Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Voyage In

I recently finished reading Virginia Woolf’s debut novel, The Voyage Out. It had been sitting on the to-read shelf of my bookcase for months—but each time I returned to that shelf, in search of new reading material, my hand strayed from its spine, intimidated by the memory of how challenging Woolf can be. Inevitably, I would forsake her for something more accessible, less taxing. But recently, when I was in the midst of a serious bout of anxiety, a dear friend told me that Woolf was precisely what I needed. I needed the validation of the inner life that her work offers, to counteract the doubts I was having about my own obsessive wrangling with identity and the boundaries between myself and others.

And so, I cracked open the book at last. I was expecting another Mrs. Dalloway, another To the Lighthouse, something dense with stream-of-consciousness narrative and elusive storytelling. But what I found was quite different. Yes, Clarissa and Richard Dalloway do make their indelible appearance in the book, but the narrative style is much more accessible than Woolf’s mature work, the plot more straightforward—almost, dare I say it of a Woolf novel, linear.

Like her later work, The Voyage Out veers from the consciousness of one character to another, often in the course of a single paragraph, so that one has to keep looking back to keep track of whose head one is in at any given moment. But if the gist of most of Woolf’s work is that, essentially, nothing happens—that is, nothing much external, the sort of thing that passes for action in the vast majority of novels (marriage, death, car chases)—her first foray into full-length literature is quite different. On the surface, the plot is almost Victorian—a young woman, mourning the death of her mother, goes on a journey across the ocean and falls in love. That, in Woolf’s world, is a lot of plot.

And yet, ultimately—and here is a key to Woolf’s genius—the story is still an internal one. The title refers less to Rachel Vinrace’s voyage across the sea than to her voyage deeper into her own psyche. Many of the passages describing her budding love for Terence Hewet are heartbreakingly beautiful—skating on just this side of sentimentality—and soon one realizes that Woolf is deliberately playing with the notions of Victorian literature, turning it on its head. Rachel is madly in love with Terence, and he is madly in love with her, and yet he ridicules her to her face as a silly woman, incapable of deep thought by mere virtue of her sex. They are completely ill suited for each other, and that very knowledge seems to be what confirms them in their relationship: they do not belong together, and so they must be together.

Not the ideal novel to read when one is in the midst of a romantic crisis. Or perhaps it was precisely the novel I needed to read. Rachel and Terence’s story ends tragically, but the tragedy seems less a symbol of the nature of their relationship than a reminder of the fragility of all human bonds. In the end, Woolf’s sense that we are all mysteries to one another is the whole point of her elusive style: she turns her attention to the minds of one character after another because none of them (including the narrator, including the author) has a handle on the whole truth, because—try as we might—none of us can ever really know what it is like to occupy someone else’s skin. So while Rachel and Terence appear to be a bad match, who among these characters is a good one? Richard and Clarissa Dalloway? Well, there’s a whole other novel to disillusion us of that notion.

One could read The Voyage Out, or any of Woolf’s work, from a pessimistic standpoint—as testament to our inability to fully understand one another. That, one could argue, is the essence of the tragedy of the human condition: we continuously long for something we can never have. Or one can read the novel as a reminder that connection is actually ever-present. Woolf’s fluid movement from one character’s mind to another suggests, ironically, that they are all pieces of a whole—a single consciousness splintered into fragments, perhaps, but all connected, all one.

Several years ago, I reached a turning point in my writing career when I wrote the death scene for a central character in one of my (still unpublished) novels. After finishing his last chapter in the book, in which he has a deathbed conversation with a close friend, I turned off the computer and crawled into bed. And lying there in the dark, I began to sob. I sobbed over the death of someone who had never existed—a character I had created out of thin air, not even basing him on anyone I knew. I cried over the death of a character I didn’t even really like that much. But something in the chapter moved me deeply, and I remember thinking: If this is what being a writer is, if good writing is always accompanied by this much pain, then I don’t want it. Real life is painful enough without creating more opportunities to tear out my heart.

When I later workshopped the chapter, one of my fellow writers pulled me aside and confessed that it had had a similar effect on her. She, too, had cried at the death of my not-so-charming character. A light went on at that moment, and I understood why we do what we do, we writers. We rip our own hearts open in order to share their inner workings with the world. And in the process, we may even open our readers’ hearts, too—push the boundaries of their own compassion, enlighten them about the lives of others, shine a light on our shared humanity, make a dent in the walls that separate us.

One March day, in her sixtieth year, Virginia Woolf put rocks in the pockets of her coat and walked into the River Ouse. The victim of a lifetime of anxiety and depression, she finally decided that she could no longer stand the pain. For decades, she had bled her pain onto the page—for the benefit of the rest of us—and I, for one, am extremely grateful. I am also humbled. My own pain can’t compare. Neither, I fear, can my talent. But I can still live by Woolf’s example: I can refuse the temptation to surrender to sentimentality. I can choose to bleed onto my own pages, to pour real life into my work, real life with all its pain and discomfort, all its contradictions. And in sharing that truth, I can reach out and join hands with you. Maybe then, we can pull each other out.

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