Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Jacob’s Room: Miss Woolf is not pessimistic

No plainer manifestation of the modernist trend in contemporary English fiction may be found than in Virginia Woolf’s “Jacob’s Room.” The book is a natural (some conservatives will undoubtedly say “unnatural”) development from those queer stories included in this writer’s “Monday or Tuesday.” So much does style play a part in her work that it is of more importance to dilate on this aspect of her work than to enumerate the incidents that make up “Jacob’s Room.” The incidents do not so much matter. They are merely a series of events, more or less slight from an objective viewpoint, outlining the career of a young man from his early boyhood to his death in Flanders. It is the manner in which these things are revealed that makes the book of importance, at least as an example of what the younger rebels are doing in England. It is to be suspected that Miss Woolf stems from May Sinclair, but she has carried the terse method of that excellent writer to a natural conclusion and added to its value by a vein of sheer poetry that continually crops out. One might disengage paragraphs from “Jacob’s Room” and offer them as poems. For instance:

Tears made all the dahlias in her garden undulate in red waves and flashed the glass house in her eyes, and spangled the kitchen with bright knives…


The Bank of England emerges and the Monument with its bristling head of gold hair: the dray-horses crossing London Bridge show gray and strawberry and iron-colored. There is a whir of wings as the suburban trains rush into the terminus. And the light mounts over the faces of all the tall blind houses, slides through a chink and paints the lustrous bellying crimson curtains, the green wine glasses, the coffee cups and the chairs standing askew.

Sunlight strikes in upon shaving glasses and gleaming brass cans; upon all the jolly trappings of the day; the bright, inquisitive, armored, resplendent. Summer’s day, which has long since vanquished chaos: which has dried the melancholy medieval mists; drained the swamp and stood glass and stone upon it; and equipped our brains and bodies with such an armory of weapons that merely to see the flash and thrust of limbs engaged in the conduct of daily life is better than the old pageant of armies drawn out in battle array upon the plain.

How easily this would split up into vers libre; one has but to rearrange the lines. And this is the case with much of “Jacob’s Room,” particularly those passages which are descriptive. The dialogue is sharp-edged, springing from the book like a series of sword thrusts. Here is a paring down to essentials: nothing is included but that which urges the mood forward; there is no idle reflection, no subterfuge of matter to extend the volume of the episode.

As for the story itself, it is but the subjective rendering of the moods of Mrs. Betty Flanders, a widow, and her lovable son, Jacob. We follow the son through his childhood, getting swift but essential glimpses of those episodes which taken together inform us regarding his character. He has his few love affairs while at college, and then the war comes along and takes him into chaos, from which he never returns. That is all, but it is enough to make up 300 pages of beautiful (perhaps conscious) writing.

At first one is uneasily aware of Miss. Woolf’s bizarre qualities as a writer of prose, but after one has progressed a way in the book, this consciousness rather vanishes. The metier establishes itself in the reader’s mind and he travels along easily enough unless he is looking for a tale of sustained and rounded plot. He will not find that. But if he is a lover of prose (even grant that it be experimental prose) he will find much to please him and to awaken his fancy.

Unlike most of the younger writers who have left the old, beaten tracks, Miss Woolf is not pessimistic. There is no disillusionment in her work, but, instead of that, a fine realization of the intrinsic beauty of life and a dominant sympathy with her characters. Even though her book ends with a death (and this death is but revealed to us in an oblique manner), the reader must feel that Jacob has been victorious in his brief wrestling with life. Mention of this death and the method of its revelation awakens thoughts of the fine reticence with which most of the book is written. There is nothing ugly here; all is lyrical. Jacob has gone, and we know that he is no more, merely by Bonamy viewing Jacob’s deserted room and noting that everything is as he left it. “What did he expect? Did he think he would come back?” Mrs. Flanders bursts into the room with Jacob’s shoes. “What am I to do with these, Mr. Bonamy?” That is all, but it is enough. If any pithy description of Jacob’s Room” is desired it may be dubbed a lyrical novel.

This book again impresses upon the reader of English fiction the great quality of the women now writing in that country. Headed, of course, by May Sinclair, there is a host of names – Sheila Kaye-Smith, Mary Butts, Ethel Colburne Mayne, F. Tennyson Jesse, Elinor Mordaunt. Indeed, the list is endless. Miss Woolf is certainly one of the foremost figures in this group, and one is glad to note that she is, for her work is more cynical, more compact with beauty than several of the others. Her influence is one that modern England needs. | By THE NEW YORK TIMES

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