[Vwoolf] Number 1 misreading of Woolf?

Jeremy Hawthorn jeremy.hawthorn at ntnu.no
Thu May 21 05:24:40 EDT 2020

On 18.05.2020 14:58, mhussey at verizon.net wrote:

> I don’t quite agree with Naremore here. Woolf mentions Joyce as ‘the 
> most notable’ of ‘several young writers’ who are chafing at 
> convention, and I think it is reasonable to see herself as implicitly 
> included among those ‘young writers’. Her complaint about Joyce is 
> more specific; his (narrative) ‘self’ ‘never embraces or creates what 
> is outside itself and beyond’, he lays a ‘didactic’ emphasis upon 
> indecency.  I don’t think those writers you quote are taking the lines 
> from ‘Modern Fiction’ out of context, and it seems to me reasonable to 
> take the essay (in both its 1919 and 1925 iterations) as a modernist 
> manifesto, though not necessarily as a recipe for how to make a Woolf 
> novel.

Well this and Christine Froula's response sent me back to reread "Modern 
Fiction" - which I have now done more than once. One conclusion I am 
sure of: Woolf does not "advise," or "instruct" or "insist" (all verbs 
used by the critics who I quoted) that the novelist "record the atoms &c 
&c." In the closing lines of the essay she writes: "nothing - no 
'method', no experiment, even of the wildest - is forbidden, but only 
falsity and pretence. 'The proper stuff of fiction' does not exist; 
everything is the proper stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought; 
every quality of brain and spirit is drawn upon; no perception comes amiss."

But does she include herself among the "young writers, among whom Mr 
James Joyce is the most notable" whose work contains a quality that 
distinguishes it from that of their predecessors? This is a more 
difficult question. To me, her criticism of Joyce in the essay would 
suggest that she does not, as does her praise of Conrad, Hardy, Sterne, 
Chekhov and Thackeray. Taken together, this means that she criticises 
quite strongly the only representative of the "young writers" that she 
names, while asserting the superiority of the work of five pre-modern 
writers to his fiction.

Taking up Christine Froula's question, I admit to being puzzled by "the 
spiritual Mr Joyce," especially when his work fails because of "the 
comparative poverty of his mind." He is spiritual because "he is 
concerned at all costs to reveal the flickerings of that innermost flame 
which flashes its messages through the brain." I take it that 
"spiritual" is chosen to distinguish him from the "materialists" from 
whom she distances herself; Joyce is not interested in objects outside 
the self but in processes inside it. But it is an odd use of "spiritual."

Incidentally, Woolf's complaint about the emphasis on indecency in Joyce 
is somewhat at odds with her praise of Sterne. In his introduction to 
Sterne's /A Sentimental Journey/ (Penguin edition, 2001), Paul Goring 
quotes Woolf's view that with Sterne "we are as close to life as we can 
be," notes her praise of Sterne's "many passages of . . . pure poetry," 
and references her quotation from the Paris scenes in Sterne's work. But 
Goring notes that Woolf appears to be completely oblivious of the 
succession of sexual innuendos in the passage she quotes to illustrate 
Sterne's "pure poetry."

Jeremy H

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