In the end, Virginia Woolf went for a walk, filled her pockets with rocks, and waded into the river. After a lifetime of struggling with her mental health, the onset of another depressive episode, in conjunction with the impending war, ultimately defeated her. Since then, women writers across the world have recognized fragments of themselves in her and her work. For my part, growing up in rural Massachusetts, I used to end long winter walks standing at the edge of the pond across the field from the house where I grew up, and the gentle pulse of the water’s surface felt like a promise to take me if I wanted to go.
I didn’t have a connection to Woolf growing up. I was nineteen the summer I first read Mrs. Dalloway, lonely again in my humid hometown. At first pass, I found it dense and perplexing; it was difficult to follow the thread that Woolf masterfully weaves from one character to the next. But I was drawn to her even then, to that breathless style, to life, London, that moment of June.
Perhaps, then, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when I finally read all of Woolf’s novels and saw myself, not only in suicidal ideation but in literary aesthetic: in that persistent, if sometimes melancholy, optimism that pervades Woolf’s work despite mounting evidence that there is little left to hope for.
This realization came in my senior year of college, when I elected to put an end to my embarrassing lack of knowledge about one of history’s most prominent women writers by taking a senior thesis seminar on Woolf. Led by notable writer and Woolf scholar Mary Gordon, we read 10 books and two personal essays by Woolf, each student producing a 30-page thesis on the writer’s oeuvre.
I came to the class as something of a lapsed postmodernist. I’d taken a course in the literary school a few semesters prior and had only recently grown disillusioned with its tenets, the nihilistic rejection of reality and truth that filled me first with existential dread, then a numbing emptiness as I tried to apply it to my own writing. Reading Woolf with this lens, I found her work to present a thorough criticism of the ideas that would characterize postmodernism after her death. It wasn’t just that Woolf was a modernist, embodying the reassertion of reason against a growing alienation that individuals felt in response to advancing industrialization—this modernist aesthetic sets her up in obvious opposition to postmodernism, given that the latter movement grew out of a rejection of their modernist predecessors. Woolf’s work goes beyond this simplistic dichotomy, acknowledging and considering at great length the ideas that would later become postmodernism, but ultimately turning away from them in favor of what Woolf seems to consider the essential truth of being human. That is, the idea that while people’s true selves are masked beneath layers of constructed identities—making meaningful connection almost entirely impossible—the point of life, the beauty in it, is to continue to search for a glimpse at that true self below the surface. For Woolf, this is what makes life worth it all.
This aesthetic appears initially in Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out. Rachel Vinrace, the novel’s young leading lady, pushes against the boundaries of society, unable to conform to the polite expectations set for her. Her entrance into “proper” society midway through the book dovetails with her eventual death, with Rachel falling ill and never recovering soon after getting engaged. Once Rachel attains marriage, “the right thing, the only thing, the solution required by everyone she knew,” she is literally destroyed. In this way, Woolf seems to argue that the arbitrary structures of society do a sort of violence to individuals, taking away their agency in favor of fitting in with what is “proper.” This echoes the nihilist reaction to society that would come to characterize postmodernism after Woolf’s death.
However, an undercurrent of optimism flows through the novel. After Rachel dies, a thunderstorm hits, and the societal conventions that everyone adhered to throughout the book fall quite suddenly away. The otherwise relentlessly proper Mrs. Flushing asks her friends if they fear dying, and they all respond in turn. Unlike earlier in the book, when people would pointedly shy away from asking personal questions, the characters begin to say real, meaningful things. Rachel’s senseless death forces them to be more than they are; to create meaning, to communicate. While the spell breaks as the storm fades, Woolf is not pessimistic about the fact that meaning is only momentary. Rather, she notes the beauty in the fact that, despite this heartbreaking, meaningless death, the other characters go on living, as if to point out that there is something valuable in the going-on-ness of life. Even though meaning only comes in flashes, like lightning, people do not grow disillusioned in the face of the fact that they spend most of their lives stumbling around in the dark. One must push through these difficulties—that is, from a contemporary lens, push through postmodern solipsism—for the hope of momentary clarity. It is worth it for these moments.
