[Autumn Leaves (1856) John Everett Millais, Manchester Art Gallery]
I've been thinking about this Virginia Woolf novel a great deal since finishing it. The problem is that I thought I was reading one book, only to discover during and after that I'd been reading a very different book altogether. This is what The Years does; it wrongfoots the reader, setting him/her up to read one way, only for it to break up into something very odd and disconcerting. You may begin by thinking it's a recognisable family saga, the sort of thing Galsworthy might write, but it doesn't take long before the saga collides with both Dickens and Chekhov, and the likes of John Osborne and even JG Ballard.
It opens as a late Victorian novel about a large family living in London, which is all quite comfortable and familiar. You believe you know where you are and where you are going. But almost immediately, there's the father with two stumps on his hand where his fingers are missing, and a frightening flasher under a lamp, leering at a young daughter who has left the house without permission. From there, it's not long before the novel is full of the usual VW mix of London life, glimpses into large lamp-lit houses, tea-time conversations, but now mixed with broken communications, touches of madness, wandering minds, and outbreaks of disgust and anger. All the way through, I was searching for the novel I thought I was reading but had somehow lost, and it took time to realise that I should be reading in a very different way, looking for very different things, making very different conclusions.
The Years is, like all VW's novels, full of repeated motifs, themes, details whose repetition I found oppressive and headache-inducing, presented as they often are in an atmosphere of morbid sensitivity. There is washing and cleansing (shades of Lady Macbeth and 'Out, damned spot!'), dirt, diseased skin, many baths and a great deal of running water, cold winds, birds and birdsong, twigs falling from trees, and leaves in all seasons, wine and the blurring of perception that comes with it, hands on shoulders, hands on knees, hands on clocks, coins and money, dressing tables and mirrors, dogs, bells, hammers, and the sounds and noises of London on every page. People are regularly late, there are fires and flames and a great deal of burning, kettles and hair-pins, windows, portraits and pictures (each section opens with a landscape picture in words) and statues and monuments, staircases and a lot of going up and down, top floor rooms, and many cows and foreigners. Just as this list shows, it is muddled in the way that a dream or, more likely, a nightmare jumbles everything but with horrible clarity, as objects and stuff loom out of a mist or the dark corners the mind. As the novel continues, the interruptions in thoughts and lost threads increase, and no-one seems to take any notice of others' difficulties in thinking clearly. It remains recognisable but somehow hellish; 'How many people, she wondered, listen?' is clearly the question at the centre of this broken-down world.
By the end the I found it painful to read.The apparently normal world has an increasingly odd, sometimes hallucinogenic and feverish feel, reminiscent of the hysterical madness of Ophelia and the ravings of Lear's fool. The loss of communication, the truly awful anti-Semitism, the treatment of 'foreigners', the constant breakings-off, lack of coherence, the muddles and oddness all tested my patience and reading skills. And yet, historically this book has been described as having a happy, positive ending with the family party and the sight of a young couple going into their house.
Perhaps The Years needs to be read a different way and most definitely not as a family saga or a historical novel. It might help to stop thinking that even VW herself knew what she was writing. She edited and changed the text over and over, it made her ill, it became a monster. Even if you don't know this beforehand, you feel it as you read. The breaking out of what lurks below the surface of facts and objects and all the things she couldn't wash away or eradicate (sex, touching, physicality, dirt, foreigners, human nature, failures in communication) are what makes it such an interesting but uncomfortable novel. Once we see beyond the apparent novelistic structure, it becomes far darker, more disturbing and, dare I say, more Dickensian book.
I admit I struggled to see the range and depth of possible readings of The Years until I read the fantastic introduction by Professor Steven Connor in the Vintage edition. Although I knew I'd found a huge amount of themes and subtexts, I wasn't putting them together in the way that Connor does. It would take another reading to find out for myself that, as Connor suggest, this is the novel that VW couldn't control which makes it the most revealing of all. And, at the moment, I just couldn't manage another reading.
Like going to see North by Northwest with your Mum at the BFI, as Alice did last night. (Simon couldn't use his ticket because he's in Thailand.) Even though I've watched it many times, it was really worth going to see it on a big screen. It made the tension much more tense, and made Cary look better than ever. I also noticed how the main colour scheme throughout is silver-grey and rich tan which matches Cary's hair/suit and skin colour to perfection.
Like going on (what feels like) the tallest, scariest, most exposed ride ever with your daughter, as I did last night because Simon would never do something as daft as that, and she wanted someone to go on it with her. Plus, if the chains were going to break, we might as well both be flung across Waterloo or into the Thames. Good views of London at night up there, though. Amazed I kept my eyes open. (It's the Star Flyer at the Southbank 'Wonderground' funfair.)
I've ordered my bulbs for planting this autumn. They haven't arrived yet, but will come sometime in September. So I was surprised to read Dan Pearson's advice in yesterday's Observer Magazine that 'Now is the perfect time to plant bulbs for next year'. I know this is part of a September checklist, but I would still argue that it is not time to plant, especially at this end of the month. Even the earliest do not need to go in for while - you can work this out by the fact that the bulbs are not available yet. And anyway, how would you plant bulbs when everything in the garden is still green and flourishing and alive? Now is also most certainly not the time to be thinking about potting up paperwhite narcissi and prepared hyacinths for forcing; it needs to be a lot colder and darker for that to happen.
