lunes, 28 de marzo de 2011

A 70 años de la muerte de Virginia Woolf

Literary haunts: Virginia's London walks

Virginia Woolf walked London's parks for inspiration, and to find solace from her dark moods. Seventy years after her great-aunt's death, Emma Woolf argues that you can still find her restless spirit there.

"Oh, life, how I have dreaded you, oh, human beings, how I have hated you... how hideous you have looked in Oxford Street, how squalid sitting opposite each other staring in the Tube!"

What rush-hour commuter has not felt this same irrational flash of hatred toward fellow passengers as expressed in the experimental novel The Waves? It is hard to believe that Virginia Woolf died 70 years ago today. The language, the setting and the sentiments of this 1931 novel are both formal and yet curiously modern.

On this, the 70th anniversary of her death, it's intriguing to wonder what Virginia Woolf – my great aunt – would have made of London today. She would surely be surprised to find the British Library no longer in its rightful place, and completely lost among the skyscrapers and one-way systems of the docks and Tower Bridge. On the other hand, one can easily imagine her people-watching and scribbling notes in a café in the heart of the city, or eavesdropping on conversations on the top deck of what she called the omnibus.

One of Virginia's greatest pleasures in London was "street-haunting"; it provided inspiration for her writing and solace when she felt depressed. In a low moment in 1934, she wrote: "I'm so ugly. So old. Well, don't think about it, and walk all over London; and see people and imagine their lives."

But what was Virginia's London like? Her daily walks – and those of her most famous character, Mrs Dalloway – along Piccadilly and Whitehall and through the royal parks would be largely unchanged in 2011. She would find her Bloomsbury squares (Gordon, Fitzroy, Brunswick, Tavistock and Mecklenbugh) authentically restored, although more upmarket than in her day. It was here that the Bloomsbury Group began in the early years of the 20th century – and thanks to the numerous blue plaques, these houses are now well out of the price range of young writers and artists today.

So much has been written about Virginia Woolf since her suicide seventy years ago. On 28 March 1941, in the grip of yet another nervous breakdown, she left her home at Rodmell in Sussex and walked to the nearby River Ouse. There she filled her pockets with stones and waded into the fast-flowing waters. She could swim but she allowed herself to drown. Her husband, Leonard, discovered her missing within hours but her body was not found until three weeks later by children playing by the river.

As well as what is already documented, there are the family stories. As children, we ate our meals on the large kitchen table where the Woolfs started the Hogarth Press (the press on which they published The Waste Land in 1923) and the wooden table still stands in my parents' kitchen. I loved my father's anecodotes of his uncle and aunt: how Leonard invited Tom Eliot for lunch and "all he gave me was a bag of chips and a bottle of ginger beer"; how Virginia referred to my father as "the boy with the sloping nose"; how Leonard was so careful that he used newspaper instead of lavatory paper at home; how Virginia likened Eliot to "a great toad with jewelled eyes"; how she described Leonard, in letters announcing her engagement, as "a penniless Jew".

But what was Virginia really like? My father (who lived in Leonard's London home for 30 years) remembers his aunt as: 'volatile, mercurial, moody... She could be quite sharp – she looked sharp, her face was sharp. When you arrived at their house, she would ask you about your journey and she wanted every detail. "OK, you came by train. Tell me about the people in the carriage," she'd probe... It was the novelist's search for copy, ideas. Leonard referred to this as "Virginia taking off".

My father recalls how she would recycle information: "You'd tell her something, a little story or an account, and the next week she would have built it into a big deal, exaggerating everything. By the time she'd finished the fictionalisation of an incident, it could be amusing but it could also be embarrassing for the person at the centre of things. She would do this with anyone who visited the house."

