So little time – so the saying goes, unless you gain time by flying a lot and spending happy hours holding the sleeping Sweet Baby! After Book III of Knausgaard I texted Mrs. Hughes and asked for a quick recommendation – she suggested “Euphoria” by Lily King.
Reading Knausgaard is a little like enduring some physical ordeal. To turn from Scandinavian cold and gloom to King’s novel transports by Dickinson’s frigate to lands away – a good story replete with rituals, mysteries, and passion in a setting full of tropical heat.
In the novel King imagines the life of the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead during a time in the 1930s when she did field work with her first husband, and met the man who became her second. King says she “borrowed from the lives and experience of three people [Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson] but told a different story.”
I have only the barest knowledge of Margaret Mead, so could enjoy the protagonist Nell as her own person without wondering if the depiction of her and the others held true. I thoroughly enjoyed “Euphoria” – the intellectual and romantic heart at the center of it, the characters, the cultural investigation, the excitement of collaboration, and the pain of competition among peers.
Priya Parmar’s “Vanessa and Her Sister” is another book bringing real people to fictional life. It’s an amazing book about the much more familiar (to me) lives of Vanessa Bell and her sister, Virginia Woolf. Vanessa is the center of this book, though through imagined postcards, letters, diaries, and narrative, we hear the voices of other Bloomsbury characters – and much about a young Virginia.
Vanessa was the older sister in the Stephens family of four children – the one who stepped up when first their mother died, then their father, then their brother Thoby. The one who would be painter to Virginia’s writer.
In my years of unabashed Bloomsbury reading I could never read enough about Vanessa – she kept no diary, but she wrote letters (often taken up with running a house and caring for a family, and always expressing longing to be in her studio). Vanessa seemed such a whole and admirable person to me – serious about her work as a painter, competent, reserved, beautiful, an unquestioningly loving and devoted mother, and sufferer of a tragedy and a long and unrequited love.
I began Parmar’s book with trepidation, not sure I wanted someone telling me what Vanessa thought. But Parmar has executed this imaginative leap with such excellence.
I’m grateful for these books – and for time!
Now my birds hang in the gallery, along with the other birds, some of which are big but none bad, and in this time without travel I’ve been casting around for what’s next.
I’m reading “The Nearest Thing to Life,” a book that collects a series of lectures by the literary critic James Wood, and in it he devotes an entire section to describing how writers go about “seriously noticing the world.”
A phrase in Wood’s piece concerns what he calls a kind of death that novelists save us from, ”…the slow death that we deal to the world by the sleep of our attention. By congested habit, or through laziness, lack of curiosity, thin haste, we stop looking at things.”
Being a fan, Wood describes Karl Ove Knausgaard’s world as, “one in which the adventure of the ordinary – the inexhaustibility of the ordinary as a child once experienced it (‘the taste of salt that could fill your summer days to saturation’) is steadily retreating, in which things and objects and sensations are pacing toward meaninglessness.” And Wood says: “In such a world, the writer’s task is to rescue the adventure from this slow retreat: to bring meaning, color, and life back to the most ordinary things – to soccer boots and grass, to cranes and trees and airports, and even to Gibson guitars and Roland amplifiers and Old Spice and Ajax.”
Reading this helped me identify what Knausgaard’s books do for me. He reminds us to look for the meaning in the everyday, as novels often do. But his, with their piling up of the detail of ordinary life, operate like some magic elixir delivering the engaged liveliness I want to feel.
The concept of some inevitable “pacing toward meaningless” horrifies me. I want to retain the excitement that comes from paying attention, from engagement – the way I used to always feel about observing flowers, trying to capture their variety, their shapes and colors, an adventure that seemed endless. And in the interstices without an object or a flower to attend to, I always knew the way back was to begin with drawing – or writing – to try and bring “meaning, color, and life back to the most ordinary things.”
Every once in a while I need serious reminding about serious noticing, a reminder that paying attention is the secret. I used to thank Virginia Woolf most of all for this thought. I still do. And I’m grateful to the bottom of my heart to a thinker like James Wood, to novelists like Knausgaard and Woolf, Austen and Ferrante – for the great writing that, as Wood says, not only asks us to look more closely, but “asks us to participate in the transformation of the subject through metaphor and imagery.”
