Reading as a writer - Virginia Woolf, Jacob's Room
This was the third of Woolf's published novels and an experiment in finding her own, modernist, style.
In it she considers the difficulty of truly knowing and other person:
(p.24) "It is no use trying to sum people up. One must follow hints, not exactly what is said, nor yet entirely what is done..."
(p.135) continues the same train of thought - "It is no use trying to sum people up. One must follow hints, not exactly what is said, nor yet entirely what is done. Some, it is true, take ineffaceable impressions of character at once. Others dally, loiter, and get blown this way and that. Kind old ladies assure us that cats are often the best judges of character. A cat will always go to a good man, they say; but then, Mrs. Whitehorn, Jacob's landlady, loathed cats."
(p.53) "Each had his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by heart; and his friends could only read the title."
(p.136) "So we are driven back to see what the other side means - the men in clubs and Cabinets - when they say that character-drawing is a frivolous, fireside art, a matter of pins and needles, exquisite outlines enclosing vacancy, flourishes and mere scrawls."
She also touches on the waste of life and potential of the young men destroyed by the war. We are left, at the end of the novel, in Jacob's room, a place to which he shall never return. Similar themes are echoed earlier by the lonely yearnings of women who cling to the memory of Jacob long after he has moved on.
Woolf describes Jacob by his absence as much as his presence. The items in his rooms and the thoughts and feelings of those who have met him. (p.31) "Jacob's room had a round table and two low chairs. There were yellow flags in a jar on the mantelpiece; a photograph of his mother; cards from societies with little raised crescents, coats of arms and initials; notes and pipes; on the table lay paper ruled with a red margin - an essay, no doubt..."
There are some strange errors of fact in the novel which remind the humble writer of the value of research - a toad is described as an insect; a bee sucks honey from a foxglove, and geographical inaccuracies, such as the distance from Cornwall to Scarborough.
The language is exquisite. As a story of a young man, which fails to immerse the reader in the protagonist's head - motivations dreams, fears - it feels somewhat shallow, but as an expression of the beauty and richness of the English language it carries the reader on a pleasure cruise of wonder.
At times it feels as though the book is about all men, young and old, and Jacob is shown as identical yet separate from his interchangeable friends, in many ways untouched by the personalities around him. I prefer stories with deeper psychology and a clever plot or plots, but it is an enjoyable experience to lose oneself in the elegant prose.
My favourite lines include -
"Mr Pearce had extinguished the lamp. The garden went out. It was but a dark patch."
"The flamingo hours fluttered softly through the sky."
"the front of the palace was cadaverous from electric light."