Simple pleasures, elegantly phrased

Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid
by Virginia Woolf

This collection of essays in the Penguin Great Ideas series were originally published between 1925 and 1942 (a few being from a posthumous collection). I think I am growing to prefer Woolf’s essays to her fiction, which is probably some kind of heresy in a literature graduate, but these are truly beautiful pieces of writing.

The majority of these essays are about books, though there are a couple about the pleasures of walking in London, plus the titular essay which is literally what it says, though of course in Woolf’s inimitable style, full of imagination and passion and ideals. Woolf writes about how men are by nature inclined to war, and how women must help them to rise above such base instinct. Her politics creep in as she wonders whether, with more women in government and other high positions, there would be any war.

It is interesting to read an essay from the 1920s or 1930s pondering whether the fiction of the time stands up to the classics of the past, seeing what names are mentioned and whether they mean anything to me now, so many years later. Woolf suggests what will last will be “a few poems by Mr Yeats, by Mr Davies, by Mr de la Mere” (Yeats and de la Mere, yes, but Davies? I’m not sure who she means) and “Mr Lawrence, of course, has moments of greatness but hours of something very different” (assuming she means D H Lawrence then that is indeed one critics continue to argue over the “greatness” of) and “Ulysses was a memorable catastrophe – immense in daring, terrific in disaster”, which may be my favourite opinion of that book!

There are several essays here in a slim little volume; each one short and self-contained. Woolf has a point to make but occasionally seems to change her mind halfway through, before concluding that the original question in fact has no clearcut answer. She is concise, intelligent and informed but her prose is still beautiful:

“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. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit…?”

I do not always agree with Woolf’s arguments or conclusions. For instance, in “The art of biography” she states that biography was a late-18th century invention (wrong! though there was a major resurgence in the form at that time) and that it is a mistake to combine facts with fiction or speculation (I actually think this can lead to some remarkable writing, as long as it is made plain to the reader that it isn’t a straightforward history). But she argues her case so well that I don’t mind disagreeing.

The collection ends with “How should one read a book?”, in which Woolf says that there is no simple answer to that question, and then goes on to talk around the subject in what is, more than anything, a treatise on the joy of reading. I was intrigued by her comment about reading poetry, because I know a lot of avid readers avoid it – “the time to read poetry [is] when we are almost able to write it”. She talks about judging a book after having read it, whether we should be kind or harsh, and how the reader’s emotional response signifies a difference between them and the critic:

“Would it not be wiser, then, to remit this part of reading and to allow the critics…to decide the question of the book’s absolute value for us? Yet how impossible!…there is always a demon in us who whispers ‘I hate, I love’, and we cannot silence him. Indeed, it is precisely because we hate and we love that our relation with the poets and novelists is so intimate…”

I will definitely be looking out for more Woolf essay collections. Any recommendations?

This selection first published in 2009 by Penguin Books.