virginia woolf: 3 posts

Beautiful Prose

Halfway through my graduate studies, I remember experiencing an intense craving for beautiful prose. I was training as a political scientist, and the texts on politics and economics, written by academics for other academics in a dry style favoring passive construction, began to make me listless. Respite arrived in the form of George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” which remains one of my favorite pieces of writing–clear, concise, powerful.

books

Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, or reader. When I think of the books that left the biggest impression on me, they are written in a crystalline clear style, poetic but without unnecessary embellishments. Beautiful prose to me is a harmony between substance and style.

I don’t intend to compile a comprehensive list, merely a snapshot of my favorites today, but if I were to create an anthology of beautiful writing, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945) would be one of the star contenders. Set before the Second World War, it is the story of one man’s infatuation with the aristocratic family and their world. There is passion, loss, betrayal and reflections on faith and religion. Waugh’s most introspective novel and also his most masterful, it combines beautiful writing with sharp observations on upper class society and its decline.

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Perfumes To Smell, Books To Read : Autumnal Lists

This time of year makes me prone to bouts of melancholy. I don’t like to bid goodbye to summer vacation, August peaches and picnics in the park. Since my school recollections are filled with the institutional smells of many children in confined spaces, burned milk, wet chalk and blackboards cleaned with a musty rag, I can’t get excited about the whole “back to school” thing either. My memory refuses to budge from this Dickensian vision even when prompted by the delicious smells of sharpened pencils and ink; I hated school until I started college.  I get out of my funk once the fall gets further under way and I notice the walnut sweetness of fallen leaves in the morning air and become grateful for any rose still blooming along Brussels’ chestnut lined avenues. But in the meantime, I just make the best of the transition and come up with lists.

brussels-fall1

Lists are somewhat of an obsession. I’ve been an inveterate list maker since my childhood. My mom treasures a compilation of “books I am going to write” that I came up with at the age of 12. They include “The History of India,” “The History of Greece” and “Constantinople, Jewel of the Byzantine Empire.” (Why on earth did I study political science at the university and not history, I now wonder.) I’m less ambitious these days and instead I just make lists of dishes to cook, places to explore in Brussels, perfumes to try or books to read.

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Mrs Dalloway and Perfumes of 1925

I’m a latecomer to Virginia Woolf’s writing. Mrs Dalloway was the first Woolf’s novel I read, and its prose, such as the excerpt below demonstrates, is so hypnotizing, I look forward to discovering more of her work.

“There were flowers: delphiniums, sweet peas, bunches of lilac; and carnations, masses of carnations. There were roses; there were irises. Ah yes–so she breathed in the earthy garden sweet smell as she stood talking to Miss Pym who owed her help, and thought her kind, for kind she had been years ago; very kind, but she looked older, this year, turning her head from side to side among the irises and roses and nodding tufts of lilac with her eyes half closed, snuffing in, after the street uproar, the delicious scent, the exquisite coolness.

mrsdalloway

 

And then, opening her eyes, how fresh like frilled linen clean from a laundry laid in wicker trays the roses looked; and dark and prim the red carnations, holding their heads up; and all the sweet peas spreading in their bowls, tinged violet, snow white, pale–as if it were the evening and girls in muslin frocks came out to pick sweet peas and roses after the superb summer’s day, with its almost blue-black sky, its delphiniums, its carnations, its arum lilies was over; and it was the moment between six and seven when every flower–roses, carnations, irises, lilac–glows; white, violet, red, deep orange; every flower seems to burn by itself, softly, purely in the misty beds; and how she loved the grey-white moths spinning in and out, over the cherry pie, over the evening primroses!

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