The insular nature of the British Isles has instilled in their writers a fear of insularity. Gabriel Josipovici, in the preface to Whatever Happened to Modernism?, recalled attending a lecture in 1958 as a student. He had by then already discovered “Eliot, Donne and Kafka, and [was] going on to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Proust and Mann,” the Modernist menagerie. The lecture, he hoped, would fill him in on contemporary authors. Alas, the menu of Anthony Powell, Irish Murdoch, and Angus Wilson hardly offered a Lucullan feast. “I was disappointed to find that they seemed to have nothing whatsoever in common with the writers I had been reading. They told entertaining stories wittily or darkly or with sensationalist panache, and they obviously wrote well, but theirs were not novels which touched me to the core of my being, as had those of Kafka and Proust.” We move a few years ahead to find a similar disenchantment with British literature in Paul West’s Sheer Fiction (1987). It’s instructive that this collection of reviews doesn’t review any major British author, even though he had the felicity of being contemporary with Angela Carter, Anthony Burgess, Lawrence Durrell, J. G. Ballard, and B. S. Johnson. West, however, by the time he was writing these reviews was living already in the USA. You’d think his proximity to novelists like John Barth, William Gaddis, William H. Gass, Alexander Theroux, Robert Coover, would have made him count himself lucky. Actually he had a disparaging view of American literature too: “It was clear, at least to some of us, that the most-touted American novelists of the Sixties and Seventies had changed the novel little and had left America snoozing amid tame, palatable books while the rest of the world forged ahead.” Josipovici loved the French, as did West, who loved the Latin Americans even more. British literature for him had died at Modernism; there was Samuel Beckett and James Joyce to admire, and Virginia Woolf, to whom West devoted a full essay in Sheer Fiction, “The Jazz of Consciousness”.
Although West’s novels are so different than Woolf’s that any affinity seems implausible, their essays show in fact many a kinship. For one thing Woolf was way ahead of West in disparaging her time’s fiction. There were no Latin Americans then; there were Russians instead. There was Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and also Conrad, whom no British contemporary of hers could match. Woolf, like West, could be blind to the quality of her contemporaries. She famously disliked Ulysses, “a memorable catastrophe – immense in daring, terrific in disaster,” she wrote.
Woolf and West, however, shared more than a fatality to overlook the good stuff. West’s essays are filled with ideas about the art of fiction that are quite similar to Woolf’s. Modern fiction obsessed them, especially how to move modern fiction away from Victorian realist tradition. Both knew that novelists and readers always yearn to return to the 19th century like the Prodigal Son, or never leave it, and defend its triumphs as the only tolerable tradition; everything else is unauthentic, puerile, sterile nonsense disguised as innovation. West disagreed: “In fact, the good old-fashioned novel has died repeatedly through the century, from body blows struck by Joyce, Beckett, Queneau, Cortázar, and others. It has lived on in the hands of literary taxidermists, of course, but effectively it was blown up before 1950, to take a handy date.” West had no patience for the “hacks” who were “still twiddling around with plain novels about plain folks, in a style whose poverty masquerades as pregnant disciple, look only to write within the expectations of the reading public, who purchase novels with the same arm-motion as they lift up pounds of margarine. For every discovery, every innovation, there will be a thousand banal returns to the fold.” Woolf profiled in “Middlebrow” those who didn’t give the New a chance, who instead entrenched themselves in the familiar past. “We highbrows, I agree, have to earn our livings; but when we have earned enough to live on, then we live. When the middlebrows, on the contrary, have earned enough to live on, they go on earning enough to buy – what are the things that middlebrows always buy? Queen Anne furniture (faked, but none the less expensive); first editions of dead writers, always the worst; pictures, or reproductions from pictures, by dead painters; houses in what is called ‘the Georgian style’ — but never anything new, never a picture by a living painter, or a chair by a living carpenter, or books by living writers, for to buy living art requires living taste.” For Woolf the middlebrow were sad sect so enslaved by the need to furbish their lives with dead detritus from a catalogue of good taste, that they missed out on the adventure of living.
