A blog for everything bookish

Saturday 25 October 2014

Reading Virginia Woolf: Jacob's Room

This is the second time I’ve read Jacob’s Room recently, but the first time I’ve written about it. It is the kind of book you need to allow to seep in, it is Woolf in her experimental phase in which she is nebulous, the details seem to slide past the eye too easily, and yet each scene is rich with meaning. It is a hard book to encapsulate in a few hundred words.

Jacob’s Room follows the early life of a promising young man. Jacob Flanders is a man with a mind, with potential, but he is also a man with a future that never comes off. We follow Jacob from a childhood holiday in Cornwall, to his early life in Scarborough, to his time in university, to a trip across Greece and Italy, to his eventual (though practically unmentioned) end.

What is notable about Jacob is the way in which he is constructed almost as much from the people around him as from direct interaction with the character himself. We see Jacob through the eyes of his mother “And Jacob is such a handful; so obstinate already”, through the eyes of his lovers, his friends and acquaintances, through the eyes of passersby. Jacob is almost as notable by his absence as his presence, which is both difficult to achieve and quite inspirational when pulled off in the way that Woolf pulls it off here.

When reading Woolf’s diaries, I was struck by how she referred to her writing in ‘scenes’ and yet I think in Jacob’s Room it is possible to see exactly what she means here. Woolf progresses the narrative of the story through scenes, some directly connected and others less so, yet though they might seem at times to be jumbled or unrelated when considered as a whole this works extremely well. It makes me wonder whether Woolf had the eye of a movie director, whether if she was living now would she be making pictures instead of stories? Certainly her work has a movie-esque quality to it as they writer’s eye pans across a scene and focuses in on the unexpected. Like here, when Woolf is distracted as the character, Jacob, has walking across London on a visit to St. Paul’s Cathedral. At this point Jacob is a mere echo, and the writer has focused upon another target:

“Long past sunset an old blind woman sat on a camp-stool with her back to the stone wall of the Union of London and Smith’s Bank, clasping a brown mongrel tight in her arms and singing out loud, not for coppers, no, from the depths of her gay wild heart – her sinful, tanned heart – for the child who fetches her is the fruit of sin, and should have been in bed, curtained, asleep, instead of hearing in the lamplight her mother’s wild song, where she sits against the Bank, singing not for coppers, with her dog against her breast.”

As always I am knocked breathless with admiration at Woolf’s extraordinary ability to capture the essence of a person in so few words. This is one of her core strengths: her ability to see an express people. Also her beautiful writing. As always, astonishing.

There is something meta-fictional about Jacob’s Room. In it Woolf is keen to show us, always and often, that this is a story, that it is fictional, that there is a writer behind it and the writer is both showing us a truth and deceiving us. Woolf herself appears as a presence in this book. Not in the way other, later writers have done by inserting themselves as a physical character, but in a subtler way, reminding us that she is there by being distracted, by changing her focus, by being direct, as she is here:

“In any case life is but a procession of shadows, and God knows why it is that we embrace them so eagerly, and see them depart with such anguish, being shadows. And why, if this and much more than this is true, why are we yet surprised in the window corner by a sudden vision that the young man in the chair is of all things in the world the most real, the most solid, the best known to us – why indeed? For the moment after we know nothing about him.

Such is the manner of our seeing. Such the conditions of our love.”

This short, perceptive statement is both true of our connection to fictional characters and similarly to the real. The idea that people, that life is a shadow is nothing new and a concept that certainly every Buddhist will easily recognise. Despite this, Woolf still asks us to care about Jacob, to follow his triumphs and his sadnesses, perceive his difficulties and his weaknesses. And we do, or I did anyway.

Another shadowy presence in the book is the spectre of war. This is a book based in the pre-Great War years, and though the characters do not entirely appreciate that war is coming it casts a shadow over both their presence and their future. Woolf plays time games here, showing us both the present and the future. Like here when one transient character reflects on some others:

“Kind Mr. Bowley and dear Rose Shaw marvelled and deplored. Bowley had rooms at the Albany. Rose was re-born every evening precisely as the clock struck eight. All four were civilisation’s triumphs, and if you persist that a command of the English language is part of our inheritance, one can only reply that beauty is almost always dumb. Maele beauty in association with female beauty breeds in the onlooker a sense of fear. Often have I seen them – Helen and Jimmy – and likened them to ships adrift, and feared for my own little craft. Or again, have you ever watched fine collie dogs couchant at twenty yards’ distance? As she passed him his cup, there was a quiver in her flanks. Bowley saw what was up – asked Jimmy to breakfast. Helen must have confided in Rose. For my own part, I find it extremely difficult to interpret songs without words. And now Jimmy feeds crows at Flanders and Helen visits hospitals. Oh, life is damnable, life is wicked, as Rose Shaw said.”

Life is transient, life is shadows, life is a dream: these seem to be the messages Woolf is conveying with Jacob’s Room. Whatever our potential, whatever we want to achieve, it can all be blown away by history and all that is left of us is the scraps of paper we leave behind and impressions in peoples’ memories.

It is a dense book, though short and seemingly concise. It is dense and complex and difficult to pin down. I could write an essay about it (and people do I am sure) but really it is simply better for you to read it. It is not an easy read. I have read it twice and still I feel I have barely scratched the surface of its meaning. Isn’t that what makes the best kind of fiction? The one which inspires us, with forces us to look with eyes wide open, forces us to see? Jacob’s Room certainly does this, though not from a superficial reading. It is a book I will return to again.

Jacob’s Room receives an inspirational 9 out of 10 Biis. 

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