My short story progress towards The Means of Escape by Penelope Fitzgerald has been rudely interrupted by none other than Virginia Woolf.
Just butted her way in and insisted I listened to what she had to say.
Having mentioned the short story "Kew Gardens" and found my copy of Virginia Woolf's The Mark on the Wall and Other Short Fiction I had little choice. I re-read "Kew Gardens" and was immediately connected to the very essence of Virginia Woolf's writing and I wanted more.
The short story providing the perfect form within which Virginia Woolf could explore that literary equivalent of the painterly, colourful artistic style favoured by the women artists. In "Kew Gardens" fusing it with nature in her descriptions of the minutiae of the flowerbeds.
'The light fell either upon the smooth grey back of a pebble, or the shell of a snail with its brown circular veins, or falling into a raindrop, it expanded with such intensity of red,blue and yellow...'
The sentences adapted to take the natural shape of thought processes without distorting or crushing them and what results is beautifully vivid and descriptive writing.No requirement to provide an outcome or give meaning to an experience, no dependence on causality or a need for effect, quite literally nothing happens, yet everything happens. Characters brought to life by detail not by incident and formidably brave writing for a woman in the face of the male-dominated world of traditional storytelling. Resisting and rewriting the rules.
Through an intensity of focused thought, Virginia Woolf continues to open new doors to new territory for this reader that may just never have been traversed before. I don't think I'd ever considered a piece of furniture in quite such a detailed way until I read "The Mark on the Wall", taking its source back to its origins as wood (someone needs to update and write the Ikea version)
'Wood is a pleasant thing to think about...I like to think about the tree itself, first the close dry sensation of being wood...on winter's nights standing in the empty field with all leaves close-furled, nothing tender exposed to the iron bullets of the moon, a naked mast upon the earth that goes tumbling, tumbling all night long.'
Then once the tree is felled by a storm,
'Even so life isn't done with; there are a million patient, watchful lives still for a tree, all over the world, in bedrooms, in ships, on the pavement, lining rooms where men and women sit after tea, smoking cigarettes. It is full of peaceful thoughts, happy thoughts, this tree.'
This book is a little feast of such moments and in the short story you don't miss them, impossible to gloss over. "An Unwritten Novel" offers the Woolfian detailed eye on a train journey, likewise "The Shooting Party" imagines the significant events that may have led to the opening gambit of the story
'She got in and put her suitcase on the rack, and the brace of pheasants on top of it.'
A story just one page long entitled "Monday or Tuesday" and here's the first line
'Lazy and indifferent, shaking space easily from his wings, knowing his way, the heron passes over the church beneath the sky. White and distant, absorbed in itself...'
Perfectly describes the flight of a heron, I shall never look on one again without watching him shake the space from his wings.
Virginia Woolf herself knew she had indeed hit the mother-lode with these and was mining a rich writing seam,
'I shall never forget the day I wrote "The Mark on the Wall" - all in a flash, as if flying, after being kept stone breaking for months. "The Unwritten Novel" was the great discovery, however. That - again in one second - showed me how I could embody all my deposit of experience in a shape that fitted it...I saw, branching out of the tunnel I made, when I discovered that method of approach, Jacob's Room, Mrs Dalloway etc - How I trembled with excitement.'
This is a tiny book, barely 100 pages, easy to overlook it on the shelves as I have for years, now it's deservedly had its moment and I feel fortified yet again by my short story a day.