group of women who agree that “the objects of life were to produce good people and good books,” and decide they will go out into the world to see just how well men have done with these tasks.  They meet periodically to discuss their conclusions. Monday or Tuesday is very short, but I like the way it reveals many of Woolf’s preoccuptions — feminism, consciousness, and the power and beauty of language itself.

As I read along, I thought about how I would have reacted to the pieces if I’d read them when they were first published or if I had read them without knowing anything Woolf.  It’s impossible to know what I would have thought, but my guess is that I would have fallen in love with a few of the pieces and found others bewildering or off-putting.  The shorter, more poetic pieces (“Blue and Green,” “Monday or Tuesday”) left me a little cold.  I can see that Woolf is experimenting with language, but I had trouble piecing together exactly what was going on in them.  The feminist tale “A Society” is amusing and light, although with a serious point to make, and “Kew Gardens” interestingly widens its focus to describe the world from the perspective of a snail.  There are people in “Kew Gardens,” but they don’t have their usual privileged position and have to share the spotlight with the natural world.

The ones I liked best, though, the ones I would have fallen in love with even if I hadn’t known a thing about Woolf, are the stories specifically about consciousness.  There is “The String Quartet,” which follows the thoughts and perceptions of a person at a musical performance.  The narrator offers her own wandering thoughts, interrupted now and then by the conversations of others.  There is also “An Unwritten Novel,” a story about a train trip where the narrator observes a fellow-passenger and creates an entire life story for her, one that would explain her strange twitch and the unhappy look on her face.  The story is about the power of the imagination and of sympathy — and it’s about the way life is sometimes very different from what our imaginations conjure up.

The masterpiece of the book, though, is “The Mark on the Wall,” a personal essay that tells of Woolf’s thoughts as she sits near the fire and notices something on the wall, something she can’t quite place.  As she sits there wondering if it is a nail or a smudge, her thoughts roam from the small — wondering about the people who lived in the house before her — to the large — the mystery of life itself.  She wants to lose herself in her thoughts and so starts to tell herself a story, which she soon abandons to consider the complications of identity, and soon she returns to the mark again, wondering what it is, but too happily lost in thought to get up and investigate.  I love the way Woolf follows the stream of consciousness — this requires such a carefully crafted, contrived style and yet Woolf makes the flow of thoughts on the page seem utterly natural — and the way she uses the stream-of-consciousness style to contemplate thought itself.  As she records her thoughts, she makes an argument for the multiplicity and complexity of identity and the way art will reflect this in the future:

As we face each other in omnibuses and underground railways we are looking into the mirror; that accounts for the vagueness, the gleam of glassiness, in our eyes.  And the novelists in future will realize more and more the importance of these reflections, for of course there is not one reflection but an almost infinite number; those are the depths they will explore, those the phantoms they will pursue, leaving the description of reality more and more out of their stories, taking a knowledge of it for granted …

After reading the stories, I turned to the relevant chapter in Julia Briggs’s book Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, and she talks about how the stories in Monday or Tuesday are like warm-ups for Woolf’s later experimental fiction.  “The Mark on the Wall” is more than that, but it does indicate what Woolf hoped to do in her own work and it helps us understand how to read what came later.

I’m slowly reading my way through Woolf’s fiction, which means that Jacob’s Room is next.  I’m a little frightened of this book, as I tried to read it a long time ago and didn’t do very well, but I’m counting on greater age and experience to help me out.  I’m excited to see what the second time through will be like.

17 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

17 responses to “Monday or Tuesday

  1. I’m definitely going to have to have a go at “Monday or Tuesday.” I’ve read some of Woolf’s stories here and there but I haven’t had any sustained experience of them and I get the impression from your review that that might be the way to go in order to fully appreciate what she was trying to achieve with them. I particularly like the sound of “An Unwritten Novel.” Oddly enough, it sounds like it would be a marvellous complement to an article that I assigned my “law and literature” students to read today.

  2. What a nice combination–seeing a dramatization of Woolf and her work and then reading something on your own. I love interactive reading experiences! I’ll have to check out this Woolf collection. I’m always a little worried when I start reading something ‘experimental’ (that I won’t get what the author is trying to do), but these short pieces sound like a nice introduction to her later work.

  3. Woolf has always fascinated me as a woman, but strangely I’ve read very little of her work. It may be time to remedy that, and Monday or Tuesday may be the place to begin.

  4. I’ll have to put “Monday or Tuesday” on my list. I haven’t read Woolf’s work since college, though I loved her then. I love how you describe this book–I’m intrigued! Thank you :)

  5. Lovely post, Dorothy, beautifully written. I’ve always held back from Woolf’s short stories, as I think her work needs spaciousness to become effective. Although I’ve enjoyed her essays, but I guess that’s a slightly different thing. I like the sound of The Mark on the Wall – that sort of rangy, web-like stream of unpacking is very Woolf, isn’t it?

