Tuesday, 17 December 2013
Week Forty-Eight - Jeanette
Between The Acts by Virginia Woolf (1941)
Recommended by Tim
Tim came round for dinner on Saturday. As the last time we’d see each other before 2013 shut its eyes, our shared mood was reflective. I was taking stock of Two Readers, and talking of my impression of Between The Acts.
I thought Between The Acts would be one of the more challenging recommendations. I had read To The Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway, and retained no great affection for either. I did admire Virginia Woolf’s stylistic ambition, but the books themselves were fairly unloveable: similar to my thoughts on Joan Didion, you can appreciate writing for the achievement it is without ever wishing to read the fucker again.
In our Saturday conflab, Tim described Woolf’s non-page turner Mrs Dalloway succinctly as ‘all people preparing for dinner parties.’ Still, and certainly as one of my best-read friends, Tim felt he needed to persist with Virginia Woolf. He felt uncomfortable with dismissing an important novelist as only concerned with the bourgeouisie arranging flowers. And it was, with Between The Acts – Woolf’s final novel before her suicide – where he found satisfaction. This was the first reason for his recommendation.
In a note that precedes the text, Leonard Woolf (her husband) writes that Between The Acts was a complete novel, but Woolf had not ‘finally revised [it] for the printer’ before her death. I wonder if this was a reason why Tim, and I, reacted better to this novel. Perhaps, because there wasn’t that last opportunity to ruthlessly weed out what she considered sentimental, Between The Acts is a warmer book. It wasn’t half as much of a slog as I feared.
At that, the audience stirred. Some rose briskly; others stooped, retrieving walking-sticks, hats, bags. And then, as they raised themselves and turned about, the music modulated. The music chanted: Dispersed are we. It moaned: Dispersed are we. It lamented: Dispersed are we, as they streamed, spotting the grass with colour, across the lawns, and down the paths: Dispersed are we.
Concerning a play (actually, calling it a ‘play’ dignifies it: it’s more of an am-dram dickabout), Between The Acts’ most obvious theme is performance, and especially the relationship between an audience and the action in front of it.
‘Reality too strong’, she muttered. ‘Curse ‘em!’ She felt everything they felt. Audiences were the devil. O to write a play without an audience – the play.
Tim knows acting fascinates me (and that’s the second reason he recommended this book). This isn’t because I want to act myself, but rather because I’m intrigued by how acting translates into everyday life. If you can convince people that you feel emotions as part of a constructed performance, what’s to stop you using those skills in real life? Manufacturing deceit, onstage and off, is a longstanding interest of mine.
We all act. Yes, but whose play?
The play in Between The Acts is written and directed by failed actor and ‘lady of wonderful energy’ Miss La Trobe. It is an annual event, almost a ritual, and the community comes together to watch and participate in the pageant. Rather than create a coherent work of fiction, La Trobe’s work is an anthology, stopping at different eras of British history. She creates not individual characters, but the nebulous and shifting character of national identity. Thus, it is less like (e.g.) a well-crafted Ibsen psychological drama and more like a Mummers’ play.
What Mummers’ plays and Miss La Trobe’s pageant (and, perhaps, Woolf’s novels) have in common is that they’re not that interested in dramatic tension. Each looks at archetypes (folk and mythological characters, representations from British historical periods, the contemporary mannered upper-middle classes) and reproduces them. The audience has a prior knowledge of what to expect. The drama instead comes from random factors: will it rain, who’s gossiping about whom in the audience, will the cows’ lowing drown out the dialogue. What happens, indeed, between the acts.
Miss La Trobe’s play is performed a mere few weeks before the outbreak of World War II. Woolf obviously knew that, soon, all existing community rituals would be shattered, replaced by the new ones of blackouts and air-raids. But, still, in 1941 the full horror of Nazism was yet to come: the Final Solution had not been implemented, with the first industrial extermination taking place at Auschwitz in September 1941, six months after Woolf's death. She could not know how fully even humanity itself would be torn apart. Still, it is said that the horror of the war (and her house being bombed in the Blitz) contributed to the re-emergence of her depression and her decision to drown herself.
Although it’s tempting with a carefully constructed book like this to get all lit-crit on yo' ass and disappear in a cloud of signifiers and discourse (read the introduction for an ample example of that), it seems equally possible to enjoy it as a storytelling snapshot. I found Between The Acts often surprisingly direct in its imagery.
There, couched in the grass, curled in an olive-green ring, was a snake. Dead? No, choked with a toad in its mouth. The snake was unable to swallow; the toad was unable to die. A spasm made the ribs contract; blood oozed. It was birth the wrong way round.
Even if that’s a metaphor for the futility of war or a comment on the impasse between the genders, it doesn’t have to be. It’s a striking passage that perfectly captures the mood at that point in the book. Between The Acts has several such images, which don’t necessarily have to be pored over, because in and of themselves they are evocative of that very moment. This includes impish as well as violent moments. This book is probably the closest Woolf ever got to serving up the LOLs.
However, it would be wrong to say this was an easy read. Woolf was a modernist writer, and Between The Acts is a modernist work. Despite being one of her gentler artistic experiments, it does require concentration and is not simple to grasp. A pioneering approach of hers was to try to replicate the mayfly that is the mind, often dislocating thought from speech and physical action.
Why’s stale bread, she mused, easier to cut than fresh? And so skipped, sidelong, from yeast to alcohol; so to fermentation; so to inebriation, so to Bacchus; and lay under purple lamps in a vineyard in Italy, as she had done, often; while Sands heard the clock tick; saw the cat; noted a fly buzz; and registered, as her lips showed, a grudge she mustn’t speak.
The third reason that Tim recommended this book, I think, is because much of it deals with the inner world. Woolf’s prose claims that outer action and spoken words are opaque signs as to what’s really going on in our psyche; sometimes this is meant to mislead (as in acting), but often it’s an automatic and quite prosaic process. We don’t unpick every step of our thoughts that flit from stale bread to Italy, yet we’re there, while our conversational partner has gone from clock-watching to brooding on a miserable grudge.
I would argue that it is when you’re really close to someone that you let them in to the way your mind works rather than just revealing the contents of it. With Tim, I have had some of the longest and deepest conversations I have had with anyone. Yet, more than that, I think we have an understanding of each other’s inner narrative construction, and we can spend a good while disentangling our cerebral journeys with each other.
Let's go back to Saturday night (we’d emptied the mulled wine by this point). Tim was talking of the difficulty in finding an appropriate radio station to wake up to. I knew he wouldn’t go for Radio One, and he’d already expressed frustration with Radio Four for his early morning hello. ‘What about Classic FM?’, I asked. ‘It’s alright if you want to buy a Saab,’ he said.
‘What about Radio Three?’ Well, he explained, the classical selection they play is far too random. Sometimes it hits the wake up just right with a Debussy. But sometimes, he said, it was full on military music at 6am: ‘and I wake up and think there’s been a coup.’
We debated for at least another ten minutes. He eventually detailed a convulted plan where the field recording of a chaffinch plays for ten minutes before the radio switches on.
Sharing thought processes.
You can see why I love this man so much.