Novelty, then, was vitality. In “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”, Woolf wrote that “triumphs once achieved seem to the next generation always a little uninteresting.” In this essay she predicted how the Georgian novel would differ from the Edwardian novel. To her the Edwardians were an uninteresting bunch for sticking to the Victorian novel, which had had tremendous novelists. However, the arrival of Russian literature in Great Britain had opened new opportunities for the novelist which were met with resistance. Their acceptance demanded rethinking, discarding, familiar concepts, and the Edwardians were reluctant to do that. “After reading Crime and Punishment and The Idiot, how could any young novelist believe in ‘character’ as the Victorians had painted them? For the undeniable vividness of so many of them is the result of their crudity. The character is rubbed into us indelibly because its features are so few and so prominent.” Her criticism was not against the Victorian novel, which she admired and which had done well with what its practitioners had known about the art of the novel. Woolf had mostly compliments to hand out to Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, William Thackeray, and the Brontë sisters. Her target were their descendants who, instead of absorbing new possibilities, went on writing Victorian novels with obstinate blindness to these new opportunities. Her complaint sounds familiar to whoever’s read John Barth’s quip in “The Literature of Exhaustion” (1968) about his contemporaries who still wrote as if Joyce and Beckett and Nabokov and Borges had never existed. A trace of it lingers also in Josipovici’s disappointment with the Best of 1958. West gave his own version when he pointed out “how little fiction has changed between 1905 and now, as if twentieth-century innovations in thought had never taken place.” The novel was still being held hostage by “those antiquarians who keep on trying to invent the nineteenth-century novel in the age of quasars.”
Woolf was not satisfied with the representation of character in fiction. She believed, like her contemporaries, like E. M. Forster in Aspects of Fiction, that character was the soul of fiction and that fiction existed to reveal character; for her, the Edwardian novel made a mistake by emphasizing external description, obsessed as it was with social determinism, precluding the portrayal of character from within as was the Russians way; her goal was to find a technique to get past matter and closer to unfiltered consciousness. West didn’t consider character essential, or central; you couldn’t be a reader of Gass and Guy Davenport and believe in that anymore. His tastes included Cosmicomics and the French nouveau roman, which questioned the premise of character, emphasized objects, and imbued things with as much conscience and dignity as humans. Once, perhaps thinking of Tolstoy’s “Kholstomeer: The Story of a Horse”, he asked the reader to consider a plot about “a horse moving about all night in its stall. Would it be worthless to write a whole novel about it? You never know.” Both Woolf’s anxiety about consciousness and West’s tolerance of humanless novels, although reacting to different entrenched attitudes, stemmed from the same thirst for endowing the novel with more freedom. (West was in fact an excellent character writer with a fine grasp of psychology; he stood up for many things he himself did not practice. The main thing was creating an environment where whoever wanted to practice it did not feel encumbered in doing so.)
Woolf, in order to reach modern consciousness, had to divest herself of the Edwardian novel since it was no longer apt to represent it. In “Character in Fiction”, she chastises Arnold Bennett for his verbose descriptiveness. After quoting several large chunks of description of a landscape outside a bedroom window, in which the protagonist is effaced by these mounting details, Woolf asserts that “one line of insight would have done more than all those lines of description.” The Edwardians were materialists too focused on the body and not enough on the soul. “It is because they are concerned not with the spirit but with the body that they have disappointed us, and left us with the feeling that the sooner English fiction turns its back upon them, as politely as may be, and marches, if only into the desert, the better for its soul.” Bennett’s craftsmanship was a hindrance to him: “He can make a book so well constructed and solid in its craftsmanship that it is difficult for the most exacting of critics to see through what chink or crevice decay can creep in. There is not so much as a draught between the frames of the windows, or a crack in the boards. And yet – if life should refuse to live there?” The novel, once a container of consciousness, had become a bricked-up bulwark keeping it at bay.
Although Woolf asks us to “let [these descriptions] pass as the necessary drudgery of the novelist,” she clearly did not think this burdensome prose was necessary at all. She moved in the opposite direction in her early novel Jacob’s Room, with its elliptical lightness and concentrated fragments that pared down life to moments when personality is illuminated. “Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end,” she wrote. “Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible?” Elsewhere she wrote: “Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.”
