The Portrait of the Writer as a Critic
The books which are closest to my heart and which evoke a certain sense of otherworldly glee are the ones that are themselves odes to literature, reading, and writing. Genius and Ink: Virginia Woolf on How to Read (TLS Books, 2019) is one such book. It is a collection of critical essays and book reviews by Woolf which were published in the UK's Times Literary Supplement from 1904 to 1934. Each of the essays is a meditation on an author, a literary genre, or musings on the craft of reading which somehow manage to be witty and romantic, satiric and sentimental, edgy, elusive, existential, and life-affirming all in the same strain.
To someone who is a student of literature and a passionate devotee of the arts, Woolf is nothing short of a literary goddess whose penmanship is lethally captivating in all its shades of versatility. However, we do not get to visualise the tongue dipped in the stream of consciousness that shaped her novels, riddled with quiet desperation and the divergence of different selves, in this book. Instead, much like the brilliant illustration preceding the foreword by Ali Smith and the introduction by Francesca Wade, we see a master of prosaic perfection, acute observation, and unbridled literary passion playing tango with her quill. We get to read Woolf's scathing scrawl about the Ulysses being "a memorable catastrophe—immense in daring, terrific in disaster", along with her profound admiration towards Charlotte Bronte, who "has you by the hand and forces you along her road, seeing the things she sees and as she sees them." Of Montaigne she writes, "'Perhaps' is one of his favourite expressions: 'perhaps' and 'I think' and all those words […] which help one to muffle up opinions which it would be highly impolitic to speak outright." Her reveries about Thomas Hardy's pastoral glories and the spectral qualities of Conrad's prose transfixed me like nothing else.
Woolf entered the world of TLS with her reviews of "trashy" guidebooks to Thackeray and Dickens's England, and cemented her role as a 23-year-old critic who would receive a new book to review every week. Her anonymity gave her the freedom to write without hesitation or fear of public disapproval for being a woman, and many of the concepts that Woolf wrote about in these essays crawled into the pages of her novels. For example, in her essay "On Rereading Novels", she writes, "The Novelist can put himself at any point of view […]. He can appear in person, like Thackeray; or disappear, like Flaubert. He can state the facts like Defoe, or give the thought without the fact like Henry James." In works like The Waves (1931) or To the Lighthouse (1927), it seems that she gave herself that space and went on to phenomenally update the definition of a novel by playing with points of view and alternating soliloquies.
What is even more intriguing is the relevance of her arguments. In "How It Strikes a Contemporary'', Woolf draws out the ever-existing anxieties of a reader oscillating between classics and contemporaries, which are subjected to harsh critics and are devoid of the inherent nostalgia older masterpieces hold. Drawing on Woolf's affinity for her contemporaries, we too have to say that for all our rose-tinted nostalgia for hoop skirts and loquacious passages in vintage editions, we feel a certain connexion with the literature of our times—the anxious attempts at inclusion, the political correctness, and new brand of restlessness which seemingly only the internet can induce—simply because it is inherently who we are. I stick to this statement as I opt to read Nicole Krauss's History of Love over Montgomery's fire-headed Anne, on this post-global warming January eve of 2021, whilst attempting to etch something worthwhile on my broken laptop.
Whichever book, era, or genre she dove deep into, Woolf did it through a holistic lens, biting into her subject fervently and sifting through the identities and conflicts to critique the work within. At times, though, she applies little to no context, so if one isn't familiar with Elizabethan plays or John Evelyn's diary, for instance, this book can seem a little intimidating.
Reading Genius and Ink, I couldn't help but wonder what role Woolf would play today as the voice of the critic. Would Arundhati Roy's troubled Anjum remind her of her gender-bending and immortal Orlando? What would her thoughts be on the feminist dystopian TV adaptations of Margaret Atwood? Or what would she make of the less literary, more "drinks over dinner" kind of questions—from a scale of one to ten, how would she rate Sally Potter's rendition of her account of Sackville's biography, speckled with serenades of androgynous angels? How would her face twitch up when reading Rupi Kaur's new poetry collection?
Jahanara Tariq recently completed her undergraduate thesis on Virginia Woolf's Orlando. Her hobbies include snorting caffeine while listening to Vivaldi's "Winter" and praying to the ghost of Tagore on desolate mornings.