modernist road movie — “Street Haunting: A London Adventure” by Virginia Woolf

image found here
image found here

As the foxhunter hunts in order to preserve the breed of foxes, and the golfer plays in order that open spaces may be preserved from the builders, so when the desire comes upon us to go street rambling the pencil does for a pretext, and getting up we say: “Really I must buy a pencil,” as if under cover of this excuse we could indulge safely in the greatest pleasure of town life in winter — rambling the streets of London.

And with this Woolf launches out this wonderful essay, a string of images, both observed and fantasized, strung together only by the space of a walking route and her stream of consciousness narration. The people of the London streets make a vast and un-integrated mixture in the narration. In this little adventure is a challenge against the stability of the self and the visual wider world. And it’s an aesthetic experience that nonfiction is especially suited for, ironically making the genre more free than conventional realist fiction in which (as Woolf observed elsewhere) anything can happen, but not really.

What i make out of a passage like

As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six, we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one’s own room.

is a notion of surpassing your own subjectivity to become part of a larger public mass. She takes seriously the pleasure of shedding your own personality and private life, which is a shell “excreted by the soul” and inhabiting for a moment the lives of others. This paragraph also dwells on a china bowl and a brown stain on the carpet, portraying the arbitrary way some events are stamped by your memory. The descriptions of the London streets at night and in winter are lovely.

But, after all, we are only gliding smoothly on the surface. The eye is not a miner, not a diver, not a seeker after buried treasure. It floats us smoothly down a stream; resting, pausing, the brain sleeps perhaps as it looks.

On one hand maybe this excuses the approach of this essay to avoid the social aspects of what it sees, but it’s also refreshingly honest — we can try to fully inhabit another person but there are definite limits to this attempt. Class is a divisor Woolf doesn’t bother to cross, and to try could be condescending, so i dunno, in way it’s kind of generous. And there’s a glee in observing how the Londoners express their true selves under cover of darkness.

Then we come on two long paragraphs with a “dwarf” in a boot shop, and Woolf draws for us this woman’s “impetuosity” and confidence. Out on the street are a pair of “stone-blind” bearded men, and a “feeble-minded” boy; a full spectrum of non-normative bodies, like in a Jodorowsky film. And the scene climaxes with the dwarf lady leading “a hobbling grotesque dance to which everybody in the street now conformed.

Woolf’s diction is straight-laced and high-class and strikes me as kind of remote from her subjects in a way that precludes sympathy or irony in its tone. But where her passion comes through is in the sentence construction, which is a amazing: the way her clauses stack up, with descriptions that engage all the senses. It’s like a guided meditation on a sequence of objects, which seem to be in the perfect order. My favorite example of this in a brief stop at the bookstore, excerpt below.

Towards the end she considers the tension between this kind of “aloof” stance of contemplation and a task-oriented life:

as we hesitate on the curb, a little rod about the length of one’s finger begins to lay its bar across the velocity and abundance of life. “Really I must — really I must”— that is it. Without investigating the demand, the mind cringes to the accustomed tyrant. One must, one always must, do something or other; it is not allowed one simply to enjoy oneself. Was it not for this reason that, some time ago, we fabricated the excuse, and invented the necessity of buying something? But what was it? Ah, we remember, it was a pencil. Let us go then and buy this pencil. But just as we are turning to obey the command, another self disputes the right of the tyrant to insist. The usual conflict comes about. Spread out behind the rod of duty we see the whole breadth of the river Thames — wide, mournful, peaceful.

This mini travel narrative is an opportunity to speculate on the lives of others in a generous way, to step out of your own myopic and distinct existence and merge into bigger story.

It is always an adventure to enter a new room for the lives and characters of its owners have distilled their atmosphere into it, and directly we enter it we breast some new wave of emotion.

And in this way the piece vibrates sympathetically with Sylvia Wynter’s essay and THE LOST SCRAPBOOK. While the writing is nonfiction, Woolf takes us through flights of fancy and strains the limits of her perspective and her control over the prose itself (we get jerked from one scene to another by a new character walking in camera), inviting us to see reality from different points of view, which Tobias Wolff considered the most radical potential of literary fiction.

If there’s an origin of “creative or literary” nonfiction, perhaps it’s here.