Woolf and West reflected on the future of the novel. Woolf wrote about it in “Modern Fiction”, “Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Brown”, “Character in Fiction” and “Poetry, Fiction and the Future”. Although a coherent overview of her intentions is more easily found in their eloquent execution in her novels, fundamentally she was no longer certain about the solidity of character as in previous generations; it seemed now too fugacious a thing to represent so clearly and frontally. The modern world was too disjointed to abide anything but the fragment. “Tolerate the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure,” she asked the reader. Previous techniques had to be abandoned. “But those tools are not our tools, and that business is not our business. For us those conventions are ruin, those tools are death.”
Woolf had a lucid idea of what the novel of the future would be, because she was busy inventing it. West was far vaguer: “Indeed, trying to envision the next phase or the terminus of the novel is a fictional enterprise in its own right, and the right use of the novel form over the next fifteen years may well be the fingering of the novel’s future, a whole series of prophetic demonstrations predicated on almost three centuries of its entrails, a triumph of frenzied self-appraisal done by master craftsmen.” West, in a way, was Woolf’s child. Woolf had a clearer idea of what she wanted the novel to become because she needed it to serve a very definitive, functional purpose, to solve concrete artistic and spiritual problems; West was defending novelty mainly for novelty’s sake, because he had grown up worshipping Modernists, because Modernism meant making it new, because by his time there was a feeling that Modernism had been betrayed, defeated, and nothing showed that Modernism was still alive and kicking than just trying out anything and everything. Woolf still seemed capable of working within a remodeled Victorian novel, whereas West had already witnessed the novel reach a point of extreme formlessness and thought that was terrific However, it couldn’t have reached that point without Woolf’s contributions to the novel’s deformation.
They diverged on matters of style. I even suspect that she would not have appreciated his florid, wordy paragraphs, and he was probably aware of that. “In writing choose the common words; avoid rhapsody and eloquence – yet, it is true, poetry is delicious; the best prose is that which is most full of poetry,” wrote Woolf. Her prejudice against showy vocabulary was normal during her lifetime, another 19th century inheritance. Consider Walter Pater in “Style” (1888): “And then, as the scholar is nothing without the historic sense, he will be apt to restore not really obsolete or really worn-out words, but the finer edge of words still in use: ascertain, communicate, discover—words like these it has been part of our ‘business’ to misuse.” And now Woolf: “To combine new words with old words is fatal to the constitution of the sentence,” she asserted. “In order to use new words properly you would have to invent a new language; and that, though no doubt we shall come to it, is not at the moment our business. Our business is to see what we can do with the English language as it is. How can we combine the old words in new orders so that they survive, so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth? That is the question.”
Incredibly, West, Mr. Vocabulary himself, has a passage in his most famous essay, “In Defense of Purple Prose”, that echoes this attitude almost verbatim: “It is not a matter of coming up with new words, but, fiercer, of coming up with new and more imposing combinations of words, and of re-addressing the metaphorical state of mind to the old goings-on.” Their strategies were different, though: Woolf meant everyday words; West meant the whole English language landscape, preferably the most inhospitable places. Odd instead of old. “In Defense of Purple Prose” is the most electrifying peahen to excess in prose fiction I know. In it he unleashes his wrath against “producers of plain prose” who’ve “conned the reading public into believing that only in prose plain, humdrum, or flat, can you articulate the mind of inarticulate ordinary Joe. Even to begin to do that, you need to be more articulate than Joe, or you might as well tape-record him and leave it at that.” West disliked minimalists, his essays are full of invectives against them, although his reviews show him tolerant of a wider range of styles, some the opposite of his. Beckett, of course, was the minimalist he loved above all others.
Woolf made a prediction that came true with the help of writers like West; she predicted that prose would become more poetic over time. “It may be possible that prose is going to take over – has, indeed, already taken over – some of the duties which were once discharged by poetry.” She knew that the “cannibal, the novel,” had “devoured so many forms of art” and was on the verge of appropriating poetry. “We shall be forced to invent new names for the different books which masquerade under this one heading. And it is possible that there will be among the so-called novels one which we shall scarcely know how to christen. It will be written in prose, but in prose which has many of the characteristics of poetry.” This made her wonder what this meant for the novel, since it entailed its absorbing new functions and possibilities into it. “What is important is that this book which we see on the horizon may serve to express some of those feelings which seem at the moment to be balked by poetry pure and simple and to find the drama equally inhospitable to them.”