It should be remembered that the cult of Virginia – the conferences and guided tours and tea-towel-fame – didn't begin until the 1960s; in her lifetime she was no literary colossus. It also seems important (at least to a Woolf) to correct the common misconception of Leonard as a stern disciplinarian, the stifling caretaker of Virginia's fragile genius. He was her carer, certainly, and without him it's unlikely that she would have survived her repeated breakdowns or written many of her best novels.

Yes, he moved her out of London to Richmond when she was falling into yet another nervous breakdown – and yes, she enjoyed satirising the deathly dullness of the suburbs – one recalls the line from The Hours: "Between Richmond and death, I choose death." More seriously, Virginia depended on London for her creative spark, writing in 1923: "I sit down baffled and depressed to face a life spent, mute and mitigated in the suburbs..." It is clear that tranquil Richmond did not stimulate or inspire her.

However, Richmond was a productive time for the Hogarth Press, which they started at Hogarth House in 1917. They bought the small press on impulse one afternoon, walking through Holborn, and when it was delivered there was nowhere to put it but the dining room. In 1923, Virginia wrote to Vita Sackville-West: "We don't dine so much as picnic, as the press has got into the larder and the dining room." (As someone who grew up in a publishing house, with parcels of books underneath – and sometimes on top of – my bed, I have every sympathy.) The Hogarth Press was a commercial success publishing, among others, TS Eliot, Katherine Mansfield and EM Forster.

Whatever Virginia thought of the "suburbs", Leonard was not the joyless, controlling jailer that he has often been portrayed as – far from it. Virginia's nervous breakdowns could at times be so severe that they required four nurses to physically hold her down. Leonard knew that the bustle of central London, the stress of finishing each book, the endless socialising, was simply too intense for his wife. (One should also remember that both world wars unfolded during her adult life, the bombs beating a constant backdrop to novels such as Jacob's Room.) As Virginia herself admitted, Leonard sacrificed his own life and work to keep her going. He was, my father remembers, "a kind and enormously caring person".

There is no doubt that Virginia was a complex and demanding woman, judgemental, at times even malicious. She was jealous of other writers, she was snobbish and anti-semitic. In 1930, reflecting on her marriage, she told Ethyl Smyth: "How I hated marrying a Jew – how I hated their nasal voices, and their oriental jewellery, and their noses and their wattles – what a snob I was."

Seventy years after Virginia's death, what strikes me is the honesty of her writing. In letters and diaries, in her fictional characters, she's a writer who wants to get at the truth. A letter written to Leonard during their courtship in 1912, expresses her reservations: "As I told you brutally the other day, I feel no attraction in you. There are moments – when you kissed me the other day was one – when I feel no more than a rock." For a young woman in 1912, her voice still seems completely fresh and remarkably self-aware, although Leonard may have winced at her directness.

This Bloomsbury marriage may have been sexually barren (so say the gossips) but there is no doubting the profound emotional and intellectual fulfilment they gave each other. Though Virginia felt no strong physical attraction for Leonard, she got "exquisite pleasure" merely from holding his hand. It's interesting to compare her feelings in 1912 with a diary entry in 1937, describing an afternoon with Leonard: "We walked around the square love-making – after 25 years can't bear to be separate... You see it is an enormous pleasure being wanted: a wife.
And our marriage so complete."

Of course, any attempt to sum up a writer will be partial. But to read Virginia's letters and diaries, to walk the same London streets, and to speak to those that knew her is the most rewarding way to approach her life and work. Her final letter to Leonard renders meaningless all the speculation and rumours which have surrounded Virginia since her death: suspicions of childhood abuse, sexual frigidity and lesbian tendencies, her childlessness and mental illness, the failure of her marriage. To me, Virginia's final words read more like a love letter than a suicide note:


I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another one of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can't fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer.

I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been.


In the end, perhaps it's best to let the writer's words speak for them. A century after she went "street-haunting" in London, you can still find Virginia out there. If I choose, I can put down my pen right now and walk to the Cock Tavern on Fleet Street. As newlyweds in 1912, Leonard and Virginia rented rooms at nearby Clifford's Inn and took their daily meals at the Cock Tavern. The ideal place, then, for a 70th anniversary toast to Virginia Woolf.