In fact, beyond simply arguing for the existence of moments of clarity amidst the stilted performance of English society, Woolf seems to argue that these barriers preventing us from accessing this clarity are the only things that keep us alive. In The Voyage Out, Rachel finds herself paralyzed when she begins to consider the “unspeakable queerness” of life, which she considers “only a light passing over the surface and vanishing.” Through this paralysis, we see how it is destructive to think about the immense and desolate fact of human existence. In this way, while the barriers put up by the conscious presentation of society do serve the destructive end of making it impossible for people to really communicate with one another, these barriers also serve the very constructive end of making it possible to do anything at all. If one thinks too much about how, like Rachel, a person can die merely by forgetting to wash their vegetables before eating them, it becomes impossible to continue. This is why, as with lightning, clarity can only exist in moments. After any more than an instant, the absolute vulnerability of humans to the most absurd things becomes unbearable to consider. In Woolf’s formulation, the best we can hope for is to glimpse clarity in fragments. Any more would destroy us.
These ideas pervade all of Woolf’s novels. In Night and Day, she remarks that “to see the truth is our great chance in this world.” One of the novel’s heroines, Katharine, continually invokes Dostoyevsky, repeating, “It’s life that matters, nothing but life—the process of discovering—the everlasting and perpetual process, not the discovery itself at all.” In The Years, it’s the distant bombing of the war heard during a quiet English tea. In To the Lighthouse, Woolf re-emphasizes the beauty in the dogged going-on-ness of life, showing how even in the face of tremendous tragedy life continues as it did before simply because it must. The house is restored. Lily Briscoe returns to her painting. They finally sail towards the titular lighthouse, despite the deaths of Mrs. Ramsay, Prue, and Andrew.
Woolf is unquestionably a modernist, and the easy assumption would be to say that she has, as she might put it, “nothing whatever” to do with postmodernism as a school. Given that she died before postmodernism could begin to take hold, one might argue that her optimism has no purchase as a critique of contemporary postmodernism, and that to pose such a critique risks anachronism. But this argument falls apart under the weight of The Waves, that fluid and experimental work that firmly established Woolf not only as an extraordinary novelist but as an intensely conceptual writer fiercely pushing the boundaries of her craft.
Told in six soliloquies that ebb and break against each other, The Waves explicitly references numerous major tenets of what would become postmodernism without losing Woolf’s steadfast optimism. The character of Bernard destabilizes the strong sense of self inherent in many modernist texts, declaring, “To be myself…I need the illumination of other people’s eyes, and therefore cannot be entirely sure what is my self.” He goes further, pointing out a whole host of ideas that would later characterize the postmodern movement: the flimsy nature of socially constructed reality, the instability of language, the dubiousness of concrete knowledge. Woolf writes:
There is no stability in this world. Who is to say what meaning there is in anything? Who is to foretell the flight of a word? It is a balloon that sails over tree-tops. To speak of knowledge is futile. All is experiment and adventure. We are for ever mixing ourselves with unknown quantities. What is to come? I know not. But as I put down my glass I remember: I am engaged to be married. I am to dine with my friends tonight. I am Bernard, myself.
Throughout the passage, Bernard seems to be falling away from that optimism that carried Woolf throughout her literary career. Then, the word “but” in the middle. Despite all these grand questions, Bernard is able to situate himself in relation to his position in society. In this way, Bernard represents the point that Woolf makes again and again throughout her career: While nothing is perfect, it is all we have. While society is constructed, it is the only way that Bernard has to relate to the world, and that must be worth something. It must be worth fighting for. If not to keep it the same, then to salvage it, to turn it into something to hope for, rather than the postmodern alternative of nothing at all. As Bernard states, “Is this the utmost you can do? Then we have triumphed. You have done your utmost.”
Woolf’s relationship to postmodernism becomes more compelling when put in context with major critiques that postmodernists raised against modernism. In large part, literary criticism in Woolf’s time was dominated by men like Clive Bell, Joseph Frank, David Lodge, and John Barth. According to Patricia Waugh, a leading specialist in modern and postmodern literature, in her book Feminine Fictions, works by women were marginalized and misinterpreted by these critics. In Waugh’s formulation, fiction written by male modernists was characterized by splitting, fragmentation, and atomization of the story and of the self. In contrast, women’s writing at this time had more to do with dissolution and mergence. According to Waugh, this is because women were traditionally positioned as “other,” so the desire to become subjects overpowered the postmodern desire to deconstruct themselves. Rather, these women sought to experience their selves as strong and coherent while also acknowledging the socially constructed aspects of their identities. Thus, reading these women writers, including Woolf, with the lens of male modernists and critics would misrepresent their aims and concerns.
