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Books of The Times

The fifth and last volume of ”The Diary of Virginia Woolf” may be the best. Beneath its bright energy, there is also a fervent goodbye, for the last entry was written four days before she drowned herself in March of 1941. Opening in 1936, when she is 54, this volume covers the abdication of King Edward VIII, the first years of World War II and the final falling into place of many literary reputations, including her own, T. S. Eliot’s, E. M. Forster’s and James Joyce’s.

Anne Olivier Bell, who has done a redoubtably good job of editing the five diaries, says that this one is ”a record of diminishing hope and confidence in both public and private affairs.” If it is, it doesn’t show unduly, for Woolf is rarely self-pitying, and then only ironically. She comes across as brave, gallant and, in some ways, tough and imperturbable, happy in her life. And it was a wonderful life, of a kind we can hardly imagine now: lunch, tea or dinner with the most interesting people in art, literature, politics and society. Hers was a world in which everyone worth knowing knew each other.

Some readers may prefer the Virginia Woolf of the diaries to the author of ”The Waves,” or perhaps even of ”Mrs. Dalloway” and ”To the Lighthouse.” Here there is none of what E. M. Forster called ”an inspired breathlessness” or ”a beautiful droning and gasping.” In her diary, Woolf is neither aloof nor airy, but disarmingly human, replete with ordinary flaws. For all her originality, she is also a type, a fine example of an upper-class Englishwoman dressed in her prejudices, which she wore like a tweed suit.

Her snobbery, which some critics resented, was in itself like a form of literary criticism. She felt that speech and behavior should have style – or, failing that, structure. Anyone not entirely humorless will admit that, in a literary sense, the English upper classes were good ”characters,” especially in this period, when they were caught between two social climates, living on borrowed time.

Even King Edward VIII fails to meet Woolf’s standards, for she describes him as having ”a set pig- headed steely mind” and as being ”a very ordinary young man” who will ”follow his luggage,” and Mrs. Simpson, to Cannes.

There’s nothing idle or languid about Woolf. When she is well, for she was not physically or psychically strong, we find her working on ”The Years,” ”Between the Acts,” her biography of the art critic Roger Fry, or one of the countless critical articles she wrote as a kind of calisthenics, or therapy.

The appealing thing about Woolf’s diaries is that they enable you to walk right into her consciousness, to see the down-to-earth woman inside the rarefied writer. It’s as if she were to say ”ask me anything you like.” She confides her fears and her petty animosities, as well as her more exalted feelings.

While England is expected to be drawn into World War II, she says it is ”like waiting for a doctor’s verdict.” She doesn’t care for the feelings war breeds, which she sees as ”all sentimental and emotional parodies of our real feelings.” Her view of the actual war is detached, but not indifferent. She is satirical about plans to shoot all the poisonous snakes and dangerous animals in the London zoo for fear the German bombs might free them. ”A plane shot down before our eyes,” she writes, ”just before tea.” When bombs fall near the Woolfs’ country home, she says that ”the Germans are nibbling at my afternoon walks.”

Though she was often accused of being ”aloof,” Woolf minds it terribly when she gets a bad review. Q. D. Leavis, a well-known English critic, declares that one of Woolf’s books is ”not reviewable,” for it is ”a conversation between her and her friends addressed to ‘women of our class.’ ” She also accuses Woolf of ”cheating” through the substitution of technique for content. ”Feathers in the wind,” ”lyrical emptiness,” and ”twilight gossip” are some of the other verdicts. While there are more good reviews than bad she is not altogether consoled.

Perhaps the wittiest parts of the diary are Woolf’s comments on other people. Though she sees friends constantly, she is ambivalent about social life. During an afternoon with Iris Origo, she finds her ”rather contorted.” Diana Cooper’s house is filled with ”unsaturated possessions.” In 1939, T. S. Eliot, a close friend, is ”more supple, less caked and rigid than of old.” Woolf is fascinated by the incongruity of Stephen Spender’s marriage. Christopher Isherwood is ”nipped, jockey like.” Somerset Maugham has ”a look of suffering and malignity and meanness and suspicion.”

Freud, who is in his 80’s, gives Woolf a narcissus plant and then they have a difficult talk, ”like an interview.” Cyril Connolly, who is unflattering to Woolf, writes ”cocktail criticism.” Another afternoon’s ”forced conversation is rather like a sea voyage” in its monotony. Andre Gide’s ”Strait Is the Gate” is ”feeble, slaty, sentimental.” James Joyce’s ”Ulysses,” she says, ”reels with indecency.”

Leonard Woolf seems to have been a model husband. When Woolf asked, ”Do you ever think me beautiful now?” his positive answer is convincing. The note she left for him before she drowned herself made it clear that she was afraid of going mad and becoming a burden. She had gone through mental breakdowns before and feared that this one would be permanent.

But this drama is off-stage, not included in the last volume of the diaries. In these pages, Woolf is splendidly alive, wondering whether she ought to ”look at the sunset rather than write.” When she is in the country, we find her bowling on the lawn most afternoons. Another time, she is ”tormented by the evening beauty,” but not too rhapsodic to add that the rolling smoke in the sky is like ”a convoluted bowel.”

There were two Virginia Woolfs: the rather gorgeous artist and the busy, observant, ironical, everyday woman. We’re lucky to have books by both of them.

January 19, 1986 | By ANATOLE BROYARD

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