Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Virginia Woolf and Edmund Wilson - to summarize, or not?

Although I doubt it is visible, I write with models in mind, critics who read well, think well, and, most importantly, write well.  All errors in fact, style, opinion, and grammar are, unfortunately, mine, but I try.  Joseph Epstein, Guy Davenport, Virginia Woolf, William Pritchard, Ruth Franklin, Edmund Wilson, Christopher Benfey, Ingrid Rowland, James Wood (your list is presumably different - please, share).  I’m thinking about their work as magazine writers, although most of them have done other kinds of writing, too.  Reviews of novels or biographies, career surveys, topics of interest to readers.  “How Should One Read a Book?”  “The Pleasures of Reading.”

Virginia Woolf, in “The Novels of George Meredith” (1928) – I’m looking at The Second Common Reader (1932) – surveys, in a fundamentally Appreciationist style, the decaying reputation of the once-eminent novelist.  “This brilliant and uneasy figure has his place with the great eccentrics rather than the great masters,” but should you, common reader, read him?  Of course, of course.

The piece begins with a bit of life-and-fame, ends with a summary judgment, and in between visits three of Meredith’s many novels, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, Henry Richmond, and The Egoist.  I have read the last one, hope to read the first, and have doubts about that middle one.  The entire essay is about 3,500 words, or close to what I would write if I did a weeklong, five-part survey of Meredith that covered three novels, life-and-fame, etc., etc., although I would not dare employ Woolf’s enormously long paragraphs.

What does Woolf think is in Meredith's novels?  Here’s how the description of Feverel begins:

The style is extremely uneven.  Now he twists himself into iron knots; now he lies flat as a pancake.  He seems to be of two minds as to his intention.  Ironic comment alternates with long-winded narrative.  He vacillates from one attitude to another.  Indeed, the whole fabric seems to rock a little insecurely.

The reader wondering what Meredith’s novel might be about is still wondering.  In the next lines Woolf mentions a baronet, an ancestral home, “great ladies flaunting and swimming; the jolly farmers slapping their thighs,” “whiskers and bonnets.”  Honestly, I have no idea what the novel is about.  Why should I read it? “[T]he vigour of its intellectual power and its lyrical intensity” – that’s it.  The other novels are treated similarly.  Meredith is discussed entirely in terms of 1) style (“flamboyancy”) and 2) purpose.

Edmund Wilson was the finest writer of plot summaries I have ever encountered.  His pioneering essay on Marcel Proust (in Axel’s Castle, 1931) includes a long summary of the entirety of In Search of Lost Time, ingeniously woven into the fabric of the essay along with interpretation and biography.  Wilson is not assuming that his readers know the plot, quite the opposite.  The essay is a work of advocacy – read Proust!  Read all of it!  The meaning of the novel is inseparable from what happens.

He does the same thing with a more straightforward review of a brand new novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (in The Shores of Light, 1952, pp. 403-407), although the summation only takes two paragraphs.  "We are left with the prospect of the lady and her lover [doing what they do at the conclusion of the book]" – Wilson takes us right though the end of the novel.  His purpose, again, is serious.  He has to convince readers that Lawrence’s novel, already infamous as a dirty book, is artistically and ethically serious.  The “about” of the novel is indispensable.

By contrast, in a pair of short reviews of Willa Cather novels, One of Ours and The Lost Lady (pp. 39-43), Wilson efficiently crams all of the plot he wants into one longish sentence per novel, all the support he needs for his brief discussion of the quality of Cather’s prose and her methods of characterization.

I worry, sometimes, that I am too neglectful of the onerous but necessary duty of summary, that my dutiful readers skim through four days of Salammbô or Barchester Towers with increasing bafflement.  Look, one is about a bunch of barbarians besieging an ancient city, and the other is about a turf battle among pampered clergymen – I don’t quite remember which is which, but that’s not my point.  The stories in both novels are pleasurable to read, but I’m not convinced that they are terribly interesting to read about, even draped with Wilson’s expert prose, while Trollope’s asides and Flaubert’s earrings give me something to chew on.  Every novel has a story.  Many novels have excellent stories.  Very few have Mrs. Proudie or crucified lions.


  1. The more of Woolf's essays I read, the more she edges toward becoming my ideal critic. Wilson, too, is a model (and you're right about his plot summaries), and I also have a real soft spot for Anthony Powell's reviews, which tend to be a bit pixelated, with side notes on relationships of various literary figures (sometimes to him and his friends) and decided opinions about their work, but put across with a baseline of generosity that's gratifying.

  2. Randall Jarrell's poetry criticism was one of the most exciting things I've read in a long time. In that case, of course, you aren't as much troubled with what it's about, but in many cases Jarrell dissects poems shred by shred. It's as if he took my brain like a carpet, shook it, rubbed up the surface, and tacked it down new.

  3. I knew there would be other Woolf \ Wilson fans out there. They're fascinating to compare - different, different, different, but both so fundamentally serious about literature.

