Posts Tagged ‘Virginia Woolf’

Jorge Luis Borges: The Total Library

May 9, 2016

51VA7luBneL._AC_US160_I like Borges: he’s another wonderfully learned, eclectic writer like Umberto Eco, who, of course, paid tribute to him in The Name of the Rose by naming the blind librarian Jorge… He’s an essayist in the spirit of Montaigne, too, offering thoughtful and provocative disquisitions on a wide range of subjects. I’ve read and enjoyed his collected short stories a couple of times, and decided to venture into his non-fiction.

In his early writings, you can see just where some of the later stories were going to come from: the ideas, the thinking is the same. There are some curious book reviews, and thumbnail portraits of various authors. Here, Borges is both compelling and perceptive, precisely because he zeroes in on his subject-matter from a very individual, and usually totally unexpected viewpoint. In a review he can demolish a book and a writer in very few words – Aldous Huxley comes off very badly – and equally swiftly praise writers such as Woolf and Faulkner. Joyce‘s Finnegan’s Wake is damned completely in less than a page, and he comes back to this stance on that novel a number of times in different places… Edward Gibbon and Walt Whitman also come in for some fairly fulsome praise.

I often reflect on which writers and books will stand the test of time, and it’s interesting looking at these reviews, a lot of which are from the 1930s and 1940s: some of the titles and writers we still recognise, whereas many have vanished without trace. He has, for instance, a curious and quite deep regard for GK Chesterton, whom almost nobody reads nowadays.

A good deal of the content of this collection is, however, rather dated, and presumably of some academic interest to students of Borges’ work; the good bits do need some searching out, but they are certainly here. His essays on Nazism, and Germany in the Second World War are very interesting. I’d never heard of Biathanatos, a defence of suicide by the poet John Donne; I was surprised by his liking of (some) science fiction, including Ray Bradbury‘s Martian Chronicles, and there’s a really good essay on the Shakespeare authorship controversy, from 1964, which was the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth. That one is both sensitive and quit sharply focused and interesting on language issues. The most moving essay is probably on his blindness and what he felt he shared with other writers who had lost their sight.

The Total Library is a Borgesian concept, a library containing every book which can be written, not only in every language, but in every non-language as well; it features in one of his most famous short stories The Library of Babel, and thanks to the internet and its possibilities, someone has actually created it and you can go and play with it here.



Elaine Showalter: A Literature of their Own

March 1, 2016

51vPaDJijLL._AA160_I was having a clearout and tidy-up when I came across this book, which had lain unopened for half a lifetime; before passing it on to a charity shop, I glanced through what was one of the key texts when I was researching feminist science fiction all those years ago. It’s still brilliant.

Showalter wrote this introduction to women’s literature/ novels by women in the mid-1970s: I’m not aware of anything comparable before then. It’s very detailed and well-researched; the general introduction to women as writers gives an excellent overview and references a large number of texts which had previously disappeared into obscurity. She looks at the development of women’s writing from the historical, social, cultural, psychological and gender perspectives, dividing it into a number of key phases, which then receive fuller treatment in later chapters.

Major texts (Jane Eyre, The Mill on the Floss) and major writers – the Bronte sisters, George Eliot – are explored in detail and if you need them, there are pointers to a wealth of other writers and novels. Many of these will have been out-of-print for years at the time she was writing; many are probably now more easily available, either through the efforts of such publishers as Virago or the Women’s Press, or because they are out of copyright and therefore available as electronic texts via the Internet Archive or Project Gutenberg.

Showalter moves her reader logically from Victorian writers tot he first, early twentieth century wave of feminists and suffragists, exploring Virginia Woolf in some detail before ultimately condemning Woolf’s search for androgyny as utopian, and then moved into the 1960s second feminist wave, in which Doris Lessing figures largely.

Whatever perspective one approaches women’s literature from, it strikes me that this is still the must-read for context. Obviously it could do with bringing up-to-date to take account of the last forty years.

Men and Women as readers and writers…

August 19, 2014

Not an elegant title for a post, but it sums up what I’m currently thinking about…

A friend prompted me to read A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf‘s feminist lecture from 1929, in which she reflects on why there are so few women writers and poets; it’s basically because they lack the mental, physical and financial freedom or space. It’s impossible to disagree with her analysis, and it’s also one which can be equally well applied to all sorts of other groups which are un(der)-represented in the world of literature. It’s a lively, and at times humorous piece which is at once of its time and still totally relevant.

So Woolf got me thinking again about an issue that I have often considered: the differences between men and women as writers and as readers. And, obviously, these thoughts are from a man. Woolf says that male and female minds are different, their perceptions differ, the ways they frame sentences and structure a flow of ideas in a text or a story are not the same. At one level, obvious, at another, worthy of much thought. If I were forced (totally artificial example, I know) to choose between the novels of Jane Austen and Joseph Conrad (both of which I really like), why, exactly, would I opt for Austen?

I’ve spent some time looking at my bookshelves as I’ve been thinking: in novels, men outnumber women writers, but not massively; in books on history, culture, religion, politics, males completely dominate. That’s not from my conscious choice, but perhaps reflects the continuing power relationship between men and women in the world: men dominate the public sphere, still. Is it accurate to say (or is it sexist) that women are more tuned to the internal world of the feelings and emotions, men to the external? Even in fiction, do men wield or exert power in ways that women do not, or are not interested in? I’m taken back to some of the texts I studied as I worked on my MPhil thesis more than thirty years ago…

Choices in reading provide more food for thought. I have known women who made a deliberate choice not to read books written by men. This has always seemed to me to be rather limiting, but then you might say ‘well you would say that, wouldn’t you?’ I have also known women who just seemed never or very rarely to choose to read books by men, and wondered why, since I have always felt there are lots of really good books by men that it was a shame they didn’t read… and yet had little success in persuading them.

Equally, I’ve often got to the end of a book which I’ve really enjoyed, and felt ‘that’s a boy’s book’, realising that I probably wouldn’t persuade a female friend to read it, or, if I did, her response would probably be very different from mine. And no, I’m not talking about obvious examples such as hard SF with cardboard characterisation or books with a certain sexual content; I have subtler women friends who can make rather subtler distinctions…

I don’t think I’ve got anywhere clear yet, other than being reminded of some very real differences that do exist, that x years of feminism haven’t ironed out even if they could be ironed out, or it were desirable; I would be very interested in others’ thoughts on this issue.

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