Furthermore, these women were not only misunderstood or overlooked in their time period, but formulations of modernism continue to misunderstand women like Woolf today. For example, Adam Kelly invokes modernism in his essay “David Foster Wallace and the New Sincerity in American Fiction,” setting up modernist sincerity in contrast with his idea of the New Sincerity, a burgeoning school of post-postmodernism. Kelly asserts that the modernist aesthetic was characterized by “impersonality,” but he exclusively cites male authors such as Joyce and Eliot to prove his point. It would certainly be strange to describe Woolf’s persistent search for meaningful connections between people as anything approaching impersonal, so one might think she was left out of Kelly’s formulation, destabilizing his arguments surrounding postmodernism and New Sincerity.
What does all this indicate? Given that postmodernism grew out of mainstream critiques of modernism, and given that these critiques generally did not focus on the work being done by women writers, the very existence of the school of postmodernism becomes suspect, because it appears to exclude women writers and writers of color. Woolf’s oeuvre is proof of this gaping oversight. While the world is in many ways more equitable than it was when Woolf was writing—at the very least, women can now enter the library at Cambridge without a male companion, unlike in A Room of One’s Own–the literary world remains troublingly gendered.
Ruth Franklin discusses this gendering in her article “Why the Literary Landscape Continues to Disadvantage Women.” According to VIDA, and advocacy organization for women in literary arts, in 2013 The New York Review of Books reviewed 636 books by men and only 164 by women. Franklin notes how even today women writers struggle to be seen as writing about anything other than women, while male narratives continue to be considered universal. This echoes the sentiment Woolf expressed almost a century ago in A Room of One’s Own. She writes:
Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are “important”; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes “trivial.” And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop—everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.
If literary problems from 1929 that a prominent woman writer like Woolf considered at length still remain unsolved today, it seems fair to say that our contemporary literary schools developed out of a deliberate exclusion of women writers. This indicates that postmodernism is not only passé, but, in fact, that parts of postmodernism were never going to be useful for a progressive society. This is because postmodernism began as a movement by white men critiquing previous work by white men, never pausing to look outside of themselves to consider if people of other genders or races might have something interesting to contribute. Woolf’s contradictory relationship to postmodern tenets is proof that she, and likely others, were overlooked.
This isn’t to say that the entire project of postmodernism was useless. It did its work in exposing the arbitrary nature of many, if not most, aspects of our lives. It questioned our assumptions, our values, asked if we knew where things began and then asked us to look again. But for all its good, postmodernism has been ripping a hole in the literary fabric by failing to address this gendered critique, dragging the tapestry down as it overstays its welcome.
For my part, I think there’s nothing left to be gained from this irony, this solipsism, the extinguishing emptiness of the postmodern world. In a world where violence and hate speech are skyrocketing perhaps in part due to this rampant postmodern depersonalization, maybe what we need is not more explorations of how meaningless everything is, but a radical reassertion of that meaning, the kind of hope that kept Woolf alive.
It was the war that ultimately killed Virginia. She had been deeply unsettled by the First World War, and her diaries and letters indicate a growing sense of dread as the Second World War advanced in the last years of her life. While we’re not on the obvious brink of a world war now, it feels similarly easy to despair at advancing right-wing populism across the globe. But having grown up in postmodernism’s grasp, I would rather write towards hope, that truth that Woolf considered our great chance in this world.
In order to be productive, post-postmodern fiction must let go of the solipsistic irony borne out of exclusionary white male narratives. These post-postmodern works must allow writers of all perspectives to dismantle societal narratives and structures like a postmodernist. At the same time, such works must illuminate unseen spaces in literature, like Woolf called for in A Room of One’s Own, and they must resist postmodernism by remaining optimistic and unironic in the process. Drawing on Waugh, these writers must seek to understand their (whole) self in terms of problematic social structures rather than denying the existence of the self because of these structures.