    I did not know that Powell did magazine writing - I'll see if I can find a collection.

    Jarrell is unbelievably keen-eyed. You identify one reason I need critics like him - I need these models. Anybody who wants to read well and write well needs examples. Many examples - we have to try a bunch out, see which ones fit us.

  4. Not.

    That's my personal opinion.

    Ay, not only is it onerous, but it's often unnecessary.

    Often, not always.

    Often, because plot summaries are as plentiful as grains of sand.

    They're everywhere.

    I prefer to see how you put a book to use, plot be damned.


  5. I have wondered my own self about the bloggish habit of writing encyclopedia entries. Wikipedia, just as an example, is right there.

    A new book, an obscure new book, maybe even, sometimes, an onscure old book, different story. Jane Eyre - you gotta be kidding me.

  6. Amateur Reader, send me a note with your address at levistahl AT gmail and I should able to get you two of the three collections of Anthony Powell's reviews. I'm always happy to spread the gospel of Powell.

  7. That is so generous, Levi, but Wuthering Expectations has no address, and I don't take free books. But pick a title for me and I'll order it from the library tomorrow.

  8. Love to read your postings but find it even more difficult to contribute to your widely-read and deep and intelligent conversation as my readings of the Classics is not that wide or varied. In fact my reading of the English Classics since 2009 has been only one Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure. Currently I am reading Pride and Prejudice.

  9. I really like Elizabeth Hardwick because she does both, the neat summary, and the figurative embroideries. That's rhetorical at the end, isn't it? You're not really worried about your own approach? I can't imagine this site without its usual flourishes of whimsy and quirk and I don't wish to.

  10. The two that my employer publishes--which is why I was offering--are Under Review and Miscellaneous Verdicts. A third, Some Poets, Artists, and "A Reference for Mellors", was published in the UK by Timewell but didn't make it over here.

    They've all got something to recommend them, and they're best enjoyed through the index: look up a writer you're interested in or wondering about, and see what Powell had to say about them. Most of the time, he was reviewing biographies or new editions of books, so he weaves life stories and anecdotes into his analysis.

  11. Levi - thanks a lot for the recommendations. Powell is on his way.

    Does anybody have their free books sent to public libraries? That's probably crazy talk.

    litlove - thanks, too. I've never read Hardwick, I think never at all, and I will change that immediately.

    I am worried about my approach! I'm always worried. If I neglect plot, say, is it because I correctly understand its lack of importance, or is it because I don't understand it well at all? Some thought, and reading, might be in order.

    Nana - I will confess that I am a bit older than you, and have been chewing through books for a long time. Anyway, you're reading from an outstanding pool of classics or future classics, yourself, and I have the same problem - I think, boy, that sounds good and don't have much more to say.

  12. includes a long summary of the entirety of In Search of Lost Time, ingeniously woven into the fabric of the essay along with interpretation and biography.

    Holy CRAP, that sounds amazing. Must read it right away.

    I like this distinction, that in certain cases "The meaning of the novel is inseparable from what happens," whereas in others it's not. Or, given the attempt to make certain arguments, what happens in Novel X is indispensable, whereas to make another argument it's not. That was something that was tying my brain up a bit about this spoiler conversation - because it's always possible to write SOME kind of essay without spoilers, without, indeed, mentioning plot or story at all. But sometimes that's not the post I want to write (sometimes, of course, it is).

  13. Wilson's Proust piece is about 60 pages long, so it's an investment. But still worth it, I think.

    Yes, it's the judgment of the critic that's at stake here, not some warning label.

  14. Then there are the Bad Critics. I didn't want to mention them before, lest I sully the purity of the discussion, but I read a heap o' horrible criticism while I'm winnowing through, trying to understand my material. Here's a quotation (I name no names, to protect the innocent, the eager, and the doomed):

    “The internal structure is a richly woven kaleidoscopic fabric of visual images induced by the narrator’s creative introspection. As sign, this complex bi-level architecture signifies the cyclic process of the maturation of artistic style.”

    So we have woven… kaleidoscopes… which are somehow a fabric… of images… which are induced (?) by introspection. And they are also architecture (which is both only bi-level and complex)… and a cycle… and a process… and to do with maturation. And sign.


  15. Oooh, that's a good one. That's not possibly from a magazine or newspaper, is it? Is it from n+1? That's how I assume they write.

    I notice no one has sent me to or claims to emulate a living critic.

  16. It is from a scholarly journal -- does that discount it? -- and was written in, I think, 1994.

    I think Michael Dirda is a good living critic. He is serious about literature, including the great entertainers.

  17. No, it counts. But its a relief that it was at least meant for a specialized audience. One with no ear, taste, or sense, apparently, but that's a separate issue.

    The editor of an academic journal, hey, they work with what they've got.

    Dirda is presumably a model for a lot of people. The length and scope of his columns are a good fit for blog writers. I read him once in a while in the The New York Review of Books - he had a nice piece on The Wind in the Willows a year or two ago.