If you're curious about what Virginia and Leonard were really like, here's a fascinating interview:


Virginia Woolf: formas de narrar la angustia

El 28 de marzo se cumplen 70 años de la muerte de una de las voces más innovadoras del siglo XX. En su obra, la autora inglesa destila un inusual virtuosismo que rompe con los convencionalismos de una época signada por Freud, Marx y Nietzsche.

Por María José Eyras y Cecilia Sorrentino

Es 1941. El invierno llega a su fin. En Londres, la casa en la que han vivido Virginia y Leonard Woolf es ya un montón de escombros. Hace meses que el matrimonio habita el pequeño pueblo de Rodmell, al sur de Lewes. Cada noche, camino a la capital del Reino Unido, los bombarderos alemanes sobrevuelan el pueblo. Los Woolf saben que si Hitler triunfa serán los primeros en la lista de indeseables. Son intelectuales, se han manifestado contra el fascismo, Leonard es judío. Están decididos a anticiparse a los acontecimientos: Adrián, el hermano de Virginia, les ha conseguido una dosis letal de morfina para hacer uso de ella si lo peor sucede. En ese clima, Virginia termina de escribir su última novela, Entre Actos y siente aquel vacío que tironea de ella al concluir una obra. Pero esta vez lo vive como definitivo. La escritura me ha abandonado, dice entonces a sus amigos. En marzo escribe a John Lehman –su editor– exigiéndole que no publique la novela porque a su entender “es horrible”. Leonard se encarga de despachar la carta y adjunta una nota en la que expresa su preocupación por el estado general de su mujer (V.n.w. “Virginia not well”) y le pide a John un tiempo de espera. Confía en que, como otras veces, ella se recuperará también de esta crisis nerviosa.

Al igual que Miguel de Cervantes o Jorge Luis Borges, la escritora inglesa pertenece a esa categoría de autores que, a medida que pasa el tiempo, suelen ser más reconocidos que leídos. A setenta años de su muerte es oportuno preguntarse qué dificulta el acceso a su obra. ¿La reducción de su figura cuando se apropian de ella militantes de género? ¿La contaminación de su imagen? Quizá, prejuicios acumulados sobre su persona; acaso, la exigente traducción de una prosa que se caracteriza por un inusual virtuosismo. ¿O el carácter experimental de una escritura que se propuso romper con las convenciones literarias de la época, que con frecuencia impone la necesidad de releer una frase, una escena o hasta una novela entera para comprenderla?

El método Woolf

Virginia Woolf escribe en tiempos signados por la influencia de Freud, Marx y Nietzsche, una época que pone en duda la objetividad del pensamiento, alerta acerca de las trampas de la conciencia y sus posibilidades de enmascarar la realidad. Escritora experimental, Virginia busca lo que ella llama su “método”. Un procedimiento que le permita tocar la vida con la escritura, rasgar los telones que cubren la realidad opacándola. Sabe que, al tiempo que ve, la mirada también oculta las cosas con su propio tejido. Escribe para rasgar esos velos, tornarlos visibles y que la realidad se presente en la distancia desde la que tratamos de alcanzarla.

En su ensayo La narrativa moderna, refiriéndose a la ficción tal como se escribe hasta entonces, Virginia Woolf sostiene: “Examinemos por un instante una mente corriente de un día corriente.

La mente recibe un sinfín de impresiones: triviales, fantásticas, evanescentes o grabadas con afilado acero. Llegan de todos lados, una lluvia incesante de innumerables átomos; y al caer, al tomar forma como la vida del lunes o el martes, el acento recae de modo distinto que antaño; el momento de importancia no venía aquí sino allí; de manera que si un escritor fuera un hombre libre y no un esclavo, si pudiera escribir lo que quisiera, no lo que debiera, si pudiera basar su obra en su propia sensibilidad y no en convenciones, no habría entonces trama ni humor ni tragedia ni componente romántico ni catástrofe al estilo establecido, y quizá ni un solo botón cosido como lo harían los sastres de Bond Street.