We are never going to see the world or ourselves with complete objectivity, nor should we have to. The intrinsic failure of objectivity should not be taken as cause for despair, because this despair then masks the simple beauty that keeps us alive, as Woolf argued. That humans are fallible is part of what makes us endearing to each other. Woolf writes in Jacob’s Room, “In any case life is but a procession of shadows, and God knows why it is that we embrace them so eagerly, and see them depart with such anguish, being shadows.” It is merely because, “Such is the manner of our seeing. Such the conditions of our love.”
Image credit: Flickr/Laura Miller.
Bill Goldstein and I met in the spring of 2014 at Ucross, an artists’ retreat in Wyoming. Our studios were actually quite far from each other but we became fast friends in part because we shared the same work schedule: every morning we’d meet in the quiet kitchen for a pre-dawn breakfast, both of us eager to get to our desks before procrastination could claim the day. A lot of the time we joked around; my coffee was always sludgy with grounds, Bill said, and I would remark on his debonair bathrobe-and-pajamas combo. Other times we talked novels. Bill not only hosts a segment about books on NBC’s Weekend Today in New York, he also went back to school a few years ago to get a PhD in literature, and we’d often sit for longer than planned chatting about Edith Wharton or a contemporary novel we loved. Sometimes we would discuss our works in progress. While I was wrestling with my second novel, Bill was writing a literary history of 1922, specifically, the creative and personal lives of Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, and E.M. Forster. His studio was filled with books about these figures, and I knew that before coming to Ucross he had dug into primary sources at many libraries and archival centers; his book struck me as so much more expansive than mine, and I enjoyed hearing about it. Sometimes one of us would have a breakthrough with our writing. Other days, we were made miserable by a bad paragraph or uncooperative chapter. I distinctly remember Bill worrying he’d never complete what he had begun.
Well, he didn’t have to worry: The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and the Year that Changed Literature was published last month, receiving praise from such varied publications as The Times Literary Supplement, People, and The New York Times Book Review. I myself tore through the book in just a few days. I loved it. Bill renders this history vivid, compelling, and even dishy. It made me want to re-read The Waste Land and seek out D.H. Lawrence’s novel Kangaroo. It inspired me to return to my (lately neglected) third novel.
It also made me grateful for my own literary friendship with Bill. All of our sprawling, funny, and thought-provoking conversations in Wyoming informed my work and helped me to clarify my aesthetic intentions; I’d like to think that in some minuscule way I was involved in the making of The World Broke in Two. Bill was kind enough to continue our conversation here for The Millions; he answered these questions via email.
The Millions: As someone who only writes fiction and the occasional personal essay, I’m interested in the process of writing biography. It strikes me as such a daunting and mysterious task! How do you shape all this history into a compelling—and, perhaps more importantly, intimate—narrative? Tell me about your process. How did you go about researching this material, and then organizing it?
Bill Goldstein: I wouldn’t say I was aware that it was going to be either or both of those things while I was working, or even that I was consciously shaping it to be that. The editing process is so different from the writing and the researching (and the researching, at least for me, was so much easier than the writing). I think, at least from the evidence of what my own main subjects were dealing with in 1922, that one thing writers of fiction and nonfiction have in common is the difficulty and anxiety of writing. Poets, too—because I think T.S. Eliot said it most succinctly, when he wrote to a friend in December 1921, just before The Waste Land began to take its final shape, “I do not know whether it will work.” (Being Eliot, he wrote it in French—“Je ne sais pas si ça tient.” I think he turned to French for that one sentence in the letter because it was too frightening to say it in English, and yet he had to confide it to someone.) This was just before he went to Paris, in January 1922, and began to edit, with Ezra Pound’s help, what had been nearly 1,000 lines of poetry into the poem half that length that was published at the year’s end. At almost the same time, Virginia Woolf was editing Jacob’s Room, her first unadulteratedly modern novel, into its final form, and was worried that it was only “sterile acrobatics.”