West’s long-time friend, William H. Gass, often remarked that as poetry throughout the 20th century had become prosaic to the point of sloppiness, prose had become as precise and carefully constructed as a poem. Woolf’s prediction, however, has a long history behind it and begins with the bullied 19th century novel. Woolf, like her contemporaries, couldn’t avoid the influence Flaubert’s published letters had. Flaubert, who was not a poet, used the word “poetry” in his letters as if he wrote nothing but. “A good sentence in prose should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable, as rhythmic, as sonorous,” he lectured. And elsewhere: “I refuse to consider Art a drain-pipe for passion, a kind of chamberpot, a slightly more elegant substitute for gossip and confidences. No, no! Genuine poetry is not the scum of the heart.” And to Louise Colet in his January 16, 1852, letter, “There are in me, in literary terms, two distinct characters: one who is taken with roaring, with lyricism, with soaring aloft, with all the sonorities of phrase and summits of thought; and the other who digs and scratches for truth all he can, who is as interested in the little facts as the big ones, who would like to make you feel materially the things he reproduces.” This search for a prose that contained the properties of poetry was an obsession throughout the 19th century, to the point that Pater by 1888 encouraged critics to “identify in prose what we call the poetry, the imaginative power, not treating it as out of place and a kind of vagrant intruder, but by way of an estimate of its rights, that is, of its achieved powers, there.”
Flaubert gets all the credit for first demolishing the barriers between prose and poetry, but it was a wider phenomenon of his time. Théophile Gautier wrote in L’Artiste in 1856 that “a beautiful form is a beautiful idea,” a position that predates Mallarmé’s famous saying that there’s poetry in prose. And back in 1841, noticing the emphasis of thought and content over form, Gautier wrote: “We believe that the true aim of art has been misunderstood; art is beauty, perpetual invention of detail, the choice of words, the exquisite care in execution; the word poet literally means maker; everything that isn’t well made doesn’t exist.” Prose writers, then, wanted to move beyond merely communicating; they also wanted to produce an object of beauty in itself. The poeticization of prose was so successfully carried out by Flaubert, Eça de Queiroz, Rubén Darío in his short-stories, Henry James, that what Woolf saw as a prediction was more like the culmination of a long process that would a few decades later reach its apex in novelists like Nabokov, Gass, and West.
For years now a war has raged in the Anglo-American world between the traditional novel and the experimental novel. Proponents of the experimental novel like West have a very virulent attitude towards the 19th century realist novel. As an outsider looking in, my sympathy goes to those trying new things, but I’ve often noticed that when they dismiss the 19th century novel they’re dismissing a caricature. In West’s case, this meant conflating the 19th century with the modern plainness he abhorred. But not only was West unfair, but Woolf was dead wrong if she thought her predecessors used only “old words”. Flaubert, for instance, was a tireless neologist who added 500 neologisms to the French language; Alphonse Daudet, other 1800 words. The 19th century was a time when novelists not only used old words in new ways, they also coined lots of new words. Besides enriching the language, 19th century novelists reinvented the sentence in matters of punctuation, rhythm, adverb placement, metaphor, the indirect free style. Even Zola, the epitome of 19th century naturalism, could bring out a flamboyant ode to cheese in The Belly of Paris:
They all seemed to stink together, in a foul cacophony: from the oppressiveness of the heavy Dutch cheeses and the gruyères to the sharp alkaline note of the olivet. From the cantal, Cheshire, and goat’s milk came the sound of a bassoon, punctuated by the sudden, sharp notes of the neufchâtels, the troyes, and the mont-d’ors. Then the smells went wild and became completely jumbled, the port-salut, limbourg, géromé, marolles, livarot, and pont-l'évèque combining into a great explosion of smells. The stench rose and spread, no longer a collection of individual smells, but a huge, sickening mixture. It seemed for a moment that it was the vile words of Madame Lecoeur and Mademoiselle Saget that had produced this dreadful odour.
-that stands its ground against any list by Rabelais.
