Putting Aside Woolf: Libertarian Suffering

In talking with my brother yesterday, I was trying to explain to him, a translator of German literature—some obscure 19th century romantic, in particular—why it is that I feel I can put a book aside without finishing it. I was perhaps preparing him for the possibility of not finishing his recent translation of Wilhem Rabbe’s “At the Sign of the Wild Man,” just in case. Putting aside a book seems one of those things that people either do, more or less frequently, or don’t do, shuddering with irreligiosity at the thought. And it is with some irony that I feel I may put a book aside or a short story or any other piece of writing, as I have put aside the very writer who gave me this permission on two occasions.

I put aside Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, both by V. Woolf. I’m not saying I would never try Woolf again, but there are so many other things I would read in the stream of consciousness school of about the period. I have of enjoyed rather very more such alternatives—J. Joyce in fact. I have enjoyed The Dubliners, piecemeal and as a collection, and I am enjoying again Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man—my first reading 33 years ago I recall as enjoyable but I couldn’t say why or have recalled much about the book except that it took that very strong personal voice of narration. I bought my first copy of The Dubliners in Dublin in 1990, though I had read a couple of the stories long before, as have most English majors. And I enjoyed the study of the stories of the collection as a set in the lectures of Mark Sutton at Cambridge in 2011. Oddly and also perhaps ironically, while attending downstream at the colleges, I have twice had tea at the Orchard, the tea shop with tables, chairs and even stinging insects among the trees of an old apple orchard near Grantchester, Cambridgeshire, once a haunt of Rupert Brooke, Virginia Woolf, and others—and have come away from there enjoying much of Brooke’s works, though that liking became muted by a certain redundancy, but I have not felt the least inclined pick up Woolf again.

So why is it that I can so much enjoy one and dislike to the point of turning away the other of two of the greatest stream of consciousness writers of the English language? I wonder if it is the gender of the narrator. Yet if it were only the narrator’s gender and presumable my ability or inability to identify with it, then why would it be that I loathe, and do not finish, reading Henry James—I nearly gagged on the first half of The Portrait of a Lady before quitting it—and quite enjoy Edith Wharton? No, it is more than just gender. I wondered if it has to do with class. Yet my two all-time favorite writers are Thomas Hardy—well the classes are certainly in his novels, but in all their colors—and Jane Austin for whom class is not a factor, as anything in a lower class would, like a toilet, be well used but never mentioned, and anything in a higher class would have been—well—quite Olympian. No, the issue for my choosing not to finish a Woolf book is not one of social justice of gender or class.

I would, I believe, have to read a great deal of something that I don’t like to determine why I don’t like it. I might also have to read other writers I consistently disliked to see a common thorn. Suffering for the sake of analyzing that which makes me suffer? I think not. So I have taken Woolf’s advice, gotten I know not where, of putting aside a book I am truly not liking and moving on to something else. Yet here I am writing about this choice as if to justify it. Yes, there is a monitor in my reader’s heart that tells me to read on, finish what I’ve started. And I have. Reading The Last Temptation of Christ, for a class I imagine, was a nightmare. It was, all the same, the first book about which I could say, “I hated reading it, but I love having read it.” So, I will read on. Who knows but that I may discover a greatness in the last page, the last word. The very best things in life are those unlooked for, but not overlooked, after all. I’m just not looking for them in Woolf.

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