Jacob’s Room (Virginia Woolf)

Posted: June 5, 2015 in fiction
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Had I picked up this novel when it was first published, I doubt I would know what to think. Woolf’s first two novels, The Voyage Out and Night and Day, are fairly straightforward, the narrative voice simple and clear, the books move as we expect books to. Then along comes Jacob’s Room, and it’s none of those things. Now, we know Woolf as experimenting with the techniques of painting in her novels, some blending of Cubism, Impressionism, and Expressionism, but in Jacob’s Room she’s still working on her technique. It’s kind of like what Mrs Dalloway would be, if it were written by David Lynch – disjointed, pregnant with the unsaid, flirting with obscenity, not making much sense the first time through but not establishing sufficient exigency to experience it again right away.

In short, the observer is choked with observations. Only to prevent us from being submerged by chaos, nature and society between them have arranged a system of classification which is simplicity itself; stalls, boxes, amphitheatre, gallery. The moulds are filled nightly. There is no need to distinguish details. But the difficulty remains – one has to choose. For though I have no wish to be Queen of England or only for a moment – I would willingly sit beside her; I would hear the Prime Minister’s gossip; the countess whisper, and share her memories of halls and gardens; the massive fronts of the respectable conceal after all their secret code; or why so impermeable? And then, doffing one’s own headpiece, how strange to assume for a moment some one’s – any one’s – to be a man of valour who has ruled the Empire; to refer while Brangaena sings to the fragments of Sophocles, or see in a flash, as the shepherd pipes his tune, bridges and aqueducts. But no – we must choose. Never was there a harsher necessity! or one which entails greater pain, more certain disaster; for wherever I seat myself, I die in exile: Whittaker in his lodging-house; Lady Charles at the Manor.

After reading the book, I think about how we react to people after they’ve died. We look at every moment of their lives at once, as if the person never aged but lived all his life in one Eternal Now. Fiction and biography give us the idea that lives have trajectory, as if death is a destination that we are all traveling toward, but our lived experience of death is different. Our daily lives seem static, and one day passes like the next, and then suddenly someone isn’t here any more and we forget the bad things and tell the funny stories and good impressions, the loves and endearing habits without the hatred and mistakes. We can forgive the dead nearly anything, because it’s often only after someone is dead that we realize that love is more durable than anger, and therefore more significant.

In subject matter, this book comes nearer D. H. Lawrence than anything else I’ve read by Woolf. She’s much franker about sex than she is customarily, especially the idea that some men prefer each other’s company to that of women. Young men strip their clothes off but don’t go swimming immediately, and some men reach middle age without marrying but forming possessive attachments with their peers. But the details are reserved for loose women.

The letter lay upon the hall table; Florinda coming in that night took it up with her, put it on the table as she kissed Jacob, and Jacob seeing the hand, left it there under the lamp, between the biscuit-tin and the tobacco-box. They shut the bedroom door behind them.

The sitting-room neither knew nor cared. The door was shut; and to suppose that wood, when it creaks, transmits anything save that rats are busy and wood dry is childish. These old houses are only brick and wood, soaked in human sweat, grained with human dirt. But if the pale blue envelope lying by the biscuit-box had the feelings of a mother, the heart was torn by the little creak, the sudden stir. Behind the door was the obscene thing, the alarming presence, and terror would come over her as at death, or the birth of a child. Better, perhaps, burst in and face it than sit in the antechamber listening to the little creak, the sudden stir, for her heart was swollen, and pain threaded it. My son, my son – such would be her cry, uttered to hide her vision of him stretched with Florinda, inexcusable, irrational, in a woman with three children living at Scarborough. And the fault lay with Florinda. Indeed, when the door opened and the couple came out, Mrs Flanders would have flounced upon her – only it was Jacob who came first, in his dressing-gown, amiable, authoritative, beautifully healthy, like a baby after an airing, with an eye clear as running water. Florinda followed, lazily stretching; yawning a little; arranging her hair at the looking-glass – while Jacob read his mother’s letter.

The concerns that Woolf will become more well-known for do assert themselves from time to time, as in this passage that seems to belong to A Room of One’s Own or Three Guineas:

But coming along Gerrard Street was a tall man in a shabby coat. A shadow fell across Evelina’s window – Jacob’s shadow, though it was not Jacob. And Fanny turned and walked along Gerrard Street and wished that she had read books. Nick never read books, never talked of Ireland, or the House of Lords; and as for his finger-nails! She would learn Latin and read Virgil. She had been a great reader. She had read Scott; she had read Dumas. At the Slade no one read. But no one knew Fanny at the Slade, or guessed how empty it seemed to her; the passion for ear-rings, for dances, for Tonks and Steer – when it was only the French who could paint, Jacob said. For the moderns were futile; painting the least respectable of the arts; and why read anything but Marlowe and Shakespeare, Jacob said, and Fielding if you must read novels?