So much of my book is about my main subjects’ insecurity about what they are working on, and their absolute despair that they will be able to do the work they want to do. Whether they will achieve their artistic goals—or whether, physically, they will be able to finish the work. I loved that Virginia Woolf, just before her 40th birthday in January 1922, wrote to E.M. Forster that writing was like heaving bricks over a wall—she had a severe case of influenza—but also cautioned him that even though she was about to turn 40, he must count her only 35 because she had spent so much time sick in bed.
But finding lines like that is why the research is the best part of biography. Also because the process is comparatively straightforward, as opposed to the writing or editing. I spent a lot of time in libraries and archives, and it is just wonderful to be able to go through original letters, diaries, manuscripts—you’re actually holding them, and that’s thrilling in and of itself —but then you always convince yourself (and you’re right) that you must look at more. My focus is pretty specifically 1922, but I found so many important things looking in later and earlier archival material. So much depended on how much time you had in any one place. I was lucky enough to have a fellowship at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, where I researched for two months. You don’t have to do the same kind of triage as when you are in a place for only a few days or a week. The New York Public Library was a similarly endless resource, and luckily I live here. You gather this enormous amount of stuff, and then you have to cut most of it.
In terms of writing and editing, I found that the thing I most resisted, but in the end most depended on, was simply chronology. You’d think that in the story of a year that would be obvious! But that is somewhat alien to my digressive mind, and I learned I had to keep the story as chronologically clear as possible, and that involved, in the editing, sometimes working paragraph by paragraph. If one paragraph did not follow logically from the previous one, and I was spending too much time working on a transition that inevitably became too baroque or abstract—I gave up, basically, and cut it. It only took me several years, and imminent deadlines, to sharpen my mind that way.
I think one thing nonfiction writers can do that is perhaps harder for novelists is that whole chapters can move around—they are much more discrete than chapters in a novel, I would imagine. I don’t know that novelists write in order—I certainly didn’t—but then once I got back to the chronology, I could find the place for things I had drafted, or I could cut. The chapters fit into place because of the time period they covered. Though I remember once many years ago interviewing Ann Beattie, who said that in writing her novel Love Always she didn’t want to “tell a story chronologically.” She wrote the novel in pieces, and when she had finished all the chapters, she spread them on the floor of her living room and re-assembled them “like pieces in a puzzle.” What “foiled” her, she said, was “having to fix it technically, to go back and revise the chronology.”
Talk about losing myself in research—I just went back and looked up the interview.
TM: Was there any sweet little piece of history that you couldn’t fit into the book?
BG: Do you know the phrase l’esprit d’escalier? Literally, the spirit of the staircase? What you think of saying to someone only after the conversation has ended, some caustic or brilliant reply that only comes to you when you’re on your way out—dramatically—down the stairs? When I do my TV segment, I almost always think more of what I should have said, what I wanted to say, than I do of what I did say. So, in terms of the book—most of what I wanted to get in I had to leave out. I feel almost as much despair now about all that I couldn’t use as I did when I was trying to organize all my research notes into a draft. But there are two quotes I tried to fit in, moving them from place to place, and they just never fit. One was a line of Clive Bell’s to his mistress Mary Hutchinson. Clive Bell was married to Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister. He admired T. S. Eliot’s poetry but did not warm to him as a person. Mary, on the other hand, was close to Eliot, was very sympathetic to him in the many financial and marital struggles that in 1922, as at other times, consumed his life (and which made their way into The Waste Land). I think Clive liked to tease her with his barbs about Eliot, a kind of literary foreplay, almost. Eliot published The Waste Land in late 1922, but also spent a lot of time that year working on the first issue of The Criterion, a literary magazine he inaugurated that year (and which he edited in one form or another until 1939). Eliot wrote the prospectus for the magazine in the summer, and Clive, as he often was, was dubious of Eliot’s efforts. When the prospectus arrived, he wrote to Mary that the morning post brought many letters, “all, except yours, very dull—bills for the most part.” One of the very dull things she had likely seen herself: “the prospectus of The Criterion on which most unluckily, though perhaps prophetically, a swallow shat before I had time to read it. You will lend me your copy I dare say.”
