A Writing Surface of One’s Own

By | 1 February 2014

I am reminded of one of her quotes, lifted from a nervy, tender cache which includes these that follow, ‘One cannot live well, love well or sleep well unless one has dined well.’ She would inevitably become unable, uninterested and unwilling to eat or sleep at all. Another demonstrates her love of friends, ‘Some people go to priests; others to poetry; I to my friends.’ Another, her debilitating despondency, ‘I have lost friends, some by death, others by the sheer inability to cross the street.’ She could have lain curled on her desk, amongst its accumulation, suspended, nicotine languid, visionary, holding her breath, exhaling.

Thinking things like, ‘My own brain to me is the most unaccountable of machinery… always buzzing, humming, soaring roaring diving, and then buried in mud. And why? What’s this passion for?’ A nephew remembers her holding her pen for hours writing nothing.

Woolf’s desk brings to mind Björk’s ‘The Anchor Song’. Substitute ‘river’ for ‘ocean’. There is riverweed, rushes, a soul rolling through, gliding, dragged. A struck match, a stubbing quench amongst others.

Also in Google’s haul is her last letter, regarded as a suicide note, and its transcript, posted on a glibly titled blog, which touches on her early psychological scarring. This letter is much claimed and multiple; and incorporated into the 2002 Paramount/Miramax film, The (manifold) Hours, based on Michael Cunningham’s (1999 Picador) Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Nicole Kidman’s Woolf is tense, sullen, remote and drawn; it won her an Academy Award for Best Actress. (Most of the images of Woolf are from her difficult latter years. She is wan, underweight – distressing. Deeper digging through the Woolf industry of claimed, unclaimed, reclaimed multiples yields her seraphic in velvet and her mother’s arms, a seemingly privileged willowy girl, much like her mother, Julia Jackson, who posed for her aunt, the Victorian master photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, the ingenuous Woolf as a delicate, pensive Rossetti in sepia profile, she is gawky and giggling on a beach in a neck to knee, an ethereal portrait at twenty with her wildly-bearded father, Sir Leslie Stephen, shoulder to shoulder with Leonard on their wedding day and then an elegant, angular moderne. There is a pinker, consummate Woolf.) It is agonising and full of gratitude to ‘Dearest’. Their love was profound despite, or perhaps due to, the inclusion of mutually acknowledged significant others. It mentions a dreaded oncoming relapse and voices. I would guess written onto her lap desk prior to her daily walk before lunch to the river nearby. She wrote it on a Tuesday in 1941. She intimately signed it ‘v.’. She went missing on the Friday. She was 59 and quietly slipped into the river with stones in her pockets.

And how the net digresses – a page of handwritten notes pops up from a 1964 workshop meeting with ‘Liz & Richard Burton’ and the Hollywood screenwriter Ernest Lehman regarding the ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ film and their choice of cameraman. Burton is worried about his skin in close-ups, worries about it being ‘distractingly pock-marked’.

A stream of stark stills, like animation cells, of the combating Taylor-Burtons permeate Woolf searches.

The push to digression, to involve yourself in the inane, the tentative ‘links’, ‘feeds’, ‘tags’ is linear and corrupting. There is typically accident of progression and adulterated steering. We are predetermined to roam.

There is surrealism via Virginia and Leonard’s Kafkaesque trip through Nazi Germany in 1935 with their pet marmoset Mitzi. They believed she saved them (Leonard was Jewish) by charm and diversion. This, from Leonard’s autobiography: ‘When they saw Mitz, the crowd shrieked with delight. Mile after mile I drove between the two lines of corybantic Germans, and the whole way they shouted ‘Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler!’ to Mitz and gave her (and secondly Virginia and me) the Hitler salute with outstretched arm.’

There is post-surrealism in the Woolfs’ inclusion, as ‘free-spoken, anti-Nazi intellectuals’ on the 2,300 name 1940 Nazi blacklist of those to be arrested in the event of a successful German invasion of Britain.

This assumptive site also suggests that in the event of a successful invasion the Woolfs had laid plans and had made a suicide pact, with a backup plan (Leonard’s) involving a vial of morphine.

You must take this with one of these tiny paper sachets of salt stuffed into this lidless foreign-coin encrusted, stainless steel teapot on this sticky café table. Assorted postcards curl away from the wall above the servery. A preference here seems to be for spiritual tourism. The spent matador in torn pink satin seems lonely.

There is post-post-surrealism in the site that links Virginia Woolf, Hitler and Sid Vicious by the ‘link’ of them having left suicide notes. This grouping is an affront to both Woolf and Vicious. It pompously offers transcript and analysis of these notes. I do not read or care about Hitler’s suicide note. Sid’s wish, his note was found by his mother in the pocket of his jeans and mentions a suicide pact with his ‘baby’, was to be buried in his ‘leather jacket, jeans and motorcycle boots.’

There is an assortment of linked posted photographs of The River Ouse, one is a grainy Polaroid attributed to Patti Smith. (She too has made a pilgrimage there.) Leibovitz’s in Pilgrimage are dark. One is small and directory-like. The large double page photograph, which directly follows her wide floating image of Woolf’s desk, could be a crumpled piece of khaki and indigo silk or of a mountainous landscape captured from the air. It is simply an enlargement of its treacherous current.

The holographic cognac otters of river water turn to gritted, frigid undercurrent, the cold sweeping embrace of nothingness, the soundless brass-ringed drawing close of heavy brown curtains in a porch.

The reports and obituary from The New York Times (April 3, 1941) and The Associated Press (April 19, 1941) of her disappearance on March 28th, discovery on April 18th and coroner’s verdict on April 19th are succinct. They mention her stellar pedigree and connections, her considerable achievements, fifteen books, Hogarth Press, her ‘tilts’, her long illness, her suicide note, the bombing of their London homes, their move to Sussex and ‘her hat and cane had been found on the bank of the Ouse River’.

In Fiona Annis’s photographic cycle, titled The After-Image (Swan Songs) 2009–2011, she looks at final acts and the artifice of surface, the grace, venue and theatre of landscape. Four of these address Woolf and the River Ouse. Its first is a dark (green) image of wildly wind-skewed riverweeds, it looks cold with just a sliver of the horizon’s dim light, a clean white swan skims an olive-green, velvety surface of algae.

It brings to mind Charles Kingsley’s 1863 dreamy and altruistic fairy (morality) tale, The Water Babies. It sweetens (with saccharin) the Victorian tragedy of disparity and child labour. It is a work of measure and solace, of a slippery aquatic life after drowning. I think of those 22 days between Woolf’s disappearance and discovery. Woolf is out of her weighted clothes and into eelskin mercury.

A black swan is tied to my ankle in the series of poems I have written about my 2009 pilgrimage, with ancestors, to the outback town of Broken Hill, dusted with lead and filmic stardust – cue a shimmering and billowing Guy Pearce as Felicia Jollygoodfellow atop the tour bus ‘Priscilla’, lip-synching Verdi’s ‘Follie! Delirio vano è questo!’ – me and the swan on foot, a barefoot, catatonic Holocaust monologist walks with us.

As with Dickinson, I don’t pretend Woolf scholarship. I don’t read diaries.

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