“Street Haunting: A London Adventure” by Virginia Woolf

But here, none too soon, are the second-hand bookshops. Here we find anchorage in these thwarting currents of being; here we balance ourselves after the splendours and miseries of the streets. The very sight of the bookseller’s wife with her foot on the fender, sitting beside a good coal fire, screened from the door, is sobering and cheerful. She is never reading, or only the newspaper; her talk, when it leaves bookselling, which it does so gladly, is about hats; she likes a hat to be practical, she says, as well as pretty. o no, they don’t live at the shop; they live in Brixton; she must have a bit of green to look at. In summer a jar of flowers grown in her own garden is stood on the top of some dusty pile to enliven the shop. 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 may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world. There is always a hope, as we reach down some grayish-white book from an upper shelf, directed by its air of shabbiness and desertion, of meeting here with a man who set out on horseback over a hundred years ago to explore the woollen market in the Midlands and Wales; an unknown traveller, who stayed at inns, drank his pint, noted pretty girls and serious customs, wrote it all down stiffly, laboriously for sheer love of it (the book was published at his own expense); was infinitely prosy, busy, and matter-of-fact, and so let flow in without his knowing it the very scent of hollyhocks and the hay together with such a portrait of himself as gives him forever a seat in the warm corner of the mind’s inglenook. One may buy him for eighteen pence now. He is marked three and sixpence, but the bookseller’s wife, seeing how shabby the covers are and how long the book has stood there since it was bought at some sale of a gentleman’s library in Suffolk, will let it go at that.

Thus, glancing round the bookshop, we make other such sudden capricious friendships with the unknown and the vanished whose only record is, for example, this little book of poems, so fairly printed, so finely engraved, too, with a portrait of the author. For he was a poet and drowned untimely, and his verse, mild as it is and formal and sententious, sends forth still a frail fluty sound like that of a piano organ played in some back street resignedly by an old Italian organ-grinder in a corduroy jacket. There are travellers, too, row upon row of them, still testifying, indomitable spinsters that they were, to the discomforts that they endured and the sunsets they admired in Greece when Queen Victoria was a girl. A tour in Cornwall with a visit to the tin mines was thought worthy of voluminous record. People went slowly up the Rhine and did portraits of each other in Indian ink, sitting reading on deck beside a coil of rope; they measured the pyramids; were lost to civilization for years; converted negroes in pestilential swamps. This packing up and going off, exploring deserts and catching fevers, settling in India for a lifetime, penetrating even to China and then returning to lead a parochial life at Edmonton, tumbles and tosses upon the dusty floor like an uneasy sea, so restless the English are, with the waves at their very door. The waters of travel and adventure seem to break upon little islands of serious effort and lifelong industry stood in jagged column upon the floor. In these piles of puce-bound volumes with gilt monograms on the back, thoughtful clergymen expound the gospels; scholars are to be heard with their hammers and their chisels chipping clear the ancient texts of Euripides and Aeschylus. Thinking, annotating, expounding goes on at a prodigious rate all around us and over everything, like a punctual, everlasting tide, washes the ancient sea of fiction. Innumerable volumes tell how Arthur loved Laura and they were separated and they were unhappy and then they met and they were happy ever after, as was the way when Victoria ruled these islands.

The number of books in the world is infinite, and one is forced to glimpse and nod and move on after a moment of talk, a flash of understanding, as, in the street outside, one catches a word in passing and from a chance phrase fabricates a lifetime. It is about a woman called Kate that they are talking, how “I said to her quite straight last night . . . if you don’t think I’m worth a penny stamp, I said . . . ” But who Kate is, and to what crisis in their friendship that penny stamp refers, we shall never know; for Kate sinks under the warmth of their volubility; and here, at the street corner, another page of the volume of life is laid open by the sight of two men consulting under the lamp-post. They are spelling out the latest wire from Newmarket in the stop press news. Do they think, then, that fortune will ever convert their rags into fur and broadcloth, sling them with watch-chains, and plant diamond pins where there is now a ragged open shirt? But the main stream of walkers at this hour sweeps too fast to let us ask such questions. They are wrapt, in this short passage from work to home, in some narcotic dream, now that they are free from the desk, and have the fresh air on their cheeks. They put on those bright clothes which they must hang up and lock the key upon all the rest of the day, and are great cricketers, famous actresses, soldiers who have saved their country at the hour of need. Dreaming, gesticulating, often muttering a few words aloud, they sweep over the Strand and across Waterloo Bridge whence they will be slung in long rattling trains, to some prim little villa in Barnes or Surbiton where the sight of the clock in the hall and the smell of the supper in the basement puncture the dream.

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