But, now IS the time to think about buying bulbs. We get ours delivered from a couple of suppliers who send out the bulbs together in September, irrespective of recommended planting times. We then plant them all at the same time, over a series of weekends in November and early December. This includes the daffodils and crocuses that traditionally go in the ground in September, and we never have any problems. (We've had several lovely autumns recently and the ground has been too warm for the bulbs, plus we've still had other plants still looking good that I haven't wanted to pull out just for the sake of getting bulbs in at the 'correct' time.)
And now a word of advice about buying tulip bulbs. There is absolutely no need to pay a lot of money for tulips. The newspaper and magazine 'offers' and the packs of bulbs with pretty pictures in garden centres are outrageously overpriced. Many work out at around 50p per bulb which is mad when you think how much is still involved in getting them to the flowering stage and the fact that in spring you can buy cheap bunches of tulips at eg 20 for £10 which works out at... 50p per flower.
I've done some price comparisons and find that some major bulb specialists who do mail order business charge an average of £5 for 10 bulbs. Then you look around and find others selling exactly the same varieties for as little as £5 or even £4.50 for 25 bulbs. The only difference is that they don't have smart, glossy catalogues, don't take part in expensive flower shows, and don't sponsor posh gardens. If you buy from these great value suppliers whose tulip bulbs work out at an average of 18-20p each, and you choose varieties that you won't find in the shops and supermarkets next spring, you will be quids in. (I'm not talking about rare and unusual tulips that do cost a great deal, but the vast majority of garden tulips which should be good value, but can end up sounding very exotic and special when they cost 50p instead of 20p.)
My favourite, down-to-earth, reliable, friendly suppliers whose prices are competitive and fair are Peter Nyssen and Gee Tee Bulb Company. The minimum tulip order is usually 25 of any variety so you don't have to buy hundreds or thousands of bulbs but, believe me, you will be tempted. (It might be worth thinking about buying with a friend or two and dividing up the bags.) You do not need to pay more.
To sum up my advice: do read Dan Pearson's articles because they are mostly excellent with great photos (eg this), but don't plant bulbs yet.
The days are already shorter. The breeze is a little cooler. The heleniums at Waltham Place (above) are glowing in all shades of September. The exam season is over, notices have been handed in as the new university year comes closer, and I will soon need to think about socks.
Cake on one of the tables in the temporary Yard café at Modern Art Oxford. A good place to sit and enjoy a cup of tea and a slice of cake before going in to see the enormous paintings by Jenny Saville.
The golden stone of the Oxford colleges, ancient and modern, looked lovely today in the soft sunny light. Of course, the older colleges are always spectacular, but I'm also particularly struck by the architecture of Nuffield College - especially its book tower and spire - which links so beautifully to the likes of Christ Church and Trinity College. It was a old-fashioned day of stopping trains and books, coffee houses and libraries, talking and walking. (The stations between Reading and Oxford on the First Great Western line are done up in white and royal blue, are very smart, and very pretty. You also get a glimpse of the Isambard Kingdom Brunel-designed Culham Station.)
And just before I left to get my train, I found these morning glories in the greenhouse. Morning glories cause me more trouble than all my other grown-from-seed plants put together, so whenever I get one or two on a late summer morning, I am delighted (ridiculously so).
I started The Waves to the sound of waves in Portugal, and finished The Waves by the waves in Suffolk. Between times, I tried to read it in land-locked Berkshire but found it difficult to pick up the ryhthms, the trails, and the voices again because too much was going on. It's a book that requires calm, careful, immersive reading; it's always described as a 'difficult' novel, and it's true that you need to escape into it fully in order to have any chance of grasping it (although it's hardly an 'escapist' read).
I found I needed to let the language to wash over my brain, to let it create the same type of hypnotic effect that watching waves can have. All the monologues are spoken internally, not aloud, and run into each other without clear breaks to create a work for voices (I can imagine listening to it on the radio) which builds up into an ebbing and flowing drama, but requires enormous concentration. The Waves feels intensely modern, even post-modern, like some kind of experimental theatre mixed up with elements of Chekhovian emptiness and absence, and the classical unities of Greek tragedy. It has sections and passages which hold you spellbound until, inexplicably, you lose the thread or your mind wanders (or perhaps the text does - it's hard to know when you can't always distinguish the speaker) and then, all of a sudden, it becomes brilliant and sparkling and clever again. Like waves, the prose rises and fall, sometimes lapping gently and sometimes crashing dramatically.
If I am honest, I don't think I would have finished the book if I hadn't already decided to read VW's novels instead of just reading about her and her life. Yet this is the one that needs to be read in order to understand her breakthrough style, her modernism, and just what what it was she was trying to do. Although it contains so many of her usual themes and motifs and words, it's more an exercise in control of material that is undoubtedly both part of, and ahead of, its time (think James Joyce and TS Eliot), than a conventional novel.
With its many repeats and refrains, The Waves often feels like very intense prose poetry. I was amazed by the way VW cleverly sustains the inner monologues to demonstrate how separate we all are and how our stories cannot be told in a linear, chronological, orderly fashion. She proves herself to be the high artist of the inner life, and her writing has a fragility and a delicacy, but also a hard, sometimes lurid, raw and hallucinatory style. It's as though the six characters who speak have been disemboided, flayed, exposed, and as a result are hyper-sensitive to all external stimuli. And all the way through there is water and death, waves and death, life and death, with several chilling, shivery moments about dying and drowning.
The Waves is about the 'incomprehensible nature of this our life', how we struggle to hold our personalities together, to make sense of life and our lives as we battle with the fragmentation of consciousness and our fractured perceptions of reality. As such, it's not a book I'd rush back to, but at least now that I have read it, I am no longer afraid of Virginia Woolf.