What Woolf meant by poetical prose may not be what West meant by purple prose, or “purple patches” as she called them. She wanted a language that conveyed “the outline rather than details, and stands further back from life in order to achieve the symbolic distance of impersonality,” something that obliterated the barriers between inner and outer reality, as elegantly as the poetic I does. She never overtly advocated for excess as West did. She wanted prose to produce the effect of poetry on the reader, not to imitate its form. And yet she was herself a splendid producer of purple prose. She’s mannered, stylish; her diction is pondered; she uses metaphor, alliteration, rhythm, assonance, leitmotivs like music and stanzas It doesn't take a leap of the imagination to see how this passage:
So with the lamps all put out, the moon sunk, and a thin rain drumming on the roof a downpouring of immense darkness began. Nothing, it seemed, could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness which, creeping in at keyholes and crevices, stole round window blinds, came into bedrooms, swallowed up here a jug and basin, there a bowl of red and yellow dahlias, there the sharp edges and firm bulk of a chest of drawers. Not only was furniture confounded; there was scarcely anything left of body or mind by which one could say, "This is he" or "This is she." Sometimes a hand was raised as if to clutch something or ward off something, or somebody groaned, or somebody laughed aloud as if sharing a joke with nothingness.
So loveliness reigned and stillness, and together made the shape of loveliness itself, a form from which life had parted; solitary like a pool at evening, far distant, seen from a train window, vanishing so quickly that the pool, pale in the evening, is scarcely robbed of its solitude, though once seen. Loveliness and stillness clasped hands in the bedroom, and among the shrouded jugs and sheeted chairs even the prying of the wind, and the soft nose of the clammy sea airs, rubbing, snuffling, iterating, and reiterating their questions--"Will you fade? Will you perish?"--scarcely disturbed the peace, the indifference, the air of pure integrity, as if the question they asked scarcely needed that they should answer: we remain. (To the Lighthouse)
-would eventually become one of West's purple patches. The imagery (downpour of darkness), the alliteration, the repetition (something/something, somebody/somebody), are features of a style thought of in terms of poetry rather than reportage. What they have in common, her with her lyricism, him with his excess, is the suspicion that life cannot be accurately portrayed by journalistic-scientific dryness.
Woolf was aware that this change to poetic prose would affect the novel’s then status as container of truth. “But unfortunately for those who would wish to see a great many more things said in prose than are now thought proper, we live under the rule of the novelists. If we talk of prose we mean in fact prose fiction. And of all writers the novelist has his hands fullest of facts. Smith gets up, shaves, has his breakfast, taps his egg, reads The Times. How can we ask the panting, the perspiring, the industrious scribe with all this on his hands to modulate beautifully off into rhapsodies about Time and Death and what the hunters are doing at the Antipodes? It would upset the whole proportions of his day. It would cast grave doubt upon his veracity.” This awareness was shared by West, who realized that purple prose is sneered also because it endangers the illusion of honesty played by plain prose. “This essentially minimalist vogue depends on the premise that only an almost invisible style can be sincere, honest, moving, sensitive, and so forth, whereas prose that draws attention to itself by being revved up, ample, intense, incandescent or flamboyant, turns its back on something almost holy, and that is the human bond with ordinariness.”
They hadn’t been the first to assert the connection between poetry and insincerity. Gautier in his preface to the 1868 edition of Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil noticed that truth is what you lost once you get poetry: “As much as possible [Baudelaire] banished from poetry a too realistic imitation of eloquence, passion, and a too exact truth.” Prose infected with poetry ran the risk of ruining veracity. I’m not sure whether Woolf even cared about truth; she loathed fiction used as “applied psychology”, the didactic novel, a loathing West was only too happy to multiply. She searched a deeper truth than factual observation in the realist manner, in the piling of facts as employed by Bennett that suffocated the character. “We long for ideas, for dreams, for imagination, for poetry.” Even here we hear an echo of Flaubert: “Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live,” he advised. Reading should be an experience as much emotional as intellectual. The novels both pursued did not presume to have the familiar self-confidence of truth but provided something richer. The fiction Woolf sought “has the merit of bringing us closer to what we were prepared to call life itself.”
