The ‘Writer Reader’

Underwood Typewriter

Underwood Typewriter

Following from Pete’s comment to my first post on Mrs Dalloway, this week we started off our discussion of Woolf’s text with a key question: do writers read book differently?

Are we, as writers, robbed of the pleasure of losing ourselves in the fictional worlds of our favourite books, as we try too hard to dissect characters, map out the plots, querying the position of a comma and the structure of a paragraph? Many writers, like Betsy, certainly recognised that one could be easily overwhelmed by the task. Pete suggested that as a writer you become more aware of certain technical details. You look out for the balance between dialogue and description, for example. As a ‘writer reader’, you absorb details in a much more conscious fashion than you would as a ‘reader reader’; you simply get more out of it, Crystal added. This is, of course, particularly true when we consider the relationship that exists between a book and the space it represents. As a ‘writer reader’ living and working in London, the experience of reading Mrs Dalloway may turn into an involuntary (?) process of mapping out the places visited by Woolf’s characters in June 1923. It is hardly surprising, as Ben noted, that various maps and itineraries have been drawn to follow Clarissa, Peter Walsh and Septimus around theirLondon.

The London Walks of Mrs Dalloway by E.K. Sparks Clemson University (2002)

So reading Mrs Dalloway prompts us to become flaneurs, strolling, lingering, dwelling spectators of the city space, whose patterns we map, and re-map continuously. The city becomes text, Anne observed of the intertextual structure of Woolf’s novel, a text that is constantly being reinscribed by new journeys and, of course, new incomers. As Naji pointed out, the city is a different space to those who have just arrived – we think of Maisie Johnson, for instance, in Mrs Dalloway – and whose London is – temporarily, at least – a point of arrival. To the newly-arrived foreign visitor, London appears, strangely perhaps, like a network of unknown trajectories, invisible, like the fine line of a spider’s cobweb, as Martin Amis intriguingly puts it, in another classic London novel, London Fields. To Peter Walsh, who has just returned from India, London is, as Jude noted, certainly a different city, a place, where, for instance, young women ostentatiously put their make-up on in public. In a sense, other readers have suggested, Woolf’s novel produces a ‘homeopathic’ view of London (Brian). Rather than focusing, overwhelmingly, on the British capital, Wool’f London becomes the more universal embodiment of the modern metropolis, pointing to the dramatic social changes, and their impact on the people who lived, worked and travelled to the largest city in Europe, to find it, as Maisie claims, rather queer.

The public space, too, is juxtaposed to the private space, which, to readers such as Anete, reveals the much more intimate emotional space occupied by a character: such is the moment when Clarissa retires to her bedroom, alone, at last, and focusing on her present condition, undistracted by the flood of memories which the other, more public spaces she occupies, triggers. And this is the real power of a writer such as Woolf, who sucks the reader into the worlds of her characters, whose repressed desires and longing hopes we become part of: as Crystal observed, her narrative style allows the reader to bounce off each character, multiplying the perspectives, layering the spaces these characters shape through the patterns of elliptical repetitions, Brian noted, which expose the tricks of her trade to the ‘writer reader’. Such, for example, is Clarissa’s (apparently random) memory of her throwing a shilling in the Serpentine, evocatively placed toward the beginning and the end of the novel.

To finish off, the group focused on humour, which a writer like Woolf is not always associated with. Yet the book does make us smile, hinting to the distance that the writer can establish with the subject matter of her writing. Being able to laugh with our characters, even when writing of serious matters, may be rather refreshing, as Woolf does, at the expense, perhaps, of Hugh Whitbread:

here was dear Hugh driving up and spending an hour talking of the past, remembering trifles, praising the home-made cake, though Hugh might eat cake with a Duchess any day of his life, and, to look at him, probably did spend a good deal of time in that agreeable occupation.

Our next book is Sebastian Faulks’s A Week In December (2009), and we look forward to reading posts by our next guest blogger, Jon Kearnes, sometimes next week!

