‘Oh, if I could write like that!’
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
In a letter to the TLS in 2012, Charles Elliott neatly precised Virginia Woolf’s experience of reading Proust, as related in her letters and diaries. He pointed out that on January 21, 1922, she wrote: “Everyone is reading Proust . . . . I am trembling on the brink”. By August 18 she revealed, “Next I go on to Proust”. By April 18, 1923, “I am reading Proust” and, two years later (April 8, 1925), it’s “Proust, in whom I am embedded”. By July 20 of that year a note of exasperation has crept in: “Proust I should like to finish”. Three years on again, things haven’t improved markedly, if this entry (dated June 20, 1928) is to be believed: “Take up Proust after dinner & put him down”. Oh dear. Sounds as though she is forcing herself by now. And what are we to make of this revelation, six years further on (July 22, 1934)? “I followed my new diversion of book binding. I am covering Proust in little shiny squares of gummed paper”.
Yet in 1922 she also wrote to Roger Fry: “My great adventure is really Proust. Well – what remains to be written after that? I’m only in the first volume, and there are, I suppose, faults to be found, but I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes. How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped – and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp. The pleasure becomes physical – like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined. Far otherwise is it with Ulysses; to which I bind myself like a martyr to a stake, and have thank God, now finished – My martyrdom is over. I hope to sell it for £4.10”.
(How strangely precise that £4.10 is.)
Again to Fry, “Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out the sentence. Oh, if I could write like that! I cry. And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation and intensification that he procures — theres something sexual in it — that I feel I can write like that, and seize my pen, and then I can’t write like that. Scarcely anyone so stimulates the nerves of language in me: it becomes an obsession”.
Woolf was one of the signatories of a letter published in the TLS on January 4, 1923, paying tribute to the French author who had died the previous year (other signatories include Bennett, Conrad, Forster, Gosse, Huxley, Scott Moncrieff and Strachey).
The letter appears in the TLS’s “From the Archives” item on p34 of this week’s issue, along with a perceptive review of Du Côté de chez Swann by the poet Mary Duclaux, published in the TLS on December 4, 1913.