As time goes on, and life is ever more cluttered with possible distractions, and the spectre rises of the “sleep of our attention,” I want to stay awake, engaged with the ordinary!
For ten years Caroline Zoob and her husband lived as caretakers and tenants at the miniature (by modern standards) Monk’s House in Sussex, longtime home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Responsible for maintaining the garden and the house and keeping them open to the public on set days, their brief from The National Trust suggested they garden “in the spirit of Bloomsbury,” “using bright colors in a painterly style.”
And now Zoob has made a beautiful book in the spirit of Bloomsbury – “Virginia Woolf’s Garden: The Story of The Garden at Monk’s House.” Along with Zoob’s text, photographs from the Woolfs’ time, and lavish contemporary photos by Caroline Arber, the book contains Zoob’s truly delightful, embroidered garden maps – a unique touch in a garden book. Zoob’s narrative of Virginia’s life serves as a good refresher or introduction, and the book also stands as a gardening book with planting recommendations based on experiences in the Monk’s House garden and descriptions of its garden rooms.
Zoob often uses Virginia’s own words to describe the garden and her pleasure in the seasons there: “The snow came down on Saturday, thick white cake sugar all over the garden…,” “the nights are long and warm, the roses flowering; and the garden full of lust and bees, mingling in the asparagus beds” – a gardening book with Virginia Wolf’s observations!
In the mid-90s I visited Monk’s House (before Zoob’s time and most of the plants quiet for the season), and was among those Zoob would call “visitors on a pilgrimage.” Thrilled to walk where Virginia walked and see the views she saw, I watched a woman pick an apple from one of Leonard’s apple trees and bite into it. Startled, I felt both dismay – should she do that? – and complete understanding of why she would want to.
The house remains much as it was a hundred years ago, and only a limited part of it is open to the public. You envy Zoob living day in and day out as the Woolfs did, with her black-and-white cats, Handlebars and Boy, at home in their garden, and morning sunshine coming down the steps into the kitchen. You also shudder at the trials – water pouring down the same steps into the kitchen when it rained, a clawed bathtub on a tilt. Both couples endured bitterly cold winters – the Woolfs with no central heating, and the modern couple a long stretch with a broken boiler.
Gardens rarely outlast their creators, so I loved this book describing its ongoing life. I think Virginia would be pleased with things, including this treasure of a book.
“Monk’s House lay at the bottom of the village street that winds down from the high road between Lewes and Newhaven and on which nearly all of Rodmell has been built. It was a modest brick and flint dwelling, weather-boarded on the street side, two stories high with a high pitched slate roof; inside, many low small rooms opened one from another: the ground floors were paved with brick, the stairs were narrow with worn treads: there was of course neither bath nor hot water or W.C. Rising behind the house was a profuse and untidy garden, with flint walls and many outhouses, and beyond the garden was an orchard and beyond the orchard the walled churchyard. The more Leonard and Virginia looked at the place, the more they liked it. They tried their best to find faults, but only succeeded in liking it better.”
Quentin Bell Virginia Woolf: A Biography
Strawberries in honor of Monk’s House and VW, and and all the creativity and lifted spirits inspired by houses!
WordPress has stopped putting author bylines on blogs written by just one person. It took me weeks to notice this, and weeks more to notice that my name didn’t actually appear anywhere on the blog!
That’s a woeful absence in the blog world, so in rectifying my anonymity, I found myself reconsidering the subtitle. I am still really fond of the concept of spirits rising, but in the last three years the blog often strayed from house and, very often, far from garden.
Initially, in setting up “Her spirits rose..” I tried to fit better into the categories of house and garden. But I wrote an early post about the importance of the everyday to me, about the possibility of nurture from ordinary doings, and added the quote I love by Fiona MacCarthy: “Art is what you choose, how you arrange things, permeating and sustaining everyday life.”