  6. Like Jenclair, I have read little of Virginia Woolf, but the stories you’ve described definitely sound like something I would enjoy. I’ve also wanted to read Vita Sackville-West, though I know her more from her contribution to garden history than literature.

    You might check out the book discussion group at R.J.Julia…Orlando is their next book, in Feb:

    http://www.rjjulia.com/virginia-woolf-reading-series-2.html

  7. I’ve only read Mrs. Dalloway by Woolf and she’s one of those writers who I’m a bit intimidated by. I’d like to give Monday or Tuesday a try though – sounds very good.

  8. The Mark on the Wall sounds like just the kind of story / reflection that I would enjoy. I’ve not read any Woolf so it’s encouraging to hear that she can be fun and accessible as well as weighty and serious.

  9. zhiv

    Great post–loved every word of it.

  10. I very much enjoy plays, theater, performance and all things related and your description of the reading sounds remarkable! And now I really want to visit the Drama bookshop…I’ve never heard of it.

  11. I’ve never read much by Woolf — none of her short stories. Thanks for the review. This sounds really good.

  12. I’ve enjoyed seeing Woolf’s writings in performances since I wrote an article about one for the school paper a few years ago. http://media.www.jsons.org/media/storage/paper139/news/2003/11/01/CampusLife/Wolf-Incarnated.At.Emersons.Southwick.Recital-558510.shtml

  13. Kate — I’m curious about that article! I’d also like to know what you make of Monday or Tuesday; it seems such a varied book to me — not really a collection of stories but a mish-mash of all kinds of writing. It definitely shows her versatility.

    Danielle — it IS fun to read and to see performances of Woolf’s work. To be honest, I’m not sure these stories are really a great introduction; they seem better as pieces to look at once you’re already a Woolf convert, with the exception of “A Mark on the Wall,” which might turn anyone into a Woolf convert. I think starting with Mrs. Dalloway might work better.

    Jenclair — she certainly is an interesting person, and I’d like to read a biography of her one of these days. As I said to Danielle, though, it’s probably better to start with one of her novels, either Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse. Those are her true masterpieces. Or perhaps her essays — those are great too (and I’d put “A Mark on the Wall” in the essay category).

    Gentle Reader — Woolf is someone I encountered first in college and I’ve returned to her now and then ever since. She’s definitely worth it!

    Litlove — I think I agree with you about her stories; the novels do work better. I’d call “A Mark on the Wall” and maybe “An Unwritten Novel” essays, and I agree that her essays are excellent. She’s one of my favorite essayists, in fact.

    Debby — interesting, thanks for the link to the bookstore! I’ve visited the store a couple times, and they are a great place. I’ve never read Vita Sackville-West; she would be someone interesting to check out.

    Iliana — Woolf can be intimidating sometimes, although I’ve found that her essays and longer nonfiction are extremely clear and accessible. A Room of One’s Own is really excellent, as is Three Guineas.

    Pete — oh, you would definitely like “A Mark on the Wall”! I also recommend “Street Haunting” and “Death of the Moth.” They are all most excellent essays — among my favorites. She is definitely not always weighty — in fact, she can often be charming and light.

    Zhiv — thank you! :)

    Courtney — I hadn’t heard of it either, but it’s great — almost entirely plays. The place was very busy when I was there; I was impressed at how many people there were looking around. I love seeing plays too, but I don’t do it often enough.

    Lisa — she’s definitely worth reading more in, although I would head for the novels or for the nonfiction. Both are excellent!

    Mike — thanks for the link; it sounds like it was an interesting performance!

  14. davidly

    “A Society” reminds me of this:
    http://www.feministezine.com/feminist/books/Virginia-Woolf-Three-Guineas.html

    And the way you describe “A Mark on the Wall” brings Robert Aickman to mind; perhaps a lighter (less dark) version of one of his short stories.

    As always thanks for the tip!

  15. I love A Mark on the Wall. And A Society I thought daring for when she wrote it. I read somewhere that Woolf wrote short stories in order to work out ideas and narrative technique for her novels. Given the fragmentary nature of so many of her stories I am inclined to agree with that assessment.

  16. Davidly — I’ve read and enjoyed Three Guineas, and I’m looking forward to reading it again at some point — her nonfiction is just amazing!

    Stefanie — I’m not sure I read “Mark on the Wall” before this, but now I’m a big fan! I can definitely see how the stories are her way of working out ideas — several of them have that feel. The book is a real hodge-podge of stuff, actually, because other pieces feel very finished and complete in themselves.

  17. I’m more than a little late to the party with this, but I’m making my way through the stories in Monday or Tuesday over on my own blog. OBAB, you and I have very different takes on “An Unwritten Novel,” which I reviewed over the weekend. Here’s the link if you’re curious. I’d be really interested in your feedback.

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