West, too, wanted fiction that contained life beyond the external life of materialistic facts that journalism can report, a fiction that stimulated the brain instead of turning it into a storage room. His purple prose “has mass, texture, and shape. It calls into play all the senses and it can interact at the speed of ionization with the reader’s mind.” Purple prose gives the reader a larger sense of life that has nothing to do with the realistic model but more with Woolf’s focus on the spirit rather than the body. Purple “is the world written up, intensified and made pleasurably palpable, not only to suggest the impetuous abundance of Creation, but also to add to it by showing – showing off – the expansive power of the mind itself, its unique knack for making itself at home among trees, dawns, viruses, and then turning them into something else: a word, a daub, a sonata.” This exuberance charging up human senses finds, I think, a correlation in Woolf’s already mentioned conception of life as “a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” Instead of the linear deployment of facts and content in the Victorian novel, Woolf and West in her steps were both looking for sensory overload, conscious that the minds is registering a lot more than the novelist can show, that too many simultaneous operations are going on, that life can’t be neatly pinned down. Woolf emphasized the mind, West the world around him, giving off it a beauty that was not of use for the merely reportorial novelist.
The word mind is one of the words most frequently repeated in their essays. They knew that’s where the novel is made and read, and the purpose of the novel is to create a virtual playground for the mind to play freely in. The writer’s and the reader’s. Words warp the world. Speaking of the Bacchae, Woolf wrote, “we are in the world of psychology and doubt; the world where the mind twists facts and changes them and makes the familiar aspects of life appear new and questionable.” Writing transmitted personality, which was not the same as making autobiography; it was instead showing the convolutions of the author’s mind through sentences. Of Sir Thomas Browne she wrote that his writing is “stamped with his own idiosyncrasy”; he was “the first to make us feel that the most sublime speculations of the human imagination are issued from a particular man, whom we can love.” A novel should be a blueprint of how the writer’s mind works.
The premise of “The Jazz of Consciousness” is that Woolf was attuned to the scientific breakthroughs in physics in her time; that her art developed in correlation with Max Planck’s Quantum Physics, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Like them, she was showing the limits of an obsolete worldview, using literature instead of science. She thought cosmically not locally; not minutely, like the realists, in small packets of information moving linearly, one by one, but thinking of that surrounding halo, of the whole we’re part of and to which we are connected through the mind, where the world is transfigured. A world at the same time solid and shifting, polyhedric. West showed this in his analysis of Orlando, where identity and gender are shown to be as fluid as time and space were to physicists. She also pioneered for him the mind’s power to abolish the concrete and find new connections and open new pathways between things. “Whenever I think of certain characteristic images of hers, among the orchestrated copiousness of her manner at its most affable – fish and snail, rivers and sea, lighthouse and Kew Gardens, flamingo sunsets and Big Ben, Jacob’s Ladder and a piece of glass, the steel blue feather of an airplane, an Orland who is thirty-six or 226 years old – I sense a longing for mosaic, an apprehension of the One although she can convey it only through being an eclectic of the Many. For her, the universe keeps on adding to itself, but it does not add up; the sign for ‘equals’ is only for someone who does not relish catalogues or lists.” He noticed that above characters “there is the mind which just has a lot of energy which it burns by inventing minds to play with, just as much to expend as to reproduce.” His essays are likewise filled with this wonder for the mind. “The gist of the whole thing is that a mind fully deployed, and here mind includes imagination, will find the merest thing an inexhaustible object of wonderment, itself included (in a fit of modesty, of course).”
Woolf’s mental activity in her novels “meant not just the stream – but an extreme of – consciousness, and, rather than being an over-fastidious Bloomsbury brahmin, was relativity’s M. Jourdain, who had been talking scientific incertitudes all along without knowing it.” He praised her for her “casually esemplastic power which transforms the many into the one, partly by discovering that everything is partly something else anyway.” But this was more than play, it was a view of life, a theory of how the cosmos worked. “I think she saw too the element of play: the sheer foison, if I may use an old word, of the supposed, uncatalogable All; the web, the variety, the chancy interrelatedness of things, including the incident that human life possibly is.” West’s Woolf is half real, half his reading of her, like every writer is transformed by fans. Perhaps he wasn’t wide of the mark. Woolf had read with pleasure Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker, a science fiction classic about a man whose mind fuses with the cosmos. Kim Stanley Robinson in an essay called “Science fiction: The stories of now” has suggested that Stapledon influenced Woolf in taking an interest in how the microcosmic and the macrocosmic interacted. West would have been happy with Robinson’s reading because he himself explored the interconnectedness of things in his fiction. From his essay “A Rocking Horse on Mars”: “Nothing is separate from anything else. Yet so much of what’s written, in prose anyway, reflects so little of what makes us what we are. The provincialists, the minimalists, the suburbanists, the hacks of all persuasion, haven’t the faintest idea of – or reverence for – the idea of humanity as a local fungus that has so far prospered, thanks to a whole train of biological fluke. Superstitious primitives have a sharper sense of life, of our place among other forms of being, other creatures.” Science, to him, had obliterated the certainty of the self that had been so central to the 19th century with the rise of individualism, and Woolf was on the forefront of that revolution, a revolution that would continue into the avant-garde novel of the 1960s, the French novel and the Latin American novel. The “homocentric or homo-chauvinist” parochialism of the novel was a reality he tried to fight. His novels are a testament to an ambition to look beyond our little perspective.