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About Monica Germana

Monica Germanà was born in Sicily and moved to Scotland in 1997. After spending seven magical years in Glasgow, she decided that the Scottish winters were too dark for her Mediterranean soul and, after a spell in the Midlands is now lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Westminster, in London. She is currently writing ‘Ghost Trains’, a stage-play set in a ghostly underground system parallel to the Tube, and ‘Off-Peak’, a novella set in contemporary London.
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5 Responses to The ‘Writer Reader’

  1. Fascinating post, and comments. This may be slightly off-topic, but I’ve just been reading an extremely interesting chapter in a book by Jen Harvie called ‘Staging the UK’. It’s all about the way in which London has inscribed imperial values (think of the military statues in Trafalgar Square, for example, or the many imposing commonwealth offices), but also the ways those values can be changed or undermined (Trafalgar square is also a gathering space for political protest). There’s a real tension between the desire to map (and fix) London, and simultaneously re-map, and destabilise it…

  2. jkearnes says:

    This is rather off-topic as well I’m afraid but I just wanted to share one of my favorite passages in Mrs Dalloway before it becomes overshadowed by our thoughts on the next book. Monica mentioned the real power of writer’s such as Woolf was their ability to “suck the reader into the worlds of her characters, whose repressed desires and longing hopes we become part of.” I felt personally what endeared me to the characters was the amount of Woolf herself in several of them. Through them she expressed various psychological and emotional insights that were clearly a part of her painfully sensitive appreciation of the world.

    Ostensibly about Clarissa’s issues with Miss Kilman, I felt this passage was a much broader, beautiful and poetic elucidation of a depression and despair that a great many people must empathise with:

    “It rasped her, though, to have stirring about in her this brutal monster! To hear twigs cracking and feel hooves planted down in the depths of that leaf-encumbered forest, the soul; never to be content quite, or quite secure, for at any moment the brute would be stirring, this hatred, which, especially since her illness, had power to make her feel scraped, hurt in her spine; gave her physical pain, and made all pleasure in beauty, in friendship, in being well, in being loved and making her home delightful, rock, quiver and bend as if indeed there were a monster grubbing at the roots, as if the whole panoply of content were nothing but self love! This hatred!”

    This may simply have been me reading too much in to this paragraph but it raises an interesting question (which is a little more on topic!). David Lodge claims, “there is evidence that when Virginia Woolf began writing about this character again, it was originally with the same quasi-satirical intention [as Mrs Dalloway also appears briefly and far less sympathetically in her first novel The Voyage Out]; but by that time she had become committed to the stream of consciousness novel, and the method inevitably led her into a much more sympathetic portrait of Clarissa Dalloway.” Regardless of whether this sympathetic portrait was a by-product of the stream of consciousness method or a more integral part of Woolf’s evolving predilections as a writer, I’m interested in the intrusive narrator in writing, or more precisely novelist’s putting a lot more of themselves or their own ideologies and emotions in to their characters whether subtly (in the case of Mrs Dalloway) or intrusively. The stream of consciousness method is obviously a very subtle and appealing way of achieving this – many readers do not take kindly to an explicitly didactic narrator understandably. I personally rather like writer’s who put a lot of themselves into their novels (providing its a self I can empathise with!) but I’d be interested to hear what everyone else thinks?

    Finally if anyone has bothered to read this far, this actually pertains quite nicely to A Week In December. Sebastian Faulks has become ever bolder in putting his own thoughts, feelings and opinions in to his novels and characters (whether this comes from experience, the freedom of established success or something else who is to say) but this seems to have divided his loyal readership quite dramatically. None more so than in AWID perhaps. I’ll go in to more detail on this and other features of the novel in my blog post in the next few days.

    Happy reading everyone 🙂

  3. Michael Nath says:

    Apologies to Woolf buffs, but I think that one’s real reaction to reading Mrs Dalloway as a writer is that it really isn’t very good, and that the important distinction isn’t between writers and non-writers but between writers and academics. Academics tend to rate Woolf highly, for ideological reasons, and also because Woolf set limits to modern taste in a manner that was successfully self-serving (look how nastily she responded to Joyce and Ulysses, while herself re-producing a kind of starved and watercolour version of Joyce’s novel). The celebration of the modern city in Mrs Dalloway is picturesque and romantic — i.e., scarcely modern at all. Here’s a shop! Here’s a car! Look at that plane! Here comes the ambulance! We might as well be walking through the Alps. Look how much of the novel is set in the greenest part of the west end! The book’s lyricism is an admission of Woolf’s lack of narrative energy, and the symbolism is preposterous: what on earth is Peter Walsh up to, fiddling with that large penknife when he comes to visit? Can anyone tell me? Prize for the best interpretation. He’s still at it when he follows the young woman down the road.

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