By Adrian Tahourdin
Virginia Woolf’s work has just appeared in the prestigious Pléiade series in France. She is only the ninth woman writer to be granted this accolade, out of 200 Pléiaded writers.
The other eight on the list are: Mme de Sévigné, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Sand (whose house at Nohant Woolf visited on a trip to France in May 1937, “avoiding King George’s Coronation, as [she] had avoided the Jubilee”, in the words of Woolf’s biographer Hermione Lee), Colette, Nathalie Sarraute, Marguerite Yourcenar and Marguerite Duras. Surprising not to see Mme de Staël in the pantheon. Marguerite Duras’s own Pléiade Oeuvres, which appeared towards the end of last year, will be reviewed in a future issue of the TLS.
The novelist Virginie Despentes reviewed Woolf's Pléiade Oeuvres in Le Monde des livres last Friday. Despentes is the author of Baise-moi and, most recently, Apocalypse bébé. After sketching the life she discusses Woolf’s death, on which she writes: “Le suicide est à l’écrivain ce que l’overdose est au rocker” (suicide is to the writer what overdose is to the rock star). Later she has a slightly strange riff on how the verb “to sink” is close in sound to “to think” - “Couler, to sink, terme si proche de to think, penser” . And “Ouse” as in the River Ouse is apparently a bit like “house”.
Despentes laments the incompleteness of the project: two volumes, of 1,500 pages each, but no room for A Room of One’s Own (Une Chambre à soi), the correspondence or the diaries. Continuing the rock and roll analogy, “it’s as if a record label were to bring out a Rolling Stones greatest hits without ‘Satisfaction’”. Necessary economies on the part of the publishers Gallimard perhaps, but not ones that should have been applied to “Madame Woolf”, in her estimation. But this seems a false objection: surely Gallimard plan a separate third volume. And has Despentes not noticed the title: Oeuvres romanesques?
The fact that Woolf’s work has entered the Pléiade is of course wonderful news. Interest in her work in France is considerable, as evidenced by the publication of Viviane Forrester’s biography in 2009. The sentiment wasn’t always reciprocated: Woolf herself had a difficult reading relationship with her pre-eminent fellow modernist across the Channel Marcel Proust, as a recent letter to the TLS (Charles Elliott, March 30) reminded us.