During West’s lifetime the novel grew to envelope whole cities, as in Women and Men, and to stride through continents and cultures separated by oceans and centuries, like Terra Nostra. He wondered whether the novel’s contents should be confined to planet Earth. For him parochialism is “failing to see that homo sapiens is special because he has occurred in a context that’s unthinkably bigger than he is, or ever will be.” He wondered, and wandered, alone. Unambitious parochialism is still the norm: humans are still the most valuable content for novelists, not the world shaped by human minds. Their boring adulteries, their tedious failed marriages, their college memoirs, are still the most exciting things for novelists in this rich universe. Woolf and West were more than justified to fear the novel’s retreat to conservativeness. The fault isn’t just in the novelist, it’s also in the reader. Woolf called Middlemarch a “magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people,” insinuating that the novel then was not for grown-up people. Decades later, the situation had only slightly improved. “The novel has certainly come of age, but its readers by and large have not,” diagnosed West. He was right.
West’s sleight of hand was in refashioning Woolf after his own image, rescuing her from the image of a restrained realist as she was still pigeonholed to him, and presenting her as a precursor of his own art of the novel. But his pulling her closer to the science of her time is not just because of his own fascination with science, as shown in novels like Colonel Mint and Life With Swan. He also wanted to defender her role in Modernism, something that in 1977 when he wrote this essay was something less than accepted. Woolf “had been grudgingly admitted into literature without, however, being taken seriously.” My hunch is that he was replying to Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era (1971), in which Woolf was dismissed from Modernism, as she would be again in Kenner’s A Sinking Island (1988), a whole book devoted to arguing that England never had such a thing as Modernism, save for the contribution from Irishmen (Joyce, Yeats, Becket), and Americans dressing up as British (Eliot, Pound). Under Kenner’s tutelage, Modernism was for a while a men’s club, with Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Edith Sitwell, and Woolf herself barred from membership. Kenner’s grudge against Woolf was more clannish than aesthetic; besides not forgiving Woolf for lambasting Ulysses, she was going in the opposite direction of Joyce’s un-metaphysical materialism by refocusing on spirit, on mind, on interiority. In other words, for him she was not a real Modernist, since Modernism abjured the spiritual, but really a late Victorian. He also couldn’t get past Woolf’s class conscience, a no-no since Modernism was also an attitude that implied destroying class hierarchies. As late as 1982 Patrick Parrinder was still parroting these arguments in an essay, “The Strange Necessity”, to put down Woolf. West published Sheer Fiction right when a shift was occurring thanks to new studies by Lyndall Gordon and Carolyn Heilbrun that sought to redress her centrality in Modernism.
Nothing suggests West’s responding to Kenner more than his linking Woolf to her time’s scientific breakthroughs. Kenner saw Modernism as an attitude by artists to take on everything around them to create something new, as a sensibility attuned to what was changing, as a feverish sweeping of sciences and different artistic media onto the page. Kenner, fascinated with the impact of technology on writing, was the first person to write about how the typewriter changed poetry writing; he sought the similarities between Modernist poetry and avant-garde painting; he studied how cinema made writers rethink description. West looked at Woolf through this cross-fertilization and showed how her concept of fiction was moving in lock-step with science. West’s essay, then, is a vindication of Woolf and an explanation of himself, a tribute and a fine literary analysis of a great novelist who was also a master of the literary essay.