Monday, January 7, 2013

Book Review: The Years, by Virginia Woolf

The Years
by Virginia Woolf
Harcourt, Inc. 
1939
435 pages

"Tell me about William Whatney," she said. "When I last saw him he was a slim young man in a boat." Peggy burst out laughing.
"That must have been ages ago!" she said.
"Not so very long," said Eleanor. She felt rather nettled. "Well -" she reflected, "twenty years - twenty-five years perhaps."
It seemed a very short time to her; but then, she thought, it was before Peggy was born. She could only be sixteen or seventeen." (pg. 205)

We've all experienced this, haven't we? This somewhat unsettling realization when something that we perceive in our minds to have occurred "not so very long" ago really happened more like two decades (and then some) in the past.

Nice to see that Virginia Woolf understood that even in 1937 when she wrote this novel.

I mean, I fall into this mind trap ALL THE TIME. I still, on more occasions than I care to admit, think 1990 was ten years ago rather than (gulp) 23 years long gone. I chalk this up to approaching my mid-40s, but after reading Virginia Woolf's novel The Years, now I'd like to look at this differently.
"They talked as if they were speaking of people who were real, but not real in the way in which she felt herself to be real. It puzzled her; it made her feel that she was two different people at the same time; that she was living at two different times in the same moment." (pg. 167)
Yep. That's it exactly. We are two different people at the same time, living at two different times in the same moment. We're a combination of our present and our past. ("What is the use, she thought, of trying to tell people about one's past? What is one's past?" (pg. 167)

Virginia Woolf's second-to-last novel The Years is a commentary about the passage of time, which she brings forth for the reader by showing her characters - members of the large, well-to-do Pargiter family and their extended family - through 1880-1918. (The last chapter is titled "Present Day," which I suppose is 1939, when the novel was published.) The Pargiters live in London, and at the beginning of the book, are in that sort of odd stage when you're just watching and waiting for a loved one to pass away. (In this case, their mother.)

Not too much happens in The Years. People visit each other, talk about their life and their travels. They sometimes die. It's a reflective, thoughtful sort of novel, and truthfully, this takes a little while to get used to - especially if you, like me, are not generally a classics reader or one who doesn't normally read novels set in this time period. (Woolf's passion for the semicolon is also more than a bit distracting.) It isn't until almost halfway through the story that you begin to see the connections among the characters, the passing of time as evidenced by the changing seasons and the weather.

Honestly, up to that point, I kind of considered abandoning this, but then I started gaining an appreciation for what Woolf was trying to say. With the exception of Mrs. Dalloway, which I absolutely loved right off the bat (kudos to Dr. Young, one of the most awesome college English professors ever), I'm finding that this is my typical reaction to Virginia Woolf. I start off a little perplexed, a little lost and confused, and then I get immersed in the story.

Just like life, no?
"My life, she said to herself. That was odd, it was the second time that evening that somebody had talked abut her life. And I haven't got one, she thought. Oughtn't a life to be something you could handle and produce? - a life of seventy odd years. But I've only the present moment, she thought. Here she was alive, now, listening to the fox-trot. Then she looked round. There was Morris; Rose; Edward with his head thrown back talking to a man she did not know. I'm the only person here, she thought, who remembers how he sat on the edge of my bed that night, crying - the night Kitty's engagement was announced. Yes, things came back to her. A long strip of life lay behind her. Edward crying. Mrs. Levy talking; snow falling; a sunflower with a crack in it; the yellow omnibus trotting along the Bayswater Road. And I thought to myself, I'm the youngest person in this omnibus; now I'm the oldest ... Millions of things came back to her. Atoms danced apart and massed themselves. But how did they compose what people called a life?" (pg. 366-367) 





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2 comments:

Brooke said...

Loved this post! Something about Virginia Woolf just does it for me. And, like you, it takes awhile for this realization to sneak up on me while reading. One minute you're lost - the next totally immersed in Woolf's atmospheric meanderings.

Melissa said...

Brooke, I'm so glad I'm not the only one who feels this way about Woolf!