Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"An Unwritten Novel" by Virginia Woolf

"An Unwritten Novel" by Virginia Woolf (1921, 8 pages)

The Virginia Woolf Reading Life Project

"An Unwritten Novel" appeared in Monday or Tuesday, the only collection of short stories by Virginia Woolf (1882 to 1941-UK) published in  her life time.   In 1944 her husband Leonard Woolf republished it in a larger collection of her short stories, The Haunted House and other Stories.

Have you ever seen a stranger on a train, bus or plane and wondered what their life was like?   Have you ever tried to read the interior life of  someone you do not know and never will from their face?     That is what "An Unwritten Novel" is about.    The narrator is on a bus or train and she begins to look at the faces of five  fellow travelers:

Five faces opposite — five mature faces — and the knowledge in each face. Strange, though, how people want to conceal it! Marks of reticence are on all those faces: lips shut, eyes shaded, each one of the five doing something to hide or stultify his knowledge. One smokes; another reads; a third checks entries in a pocket book; a fourth stares at the map of the line framed opposite; and the fifth — the terrible thing about the fifth is that she does nothing at all. She looks at life. Ah, but my poor, unfortunate woman, do play the game — do, for all our sakes, conceal it!

One problem I have on posting in Virginia Woolf is the feeling that restating the story can only take away from the beauty and artistry of the work.  The tendency is to over quote.    One by one the elderly passengers get of the train until only the fifth passenger remains.    The narrator without really speaking to her begins to project an entire life onto her.   The  train reaches the woman's stop and she is met by her adult son.   At first the narrator is shocked at this does not match at all the details of the life she has constructed for the the woman in her unfinished novel of her life.

I will remember this line a long time:   "But she had communicated, shared her secret, passed her poison she would speak no more".

I have decided  in my beginning readings of Woolf just to let the prose roll over me, what I understand, I understand.    

Wherever I go, mysterious figures, I see you, turning the corner, mothers and sons; you, you, you. I hasten, I follow. This, I fancy, must be the sea. Grey is the landscape; dim as ashes; the water murmurs and moves. If I fall on my knees, if I go through the ritual, the ancient antics, it’s you, unknown figures, you I adore; if I open my arms, it’s you I embrace, you I draw to me — adorable world!    

Mel u


Suko said...

This is fascinating, Mel. I wonder if Virginia Woolf was commenting on the power of the imagination, or the tendency to be wrong about the lives of others?

Paul said...

As I read the piece, it seems to me to be about the validity of the creative process versus so-called reality.

Mel u said...

Paul-thanks very much for your sharing your thoughts with us-do you have a favorite VW story?

John Grabowski said...

This is such an interesting story to me, as I often get my own ideas by watching people in public places and imagining their lives based on the actions and traits and possessions I see.