La vida no es una serie de lámparas de calesa dispuestas simétricamente; la vida es un halo luminoso, una envoltura semitransparente que nos recubre desde el principio de la conciencia hasta el final.”

Narrar la existencia

Argumento, verosimilitud, género, trama: ¿es así la vida? se pregunta. ¿Deben ser así las novelas? Contemporánea de Joyce, no sólo exploró el monólogo interior sino la posibilidad de atravesarlo en continuidad de un personaje a otro y construir una realidad coral. Con esa manera de narrar era capaz de asumir, por ejemplo, el punto de vista de un caracol oculto en el césped en Kew Gardens y luego saltar a la conciencia de cualquiera de los paseantes del jardín del relato homónimo.

Estaba convencida de que lo que tenía que decir debía decirse de una forma, y esa forma no era la “línea recta”. Simplemente porque las cosas no ocurren así –en línea recta– en la mente. De esa búsqueda nacen obras como El cuarto de Jacob y novelas como Mrs. Dalloway o Al faro, su primer éxito contundente.

Al faro, escrita en tercera persona, se lee, sin embargo, en la diversidad de voces (intenciones, supuestos, deseos, excusas, miradas) de cada uno de sus personajes.

Virginia indagó en las posibilidades de transformación del cuento, la novela y el ensayo, desarrolló en cada obra una escritura diferente e innovó en la exploración de estructuras narrativas. Creía, como Chéjov, en el valor de las historias sin final y, al mismo tiempo, supo construir textos donde es posible comprobar el sustento de criterios clásicos de composición. Observadora atenta de sus propios procesos creativos, volcó estas anotaciones en el diario que llevó hasta semanas antes de su muerte. Seguir en él las páginas contemporáneas a la obra de ensayo, crítica o ficción que abordamos en cada oportunidad resulta esclarecedor; redunda en una apertura hacia la comprensión de su búsqueda y la magnitud de sus hallazgos. Allí cuenta que la escritura fluida y sin exigencias del diario le permitía descansar de la escritura de ficción a la que se abocaba por las mañanas. Tal vez sea la razón por la que la lectura del diario la trasluce y nos la aproxima.

Caminatas en el frío

A comienzos de marzo de 1941, en un mundo en guerra, cuando caen los últimos copos de nieve en su jardín, Virginia vislumbra la proximidad de la primavera con tanta intensidad como la falta de futuro. Sin embargo, aún recuerda la frase de Henry James que la alienta a continuar: “Observa la llegada de la vejez. Observa la codicia, el propio abatimiento. Que todo se vuelva aprovechable.” Tras una noche sin bombardeos, el 28 de marzo de 1941 amanece brillante, claro, frío. Antes de tomar el bastón y salir hacia el río, Virginia aún le roba a la muerte tres últimas cartas dirigidas a Leonard y a su hermana Vanessa.

Veinte días después y luego de una intensa búsqueda, su cuerpo es hallado en el río Ouse. Hay piedras en los bolsillos de su abrigo. Leonard recuerda que unas semanas atrás, ella había regresado de su caminata muy embarrada: me resbalé, dijo. Él le creyó. Ahora se pregunta si, una vez más, Virginia no habría aprendido de la contrariedad hasta salirse con la suya. Tal vez aquel 28 de marzo, además del temor de volver a sufrir una crisis de locura y no poder soportarla, el alma de Virginia se rindió ante la violencia y la desmesura de la realidad. Esa realidad inaprensible a la que, sin embargo, logró acercarse con su obra. Una obra prolífica y extraordinaria donde, más allá de diferencias y distancias, aún hoy, su lúcida mirada nos descubre y nos alcanza.

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