Virginia Woolf says it best of course, in many forms. Through Lily Briscoe in “To the Lighthouse”: “What is the meaning of life? That was all – a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.”
So now I’ve changed my header, thinking the “the art of everyday” might more accurately express what I’ve come to look for and hold most dear – “arranging things” “little daily miracles” “lifted spirits.”
While being transported to and from snow-filled Anchorage, in an improbable silver tube 35,000 feet above the earth, I had one of those ‘what would VW think?’ moments – my ears full of Mozart and mind full of London and Sussex. One of the highlights of a wintry trip to Anchorage a week ago was the three-hour flight each way. Really – because of Alexandra Harris’s book “Virginia Woolf.”
In her foreword, Harris calls her book “a first port of call for those new to Woolf” – “an enticement to read more.” The book really works for that purpose – it is a captivating introduction to this so-special person. For someone who knows Woolf well, it’s a reminder of the pleasures – the everyday, treasures that fill Woolf’s novels, diaries, essays, and letters – and of the complicated people and relationships that animated Bloomsbury.
Harris’s book felt like a 200-page tour of those years when I read so much of VW’s life and work. The narrative is chronological and lively, Harris pauses to discuss a book in just enough detail to make you want to read or re-read. It captures what have always been my favorite things about Woolf – her belief in the solace of work, the necessity of work, and her curiosity about everyday details.
It’s a slim, beautiful book also – honoring bookmaking with thick paper, a ribbon place marker, and the perfect number of photos of all the important people and places.
I hope it’s under lots of Christmas trees.
“Books are everywhere; and always the same sense of adventure fills us. Second hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we might rub against some complete stranger who will, with all luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world…”
Virginia Woolf Street Haunting
Spigots offer fresh water everywhere in Italy. Rome hydrates tourists so well – one bottle can last a whole trip. Some of the water fountains are ancient and others not so much – plugging the end with your finger turns the stream into an arched flow to fill the bottle or your mouth.
But I’m about bread here – and olive oil of course.
The afternoon of the first day of walking in Umbria when we arrived in Bevagna, we passed though the Roman gate, up to the quiet main square where we sat on the steps of the fountain in that stupefied “we made it” state.
After showers, we walked back toward the square, sat down at a wooden table outside La Bottega di Assu, ordered drinks and “something to eat” – a request always greeted with “Si, of course!” Snacks come with the drinks – sometimes simple – bread and olive oil or peanuts, or complicated – little dishes of olives or gnocchi, cheese or sliced meat.
Bottega di Assu served bread, but it was unusual – pane integral – wholemeal bread, toasted – crunchy half slices piled on a plate and drenched with olive oil. The plate emptied fast.
We wandered off in search of the remains of a Roman theater – and found it down a set of steps. (In Italy something is always built over something else.) And atop the theatre we explored a restored medieval house completely furnished with everyday necessities, a canopied bed, clothes, foodstuffs – dried beans, lentils – a writing table and loom.
Bevagna is known for its preservation of ancient crafts including medieval papermaking machinery that still works. The brief menu was handwritten on handmade paper at La Bottega di Assu where we gravitated back for dinner. We sat outside again, awed as always by life in the midst of buildings unchanged since the Middle Ages.
Inside the bottega, two little square tables looked inviting for colder days, but its floor to ceiling shelves fascinated us – bottles and bottles of interesting looking wine, painted dishes, gourmet treats, movie posters – and photographs. The photos we thought were of the owner – younger maybe, maybe a sister – or were those movie stars?
And a photo of Virginia Woolf! – the one I pass dozens of times a day on our staircase bookshelf – on the spine of the second volume of her letters. It was part of a shrine-like arrangement including a biscuit tin with Woolf’s picture and her books, a copy of “La Signora Dalloway” faced out.
I asked the owner (already liking her for holding the young baby of travelers, so the parents could eat their dinner) about the photo, and she smiled and said, “Virginia Woolf was a great woman.”
Now, when we eat Bevagna bread made at home with pane integral from a local bakery, I picture the bottega and think how Virginia would have liked it and liked being a reason for traveler and tavern owner to connect.