The Novels of Virginia Woolf #10: Between the Acts

“Parsimony may be the end of this book.  Also shame at my own verbosity, which comes over me when I see the 20 it is–books shuffled together in my room.  Who am I ashamed of?  Myself reading them.  Then Joyce is dead: Joyce about a fortnight younger than I am.  I remember Miss Weaver, in wool gloves, bringing Ulysses in typescript to our teatable at Hogarth House… One day Katherine Mansfield came, and I had it out.  She began to read, ridiculing: then suddenly said, But there’s something in this: a scene that should figure I suppose in the history of literature…” (A Writer’s Diary 349 [1/15/41])

Virginia Woolf wrote these words a couple of months before her death, and they’re still cagey and circumspect about Joyce, but Mansfield’s “there’s something in this” seems somehow to speak for Woolf as well.  And other than Mrs. Dalloway, which has been placed repeatedly by many critics in the context of Ulysses, Between the Acts seems like the book most closely tracking Joyce’s own work, especially his final Finnegans Wake

Dozens of analogies occurred to me in reading Between the Acts between its method, style, and thematic concerns, and that of Finnegans Wake: its interest in what Lee calls the “decay” of language, the overloading of geography and family with macro-level history, the Bakhtinian carnivalesque high- and low-culture melding (this seems like the only place in Woolf anything like that happened, at least anything obviously like that), the confusion of drama, narrative, travelogue, journalism and so on, perhaps representing some of the 20 “books shuffled together” in Woolf’s room.

In reading quickly over Lee’s chapter on this book, it struck me how many phrases might have been plucked similarly out of a book about Joyce: “in its crude pastiche are scraps of folk tunes and nursery rhymes” (210) is as good an example as any.  Also, there felt like something like an allusion to Finnegans Wake itself (not sure if Woolf had seen it yet – parts had been published serially as “Work in Progress” during these years):

That was a ladder.  And that (a cloth roughly painted) was a wall.  And that a man with a hod on his back.  Mr. Page the reporter, licking his pencil, noted… “Miss La trobe conveyed to the audience Civilization (the wall) in ruins; rebuilt (witness man with hod) by human effort, witness also woman handing bricks” (123)

Insofar as “Finnegan” is, in any sense, a “character,” he is described in that book’s fifth paragraph as “Bygmester Finnegan… this man of hod, cement and edifices” (47).  One version of the story has Finn (maybe the same “character”) falling off of a ladder, and then buried alive.  Also the way the potential allusion is itself explained by another ready-to-hand character (with the potentially phallic “licking his pencil” echoes Joyce’s mention of “his penisolate war,” and thereby “Shem the Penman” – all of this very much the way Finnegans Wake proceeds throughout.  

There’s much more to explore about such comparisons.  But I’ll finish with a contrast: Woolf’s narrative is still, for all its use of pastiche and the feeling that it’s tending towards the postmodern, a book that is bound by a substantial frame narrative, one that domesticates the free-wheeling performance at the book’s center into a more familiar world of realism.  That’s a context. it’s fair to say, that does not obviously present itself in Finnegans Wake.  Though some critics, notably John Bishop (Joyce’s Book of the Dark), discover such a realistic frame narrative, it requires quite an active process of dis-covery.  Here Woolf’s novel starts and ends in a countryside house that is described omnisciently, introduces characters, they speak, and so on.  It feels much more like A Midsummer Night’s Dream than Gravity’s Rainbow.  The latter third of the book, though, reads as oddly disconcerting, once the expressionism/chaos of the middle has been gone through.  Somehow the realism the book began in feels contested in a way that it didn’t at the start.  Either way, we can still see here Woolf maintaining a kind of normative control over the arc of the book, a kind of control we can also see in Mrs. Dalloway (mutatis mutandis of course.


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