I have been trying to figure out how (or, perhaps more aptly, why) to write a post about The Years, which I finished reading a while ago. How many times can I confess to my inability to grasp what is going on in Woolf’s fiction? It’s not like I’m proud of it; I certainly don’t think it means Woolf’s fiction is “overrated.” It does mean I can’t say much about the novel itself. At most I can quote some bits I liked–the opening to 1913, for instance, which in both its subject and its cadences reminded me very much of the famous conclusion to Joyce’s “The Dead” and yet, somehow, is obviously not Joyce:
It was January. Snow was falling; snow had fallen all day. The sky spread like a grey goose’s wings from which feathers were falling all over England. The sky was nothing but a flurry of falling flakes. Lanes were levelled; hollows filled; the snow clogged the streams; obscured windows, and lay wedged against doors. There was a faint murmur in the air, a slight crepitation, as if the air itself were turning to snow; otherwise all was silent, save when a sheep coughed, snow flopped from a branch, or slipped in an avalanche down some roof in London. Now and again a shaft of light spread slowly across the sky as a car drove through the muffled roads. But as the night wore on, snow covered the wheel ruts; softened to nothingness the marks of the traffic, and coated monuments, palaces and statues with a thick vestment of snow.
She repeats the word “snow” there nearly as often–and nearly as effectively–as Dickens repeats “fog” in the opening of Bleak House!
It’s easy for me to find individual sentences or moments or even longer passages from The Years that I liked: that made me pause to reread them, to think about them, to appreciate them. The problem for me is at the higher (or is it lower?) level of structure, of support for meaning: even as I grasp at these pieces, with what sometimes feels like a nice firm grip, I find myself, or them, slipping again soon after. I lose the thread, I miss the connection, I falter, I am lost. What just happened? Why did he say that? Who is she talking to now, and about what? Why is this the detail we’re getting right now? It’s as if I am looking at the novel through something and so not seeing all of it, or, to reverse the image, as if the novel itself is a screen (and this actually feels like a better, more Woolfian, metaphor) over a fuller version, allowing only indirect access to it. I can tell that there is more to the novel than I am understanding, but it eludes me.
One reasonable response is that I need to work harder as a reader. Another way to put it–my preferred way, since I don’t think I am a lazy reader!–is that I am still learning how to read Woolf (or, Woolf’s fiction, since I am a reasonably good reader of her non-fiction, and of her criticism, which I love and admire). That seems both true and fair, and I believe it would (will) be worth it to keep trying. I also find my difficulties with Woolf’s fiction salutary and productive: they reinforce my conviction that reading really is a skill, something that we can learn and practice. That doesn’t mean you can’t be a good reader unless you study literature formally, any more than you absolutely must take lessons to play an instrument well or learn a language. When pressed to declare course objectives or “learning outcomes” for my classes, though, “helping students become better readers” is at the top of my list. In some respects this is a one-size-fits-all effort, but the example of Woolf is a good reminder that different writers require different things of their readers. I thought The Years would be closer to the kind of novel I’m better at reading, and it is–but it’s still not close enough to make it easily accessible for me.
Sometimes in class I compare critical approaches to an optometrist’s lenses: it’s not until you find the right one(s) that everything you need to see comes into focus. In Woolf’s case, bringing everything into focus might not quite be the point, of course! But there is still probably a way of reading her novels that would make them seem less vertiginous, less elusive, to me. I’ll keep trying, and in the meantime I’ll cling to their moments of beauty and insight.