“Fielding,” said Fanny, when the man in Charing Cross Road asked her what book she wanted.

She bought Tom Jones.

At ten o’clock in the morning, in a room which she shared with a school teacher, Fanny Elmer read Tom Jones – that mystic book. For this dull stuff (Fanny thought) about people with odd names is what Jacob likes. Good people like it. Dowdy women who don’t mind how they cross their legs read Tom Jones – a mystic book; for there is something, Fanny thought, about books which if I had been educated I could have liked – much better than ear-rings and flowers, she sighed, thinking of the corridors at the Slade and the fancy-dress dance next week. She had nothing to wear.

They are real, thought Fanny Elmer, setting her feet on the mantelpiece. Some people are. Nick perhaps, only he was so stupid. And women never – except Miss Sargent, but she went off at lunch-time and gave herself airs. There they sat quietly of a night reading, she thought. Not going to music-halls; not looking in at shop windows; not wearing each other’s clothes, like Robertson who had worn her shawl, and she had worn his waistcoat, which Jacob could only do very awkwardly; for he liked Tom Jones.

There it lay on her lap, in double columns, price three and sixpence; the mystic book in which Henry Fielding ever so many years ago rebuked Fanny Elmer for feasting on scarlet, in perfect prose, Jacob said. For he never read modern novels. He liked Tom Jones.

“I do like Tom Jones,” said Fanny, at five-thirty that same day early in April when Jacob took out his pipe in the arm-chair opposite.

Many people seem to think that the significant thing about someone is whether she reads, and everyone who loves books will naturally have a great deal in common about which they can talk. Fanny Elmer has realized the lie in that thought. It’s not enough just to read; you have to read the same things, though frankly even with people who like the same books as I do, I don’t have much to say. I feel a great surge of affection for someone who shares my taste in books, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into conversation. Our books shape our pattern of thinking, and it’s the recognition of the similarity in mindsets that draws readers together, but generally in a companionable silence.

It is curious, lying in a boat, to watch the waves. Here are three coming regularly one after another, all much of a size. Then, hurrying after them comes a fourth, very large and menacing; it lifts the boat; on it goes; somehow merges without accomplishing anything; flattens itself out with the rest.

What can be more violent than the fling of boughs in a gale, the tree yielding itself all up the trunk, to the very tip of the branch, streaming and shuddering the way the wind blows, yet never flying in dishevelment away? The corn squirms and abases itself as if preparing to tug itself free from the roots, and yet is tied down.

Why, from the very windows, even in the dusk, you see a swelling run through the street, an aspiration, as with arms outstretched, eyes desiring, mouths agape. And then we peaceably subside. For if the exaltation lasted we should be blown like foam into the air. The stars would shine through us. We should go down the gale in salt drops – as sometimes happens. For the impetuous spirits will have none of this cradling. Never any swaying or aimlessly lolling for them. Never any making believe, or lying cosily, or genially supposing that one is much like another, fire warm, wine pleasant, extravagance a sin.

When I lived in Saudi Arabia, I felt confined by government policies and social norms. The impetuous spirit in me is still raging against confinement, but now it’s an inconvenient economic situation penning me in. I just want the freedom to go out and find someone to love; it doesn’t seem like much to ask for, but apparently it’s entirely too much. I’m going to have to work my ass off at two jobs just for the privilege of driving an hour to the nearest establishment for men of my type, buying a drink or two, and meeting someone. I keep thinking that life shouldn’t be this hard, but it continues as ever, heedless of my railing.

My grandfather died last week. The funeral is a week from tomorrow, and already I can feel his life being flattened under a slide for the microscope. My mother will remember that he was a churchgoer who served in World War II, worked for the government, and raised a large family. Other family members will remember his support for liberal politics, and the fact that he loved his children more than religious dogma. I’ll think of how he always played with us when they came to visit. I’ll miss buying a bag of pecans at Christmas (and a bag of Dove chocolates for my grandmother, who died a few years ago), and playing Scrabble with one of the world’s sorest losers. He didn’t lose often, probably because he kept the score. He always said, “A scorekeeper who doesn’t win isn’t a very good scorekeeper.” I’m very proud of the fact that he spent his time in the war saving lives without taking any. He worked closely with General Eisenhower, and he used his radio to deceive the Germans into thinking Allied troops were where they weren’t, often by being himself one of only two American soldiers in an area. He was kind, and patriotic, and loving, and popular in a way that I don’t think I shall ever be. When I think that I will never see him again, that word never seems to make my life stretch out like a desert highway with no relief or shelter in sight. Death always makes me feel so alone.

After reading a book about him, I still don’t feel as if I knew Jacob Flanders well at all. I don’t think anyone else does either. I worry that when I die I’ll leave a similar impression on the world. I’ve been called mysterious and secretive, but I really just want to love and be loved. And in order for me to trust that I am loved, I need to feel known. I don’t want to end up like him, a bunch of letters and receipts scattered around a room, with a pair of old shoes.

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