Two Twentieth Century Novelists

By Wade, Stephen | Contemporary Review, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Two Twentieth Century Novelists


Wade, Stephen, Contemporary Review


Virginia Woolf Alexandra Harris. Thames & Hudson. [pounds sterling]14.95. 191 pages. ISBN 978-0-500-51592-1. The Inner Man: The Life of J.G. Ballard. John Baxter. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. [pounds sterling]20.00. [v]-1-377 pages. ISBN 978-0-29786352-6.

Writing the biography of Virginia Woolf must present huge organisational and structural problems, as the writing life of one of the most influential novelists of the last century was complex. ambitious and often dizzyingly innovative. Alexandra Harris, however, succeeds admirably in the task. The scope of the book is limited, and its aims therefore very different from other biographies of Woolf. In part this is because the book offers only an outline of the oeuvre, but there is a rare skill in curtailing literary commentary and including only the most telling aspects of the writer's life as it affects each work. Yet the pared-down commentary on the work is also matched by a very deft handling of the essential biographical factors. This incorporation of enlightening insights into the life behind the work is carefully chosen, and for students of the fiction there will be much help here in sorting through the layers of meaning and reference in the prose. Alexandra Harris does this by giving nuggets of life-experience at just the right moment. This commentary on the patterning of life and art which was deeply embedded in Virginia Woolf's aesthetic sensibility is always insightful and relevant.

The book gives us also Virginia Woolf the bookish, scholarly and intellectual woman: in her work the novelist's art is intertwined with the literary inheritance. Alexandra Harris's account of the obsessive lust for knowledge in her subject is something that readers will find very helpful in understanding the nature of Virginia Woolf's wide learning and her determination to create words from all her experience. That experience of life was rich and full, always teeming with sensitive responses and an urge to capture everything. Her famous 'moments of being' which is something at the heart of all her work is very much present here in the descriptions of her relationships as well as in her need for peace and isolation at times.

Equally fresh and informative are the brief accounts of important friends and, of course, of her husband Leonard. and a host of other acquaintances and relatives who provided her with material for her copious diaries. She was a writer who felt drawn to society yet needed time to reflect and contemplate from a distance. When she writes that Vita was 'pink glowing, grape clustered, pearl hung one senses that all her notes were somehow similar to the kind of practice we find in writing workshops today. In fact, the biographer makes it clear that Virginia Woolf loved to write episodes, extracts and lyrical pieces to warm up and 'train' before the real event.

Running through the book is a clear and enthralling narrative thread related to a concept Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary: 'Why is there not a discovery in life? Something one can lay hands on and say "This is it?"' Alexandra Harris gives the reader a rich and compelling picture of the novelist's imagination dealing with such topics, trying to clarify the puzzles she had felt since youth--matters relating to her sense of material reality slipping away into a blurred and elusive set of sensual ambiguity. At the core of her writing, this fragile theme keeps on returning, as if human identity is as ephemeral as the butterfly, and yet reality has to be understood, a compromise accepted and normality maintained.

Alexandra Harris has given us a condensed biography, but one that will find readers in all walks of life. What emerges here is a writer who was never satisfied and who moved on briskly to the next exciting project, while all the time sensing that her fame and her achievements did not really matter: the aim to achieve more always took over. If a biography leads readers to the work, then Alexandra Harris's book will succeed well. …

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