Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf (biography) - Hermione Lee. 1996.

I was worrying most dreadfully and counter-productively about writing a review of this biography. I always get intimidated when encountering awesomeness. In this case, a genius subject and an equally genius biographer. You know the feeling, right? How dare my slovenly unkempt knuckles-dragging-the-ground-excuse-for-an-intellect DARE even breathe upon these pages or dream of attempting a summing up? Clearly, nothing was happening at the computer, so I went shopping.

Because I live in a studio apartment and my bed is so much in evidence, I'm even more drawn than usual to the linen sections of department stores. Still fretting about the review, I rounded the corner into the housewares section of E-Mart and encountered full-on an endcap display for MRS DALLOWAY -- obviously the name of a bedding designer/manufacturer here in Korea. (Except for the above mentioned name, there was Hangul all over the package, which wasn't really helpful for me.)

I laughed and shook my head. The colors and designs were mediocre at best, but I couldn't help feeling a strong pull to buy the best comforter of the bunch and bundle it home. I resisted (for the moment), but at the same time, my apprehension about writing that review mysteriously dropped from me. When I got home, I knew exactly what to do.

Virginia Woolf is a Chunky Monkey, weighing in at almost 900 pages, but the structure is exquisite. Hermione Lee divided the biography into four chronologically ordered parts ranging the length of Woolf's life (1882-1941). In each of those sections are roughly a dozen chapters grouped into subjects, people and events that were important in her life. For example: Houses, Marriage, War, Thoby, Friendship, Leonard, Bloomsbury, Madness, etc.
In each of these chapters Lee is free to minutely observe aspects of VW's life, often using the same methods Woolf used in her own novels, essays and journals. There is a feeling of looseness and fluidity that is satisfying to Woolf fans, but the chapter headings and the sections provide that overall structure that fussy biography readers need and crave. The arrangement --a compromise, perhaps--? is so simple that it's brilliant. Readers can see Woolf and her world in pieces and all together at the same time. Virginia Woolf enjoyed biographies. Hermione Lee's would not have disappointed her one bit.
For me, the show-stopping chapter in the biography was the one entitled Reading. Totally beguiled, I read it over and over again at least five times. Reading was an integral part of Woolf's life (maybe that's the reason she's usually looking down in photographs -- she wants to be back at her book!) and her insights are so amazing and fresh. I was stunned at the level of connection I now feel with her. The topic richly deserves a post of its own, which will be coming up soon.


lilly said...

I completely get what you mean about writing a review of 'awesomeness', it's happened to me and there are certain books that I love so much I don't I'll ever review them.

But you did a great job with this one and certainly convinced me to read it.

joemmama said...

This looks so good! I have to add it to my pile. Thanks for the review, I might have missed this one.

Kathleen said...

Beautiful review. I would never have guessed you were intimidated to write it!

Care said...

Yes, I agree! Awesome review.

Carrie K said...

Hermione Lee doesn't write quick reads, does she? I'm looking forward to her Virginia Woolf tome - did she cover much about her father? I hadn't realized he was a lit crit until I ran into opposing reviews of theirs on the same book. Vastly entertaining.

Bybee said...

Whew, what a relief!

It is really good.

Oh, I sweated it. Chewed off a fingernail as well.

You're so kind. Can you award me a wedge or two of pie?

Carrie K,
Yes, Sir Leslie Stephen is very much in evidence in the first section of the book. He and his kin even have their own chapter: "Paternal".