July 20th, 2004

No Longer Afraid

A month or two back I upset catvalente by dissing Virginia Woolf. I'm ashamed of myself now. I've just started reading Mrs Dalloway, and it's bloody marvelous.

I've known mornings in London like that. This is the London that Dickens and Conan Doyle largely failed to register when they were crafting the literary image of the city (I guess the fog got in the way)- a London of white Regency terraces and lawns and lakes and trees. So many trees! Does any city in the world have as many trees as London?

But to return to Woolf. I hated her because I had to read the Waves- against the clock- for some stupid University course or other. All I noticed was that it was different, complicated, and more nuanced than I could be bothered with. Too much fucking beauty!

But this time I'm reading her because I want to.

She's not an omniscient narrator, but she's something akin. A disembodied intelligence gliding through the streets picking up on thoughts and impressions- a radio receiver attached to a steadicam- or, to simplify- an angel, recording but not judging.

That sequence where she tracks the progress of the Royal Personage's car and tells us what it means ; it's masterly and brave, risking incomprehension because it's trying to say things that have never been said before. I fight shy of the much-abused word "spiritual" but I can't think of one that fits her better- only with the caveat that it doesn't mean woolly, but is wedded here to an intelligence that is striving for a precise- even scientific- accuracy (Is she the first novelist to pay attention to brand names- Glaxo, Durtnalls, the removals firm my Granny used?- Could be.) She is a spiritual geographer, mapping the evanescent as it flows through the streets of London on a particular morning in a particular year.

And realizing that everything- even a puff of smoke from the backside of that sublime/preposterous airplane- is eternal. And if it wasn't before- she is after all an atheist- determined that her art will make it so.