The other quote was one of E.M. Forster’s. He read Woolf’s Jacob’s Room in late 1922, and wrote her a beautiful letter about how ecstatically he read it, and what a profound an effect it had on him and, he thought, on the work (A Passage to India) that he was trying then to do. I quote the letter at length. It just didn’t fit to have the wonderful kind of P.S. that he offered to a friend, more traditional than he was, to whom he recommended it highly, but with a caution: “Good. Very very very very very very very—modern.”
TM: You rely on diaries and personal letters to provide insight into these writers’ careers and domestic situations. There are some real gems here. For instance, D.H. Lawrence remarks that the people in Ceylon would be as “beshitten” there as anywhere else on “this slippery ball of quick-silver of a dissolving world.” In her diary, Virginia Woolf describes an evening spent with T.S. Eliot; he was, “sardonic, guarded, precise, & slightly malevolent, as usual.” Can you describe what it was like to interact with these personal papers? Did reading correspondence or private writings alter your understanding of these writers, or even change the course of the book as you might have first imagined it?
BG: Yes, and yes. When you write a nonfiction book, you usually write a proposal first, for your agent and prospective publishers. That, of course, takes years of work (or at least it did for me). You have to do a lot of research, but in researching that, I relied on published material—Virginia Woolf’s complete letters and diaries are published, and Lawrence’s letters too. But when I began working most of Eliot’s letters of the period were still unpublished, and most of Forster’s letters (and his diaries) were also unpublished. You don’t know, of course, what you don’t have, or even whether you will find it or if it still exists. I knew the story of 1922 I wanted to tell, and knew that there was a story in these people’s lives that I could tell by focusing on one narrow bit of time in which they did important work. A story that by necessity the definitive biographies of all of these people could not tell because they had whole lives to encompass. Each of them had a little about 1922, of course.
I knew the story, then—of Woolf, for example, writing “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street” in the spring of 1922, the story that by the end of the year gives rise to Mrs. Dalloway; of Forster’s picking up his “Indian fragment” (which becomes A Passage to India) after nearly a decade. In the same way, I knew where Eliot and Lawrence began and ended the year. In the book, the story is the same—the stories, I suppose I should say—but the details are almost completely different from what I’d planned. What I hadn’t counted on was the range of unpublished material by them and about them. The fact that Woolf’s diaries and letters, and Lawrence’s letters, for example, have been published in complete editions obscures the other salient fact—that so much private writing by and about my subjects is available in archives and libraries and has not been published. There’s so much of Eliot’s correspondence and Forster’s that hasn’t been collected yet, and it was all a revelation to me, including much that they wrote later that revealed essential aspects of 1922, and their work—and their private lives—in that period. Even more thrilling for me—because finding it all was completely unexpected—were the diaries and letters of the people who knew my main subjects extremely well, and either loved or loathed them or both. That was a perspective I never thought to have, and discovering them provided me with some of the most juicy and insightful and bitchy and jaundiced raw material (see Clive Bell’s letters to Mary Hutchinson; and there are hundreds of them at the Ransom Center). The trouble, then, was that I had more than I could ever use—which brings us back to the editing paragraph by paragraph. My editor, Gillian Blake, had a very help suggestion (really, directive)—quotations should be ornaments. Perhaps that’s something every editor says—but it related very specifically to a dilemma my drafts posed to both of us, and that advice helped me enormously.
One other thing about working in these archives is the thrill of holding the original letters. You’re looking for particular things, of course, and you get so used to moving quickly through the papers. Sometimes I would have to scan letters looking only for capital letters—to see if any of my subjects were mentioned. And then every so often you just stop yourself in awe and realize, these are Virginia Woolf’s letters! This is her paper, her ink, she wrote this—it’s not a facsimile. The same thing with drafts. You are holding Eliot’s typescript. You are holding D.H. Lawrence’s notebooks. At the Ransom Center they have Virginia Woolf’s copy of A Passage to India inscribed to her by Forster. And Ezra Pound’s copy of The Waste Land, in which he made not one single pencil notation, unfortunately.
The challenge, I think, is to convey some of the excitement in the book.
