Monday, February 04, 2013

My Five-Star Bookshelf, Part Twenty-Five

Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway

When I was an undergraduate, I had the great good fortune to take a year-long survey course in women's literature. We read almost everything in the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, along with another dozen or so additional books: that in itself was a transformative experience. Mrs Dalloway, however, was one of the additional texts (my professor must have loved Woolf because we read a lot of her work) and remains one of my most beloved books — ironically so, since Clarissa is a woman of privilege and represents a world I should be glad to see gone.

If you know anything about me, you know that Virginia Woolf is one of the most influential literary figures in my life. I have read most, but not all, of her books and have read extensively about her — I've even had the opportunity to teach a couple of her essays; and I continue to be interested in Woolf and her writing, although my overall academic focus has changed. When I was doing my master's work in English, I took a course in book history in which I was able to examine books from the original Hogarth Press, the press Leonard Woolf set up as occupational therapy for Virginia. And although the probability has since been challenged by librarians at the Bruce Peel, I continue to believe that Virginia herself laid in the end papers in the Hogarth books we handled — that some essence of Woolf still endures in the physical object. For a Modernist, I can be a ridiculous romantic!

And so Mrs Dalloway. The novel takes place over a day while Clarissa Dalloway plans a party. Her path crosses with friends, relatives, and strangers, and their lives intersect in unexpected and haunting ways. Lines and images from this book still move me deeply. Woolf is a fine artist, and her sentences are astonishingly well crafted; I find her writing exquisite, although I recognize that it's not to everyone's taste. Woolf is a little out of fashion right now — well, Modernism generally is — and that's too bad because Woolf's writing is so elegant and lucid and sometimes funny. The plot of the novel isn't much (it makes a terrible film!); what I love about this book is the language, the sentences, the entwined stories — and, frankly, the way Woolf handles Septimus Warren Smith's madness and death. The novel's conclusion is utterly beautiful and sad, while at the same time curiously uplifting.

Mrs Dalloway continues to be one of my favourite books from one of my favourite writers. (And yes, I also loved The Hours, although it's not a five-star book for me.) As you will see, however, this is not the only Woolf text to have affected me so thoroughly.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

My Five-Star Bookshelf, Part Twenty-Four

Aritha Van Herk, No Fixed Address

I discovered this book shortly after graduating from my BA. If you've been paying attention, you may have noticed that many of my favourite texts involve a focus on place; this one certainly does. It is a novel of many themes, but one of them is this place, Alberta.

Arachne Manteia is a travelling underwear salesperson (there were apparently no La Vie en Rose or La Senza shops at this time), criss-crossing Alberta in a very distinctive vehicle. She has a series of unusual experiences; the novel plays with the concept of the picaresque. At one point, Arachne walks into the Cluny General Store (see an image here), a moment at which the real and imagined worlds merge. Van Herk's description is excellent, and you will experience the hotel rooms, the little towns, and maybe the men as if you were Arachne. This is such a fun novel!

From this book I went on to read The Tent Peg, Van Herk's third novel, which I also loved. Only later did I go back to read Judith, her prize-winning first novel, which is also very smart and unusual — and definitely situated in this place. In the last few years, though, I've lost my taste for Van Herk's work; there are so many other texts competing for my attention. Still, writing about No Fixed Address reminds me how much I enjoyed it, and I hope you will read it, too.