Endless Reads review: The Years by Virginia Woolf

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.



Filed under 2012, book cover, book review, Endless Reads 2012, reading

6 responses to “Endless Reads review: The Years by Virginia Woolf

  1. What *not* to read, thank you!

  2. S-Tree: Thanks for the detailed review. Virginia Woolf continues to stymy me for reasons, although I loved the movie, The Hours. A friend lent me TTLH, but I couldn’t get past the first few pages. Maybe it just wasn’t the right moment. I’m a bit upset by the news of VW’s prejuidices, though knowing the time and period she grew up in, it’s hardly surprising. One would like to think that first-rate writers are above childhood influences, but on second thought, is anyone?Still, I’m glad that the trio of little monsters you mention were acquaintances I was told to avoid…how much depends on the benevolence of our early years! RT

    • The first time I really read TTLH was when waiting overnight at an airport by myself. It was great, huddled up in a corner, pretending to be in that peaceful, familial setting. I do think timing can be crucial with novels – we have to be in the right mindset or place in our lives or maturity level for books. They can demand so much of us, give so much.

      With regard to the prejudices, it really isn’t surprising. There was a lot of fear of foreigners and the trappings of class in the inter-war period in the UK. A lot afterwards too. These days, it’s less obvious, because people tend not to say their opinions aloud. Although I think we can see how many people really feel by anonymous internet comment forums like youtube. On the other hand, we are exposed to so many cultures and subcultures through the internet, it’s hard to keep that nasty little shell of prejudice intact.

  3. Isn’t it weird that The Years was Woolf’s best-selling novel in her lifetime? It was immensely popular, far far more successful than her previous books. Frankly bizarre as I think it’s the most flawed of all her novels too. Perhaps it was because it was sold as a family saga, which is strange in itself. Have you read Orlando or The Waves? They are my favourites, though entirely different to one another.

    I have always found Woolf’s antisemitism, and her disgust for the disabled and the working classes, disturbing. And particularly strange because Leonard Woolf was Jewish, and only years after The Years was published they made a plan to commit suicide together in the event of a Nazi invasion. Have you read Hermione Lee’s biography of Woolf? If not I recommend it. Lee offers an interesting reading of Woolf’s unsavory prejudices.

    • That is so odd, how well it did – perhaps based on her accruing reputation, rather than on the work itself? I loved Orlando, and The Waves, while difficult, was yards beyond The Years in terms of what it seemed to be doing – unifying all of those voices, but keeping them distinct, creating an ebb and flow. I haven’t thought of it in a while, so thank you.

      I had no idea Leonard was Jewish, what a strange kind of split that must have caused, to love someone and detest who they are. I’m not one for biographies, but I think that would be fascinating.

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