TM: I read The World Broke in Two on vacation, far from my writing desk, and by the time I was done, I was thinking a lot about my new book, eager to get back to it. Part of that is due to reading about these brilliant writers and their artistic processes, challenges, and goals. I loved learning about Woolf’s interests in depicting human consciousness, and how inspired she was by Marcel Proust. I’ve read a lot of Forster but didn’t know much about what was happening in his personal life as he returned to the book that would become A Passage to India. And then there’s Eliot, struggling to finish The Waste Land, take care of his ailing wife, and go to work as a banker, a job that demoralized him and caused him great anxiety. Last, we’ve got D.H. Lawrence, giving himself the challenge to start and finish a draft of a novel in six weeks. These could be writers I know personally, in 2017! I felt a connection between their artistic struggles and passions and my own, which was exhilarating. Was that your intention, or was that simply an intriguing part of these writers’ lives that you couldn’t help but focus on, being a fellow writer yourself? Did their processes echo your own, as you worked on your book?
BG: I struggled for a long time with the book, as we’ve discussed. It took me over six years to finish it. And practically every day as I wrote I was immersed in these writers’ despair (which eventually becomes triumph in one way or another by the end of 1922). And I kept thinking of my own difficulties, “But they are Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster! Who am I?” It was comforting on the one hand and intimidating on the other. I mean, what right did I have to struggle? The end result was not going to Mrs. Dalloway or The Waste Land. But at least I had a much smaller goal!
I was talking to a friend just after I was finished with the book. He works in politics but admits he is really a struggling screenwriter. When he said something about how hard it was to do it, and even to find the time, I told him about what Woolf, et al were going through in 1922. He said, “Most people think great art just happens—but it doesn’t.” I think that’s what my book is about. It helps goad you forward, at least a little, to know that whatever struggle you are having with your writing doesn’t indicate, by itself, that you are doing bad work or aren’t a good writer. You can recognize you are not Woolf, Forster, Eliot or Lawrence, and still try to do your work.
TM: You have a PhD in English and you’ve written this literary history of 1922. But you’re also very much part of today’s book culture: you host “Bill’s Books” where you review contemporary work, and you were the founding editor of The New York Times books website. I’m curious how it felt, to be immersed in two literary worlds, past and present. What feels different? What feels similar? Do we have modern day counterparts to these brilliant minds? (And who is our modern-day James Joyce—arrogant, uncouth, genius?)
BG: It was a relief to move between the past and the present. I mean, each was an escape from the other, though of course having to do so much work in the real world leaves you less time for writing. But if you don’t earn money, you can’t write. It’s not a new dilemma. Forster put it wonderfully (and sadly) about his own journalism, which he was doing in part to distract himself from his failure at his novel: “How fatuous!…Always working never creating.” So much is the same, or at least we seem to feel the same way about some things as the writers in my book felt then—overwhelmed by their own work (of course), but also, as Woolf, who was also a publisher of the Hogarth Press, felt, simply by the number of books published. She made fun of the sheer number of books published, and the hype about them (that’s not the word they used then, but she describes the same machinery for it, both from the publisher’s side, creating it, or trying to, and the public’s side, the press’s side, trying to make sense of it). She wrote an article in 1922 decrying this very thing, part of which was trying to understand what her own place was in that universe, not only as a publisher, but as a writer—where would her own work fit in? How would Jacob’s Room make its way in that world? It was the start of her trying to figure out what role the “common reader” plays in making an audience for a writer—but also a posterity for a writer? Would she be read in later years? She could barely see her way to finishing the work she was doing—but still she was anxious about whether she and it would have a posterity. She and Leonard Woolf conducted a mock debate for the BBC in 1927 about whether too many books were being published. The text survives, but not a recording, unfortunately.
As for who is like Joyce—two things. One, I love that you’re quoting Clive Bell’s reaction to him when they met in Paris in 1921, which is from one of his letters to Mary Hutchinson, and which I think he also shared with Virginia Woolf and which influenced her own sense of him as a person (she and Joyce never met) and more vitally as the writer of Ulysses. And two—I think I know too few writers well enough to answer your question. I only know the nicest ones.
TM: Since this is The Millions, I must ask you, what’s the last great book you read?
BG: You mean other than Woman No. 17? I recently read and liked Pachinko by Min Jin Lee; Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout; and My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent (in alphabetical and chronological order, conveniently enough). The last great book I reread is Mrs. Dalloway.