Harry Potter’s not afraid of Virginia Woolf…

I had something of an interesting reading revelation yesterday and thought I would write about it. I had picked up Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, being in need of some comfort (Anthony Trollope is not anxiety making, which I like, but then he also Just Won’t Get To The Point in The Eustace Diamonds. So it drags on. And on.) and for some reason, I noticed that I flew over the words a lot more quickly in Harry Potter than in more literary fiction in my rush to get at the story. Of course this is how easy comfort reading goes and I love the cozy Hogwarts feeling and way some authors (C.S. Lewis and even A.S. Byatt do this as well) can use simple language so colourfully and even magically.

Later that evening, I picked Virginia Woolf’s The Waves off the shelf on a whim, I’ve tried to read it before and got stuck in its very experimental style. But this time I said to myself, don’t worry about getting everything, just ride the wave (as it were!) of your impressions, the thoughts the language conjures up, don’t worry if you have the right thoughts or images in mind. And I found her prose became so magical and glorious and reminding me of so many memories of a summer I spent near a lake, the waves a constant presence and how I had slept next to the water one night, read next to it in the evening, how I watched the dawn come up over the sky. Then I shot into the rest of the story and one of the most surreal and wonderful reading experiences of my life — it was late at night and I was up alone, following the thoughts and impressions of these six characters, told in a completely new style of writing. It’s hard to describe, but letting the language and sensations of it wash over me is like nothing else. I read it walking slowly down the street today and it’s been so long since I loved a book enough to do that! Of course Virginia Woolf’s glorious prose goes perfectly with the sparkling green spring.

“That is my face,” said Rhoda, “in the looking-glass behind Susan’s shoulder — that face is my face. But I will duck behind her to hide it, for I am not here. I have no face. Other people have faces; Susan and Jinny have faces; they are here. Their world is the real world. The things they lift are heavy. They say Yes, they say No; whereas I shift and change and am seen through in a second. If they meet a housemaid she looks at them without laughing. But she laughs at me. They know what to say if spoken to. They laugh really; they get angry really; while I have to look first and do what other people do when they have done it.

“I will read in the book that is propped against the bottle of Worcester sauce. It contains some forged rings, some perfect statements, a few words, but poetry. You, all of you, ignore it. What the dead poet said, you have forgotten. And I cannot translate it to you so that its binding power ropes you in, and makes it clear to you that you are aimless; and the rhythm is cheap and worthless; and so remove that degradation which, if you are unaware of your aimlessness, pervades you, making you senile, even while you are young. To translate that poem so that it is easily read is to be my endeavour.

Obviously all of the characters have aspects of Virginia Woolf in them (that’s another thing that helped in reading this, reminding myself that this isn’t exactly realism and most people won’t all be thinking in such exalted and poetic language, especially not as children at the start of the book, it’s just something to go with) but they’re also based on people she knew, my book notes tell me. The second quote I’ve included here is about the character she based on T.S. Eliot (she and her husband published The Waste Land and were friends with him).

‘Close reading’ is something I’ve come to do since university, especially every time I reread Jane Austen to find new insights and when I start a new classic so I can capture all that the author intended, but this helped me to remember: no author is perfect and there’s no harm in sometimes adding more of yourself to the mixture, allowing your own impressions to creep in and colour the experience — above all, reading should still be enjoyable or what’s the point? I love having an amazing and life changing reading experience that comes from classic literature, but I also want it to be pleasurable and not just so I can show off over how many more big important books I’ve read. I think I’ll try to find a way to go with the flow on harder books in future and not fuss over them so much anymore. I love reading for beautiful language, but sometimes reading at a quicker pace for the story can bring unexpected pleasures.

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3 thoughts on “Harry Potter’s not afraid of Virginia Woolf…

  1. Amanda says:

    Virginia Woolf is certainly one of those authors you have to learn how to read. I do okay with her, but I still can only manage to read about one book a year…never read The Waves, though. I really want to read that one and Orlando.

    • Carolyn says:

      I found this really wonderful essay by Woolf called How Should One Read A Book? that seemed to offer good guidelines for how to get into her books as well as others. I wanted to read more of her books this year, but The Waves was a bit exhausting even though it’s not that long, maybe like you I’ll try again later!

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