[Two Travellers (Enlargement) Paul Wright, from Thompson's]
While I was reading Jacob's Room in Aldeburgh, each day on my walk to get a newspaper/bread/scone and cream, I passed a large painting of a pair of boots (very similar to the one above) by Paul Wright. Even if I hadn't been reading the book, I would have stopped every time to look and admire the confident brushstrokes and arresting semi-abstract style. But the painting was all the more interesting to me at that moment because I knew that the books closes with Jacob's mother holding out a pair of her dead son's shoes in his empty room.
[A Pair of Shoes (1886) Vincent Van Gogh, Van Gogh Museum]
There is something unutterably sad and poignant about an empty pair of well-worn shoes or boots, which is also captured by different artists such as Van Gogh and Nicholson, but Virginia Woolf is the first (for me) to convey the whole futility and loss of war this way.
I'd known that Jacob's Room is regarded as a 'difficult' novel, and it's true that it's not an easy read. Fragmentary, evanescent, and elegiac, it's needs to be read slowly, a few pages at a time, to allow the words and rhythm to build up, wash over, and sink in. I was amazed that I loved being immersed in this strange book, even though I often had no idea who was who and what the reality was. The prose is beuatiful, fragile and delicate. It's often more poetry than prose, with a few lovely lines in iambic pentameter (eg 'the thin green water of the graveyard grass' and 'dim was the cow-parsley in the meadows').
It's a novel about emptiness and the difficulty of ever knowing anyone properly. Jacob is elusive, evasive, impossible to grasp, and it dawned on me that this is VW's tribute to the Unknown Soldier, her novel about the Great War and the damage and death it caused distilled into the fragmentary, just-glimpsed story of one man.
[Miss Jekyll's Gardening Boots (1920) William Nicholson, Tate Gallery]
All the common VW themes are here again: windows, water, moths, lighthouses and seas, waves and rivers, flowers and colours, public transport, London, books and letters, 'cloisters and classics'. And there are the usual moments of deep irritation with VW's treatment of the poor, the elderly (she is especially dismissive of gross old women, as she sees them), her fastidiousness about the lower classes and their manners and public behaviour, her flashes of quite startling snobbishness. But this is a beautiful novel, suggestive, tantalising, daringly nonconformist, and I know I'll be reading it again one day.