My life, she said to herself. That was odd, it was the second time that evening that somebody had talked about her life. And I haven’t got one, she thought. Oughtn’t a life to be something you could handle and produce? – a life of seventy-odd years. But I’ve only the present moment, she thought. Here she was alive, now, listening to the fox-trot. Then she looked round. There was Morris; Rose;Edward with his head thrown back talking to a man she did not know. I’m the only person here, she thought, who remembers how he sat on the edge of my bed that night, crying – the night Kitty’s engagement was announced. Yes, things came back to her. A long strip of life lay behind her. Edward crying, Mrs Levy talking; snow falling; a sunflower with a crack in it; the yellow omnibus trotting along the Bayswater Road. And I thought to myself, I’m the youngest person in this omnibus; now I’m the oldest…Millions of things came back to her. Atoms danced apart and massed themselves. but how did they compose what people called a life?
– Eleanor Pargiter in the ‘Present Day’ section of The Years
A confession: I started another book before this, but dropped it when I realised I didn’t want to spend time with it, or review it here later. I think that’s fair, although there was a bit of agonising.
Anyway. The Years.
Despite the bouts of beauty such as in the above passage, Sort of a disappointment.
I’ve read a good number of Virigina Woolf’s novels, and one of my favourites is To The Lighthouse. Comparisons between that work and this are inevitable: both feature diegesis on the movement of time, nature and the seasons, the instability of the self, the difficulty of interacting truthfully (while also questioning what truth is) with others within artificial settings such as dinner parties. War is touched upon with the lightest fingers, a little stain spreading across the world…but The Years suffers from some flaws that To The Lighthouse avoids.
It’s overlong. The repetition of phrases, which Woolf uses to build up chains of continuity between time periods, becomes grating after the fourth or fifth time. I do understand that she is harking back to Greek works in using them, but they don’t seem to fit, because while, say, the Odyssey has strong definite instances of action; love, cunning, an evil cyclops, etc, that can stand to be linked in this way, The Years only seems the flabbier for the continual cooing of pigeons (‘take two coos, Taffy, take two coos’) and flickers of memory and experience we have seen over and over again (the colour of dresses, the shudders of strong emotion felt in spine).
The effect of time passing is rather beautiful – we are given a sense of the unstoppable fleetingness of life at all turns in a deft way – but the other side of this is that the ensemble characters seemed too numerous and lacked focus. I will always remember Mrs Ramsay, knitting beside her child in To The Lighthouse, but I struggled to differentiate between all the sisters, brothers, cousins and grandchildren we meet at various stages of life in The Years, only to have them swept away again. It’s an impressionistic novel, an experiment in seeing what is needed to build character, but the overall feeling is of having gone up too close to an impressionist painting and fallen into it. A sense of swimming through pastel-coloured paint. Petals clotting the mouth, a strong smell of old perfume and snobbery – the odor of stale lavender and pot-pourri and macassar oil.
In fact, perhaps my chief objections are to the classism and, worse, the triumvirate of xenophobia, racism and antisemitism. I won’t give examples except to say that, at one point, there is ‘a Jew’ who takes a bath in the shared bathroom of one of the characters, and the whole scene, the utterances of characters, is repellent. If it had been written by someone who I didn’t think was antisemitic, I might be willing to think it was the characters, but you know, the author, though dead, was Virginia Woolf, and from her diaries we have gained a lot of insight into how she viewed others. or ‘Others’ as the case is. She hated her servants too, shows the working class always as servile and lesser in this work. Perhaps there are academic approaches to The Years which reads these elements differently, but I was just going on surface understanding, which seemed all too clear.
So. Standing in an impressionist painting, choking on the beautiful descriptions, because you are forced to be in the company of horrible, stuck up, privileged, self-important bores with vile notions. I do like vile characters, but have to have the sense that the author is doing something interesting with their horribleness. Not here. Back to the library it goes, and I dust myself off and start anew.