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A Reluctant Revenant

September 25, 2008
Original copy of the first published edition

Original copy of the first published edition

A Haunted House and Other Stories
By Virginia Woolf

“There are virtues associated with smallness,” Steven Millhauser writes in his essay, “The Ambition of the Short Story,” published in the Oct. 3 edition of the New York Times’s Sunday Book Review. Contrasting the short story with the novel’s imposing grandness and scope, Millhauser writes that it is selectiveness that makes a good short story so precious: “By excluding almost everything, it can give perfect shape to what remains.”

But perfection in only a few pages is a very difficult task. To summon all of the exact language and stories and details and compress them into a short story is a heroic feat, especially for a writer accustomed to novels, to the freedom of sheer space that a novel provides. There is more room to stretch with a novel. A short story demands flawlessness. And yet, because of this, I feel that a novelist’s true skill can be adequately gauged by whether or not the writer can craft a compelling short story. Woolf is reluctant to subject herself to this test, however.

In the foreword that still accompanies Harcourt’s edition, her husband, Leonard, writes that although Virginia was constantly writing short stories, she did not like being asked to do so. She spent a great deal of time revising them and was rarely satisfied, even in their published form. The complete collection of her short stories, A Haunted House and Other Stories, was published in 1944, three years after her death. Leonard included six stories previously published in Monday or Tuesday, seven stories that appeared in magazines between 1922 and 1941, and then five unpublished stories.

Of these five unpublished stories, Leonard writes, “It is with some hesitation that I have included them. None of them, except ‘The Searchlight,’ are finally revised by her, and she would certainly have done a great deal of work on them before she published them. Four of them are only just in the stage beyond that of her first sketch.”

Yet we are grateful that Leonard was willing to risk the wrath of his dead wife’s spirit. These are magnificent short stories, proving Virginia’s fullness as a novelist, her deep skill as an artist who loved the music of the English language and the complexities of the men and women who had the audacity to live, to separate, to unify.

All 18 stories have their separate merits, but for time and space, I will limit myself to only discussing my top four favorites.

“Lappin and Lapinova”
This story begins by the assumption that it will be easily the cutest story in the collection. The ending, of course, defies some of those expectations. But, just listen to how cute this is: the general structure of the story is of a newly married young couple who has a repeated inside joke about rabbits. Precious. But the point is, naturally, much deeper. “And she laughed and laughed; and he laughed too, so that the maiden ladies and the fishing man and the Swiss waiter in his greasy black jacket all guessed right; they were very happy. But how long does such happiness last? they asked themselves; and each answered according to his own circumstances.” Of course, this is a Woolfian couple, and so it doesn’t last long, but it’s a delightful story with many questions and few answers.

“Together and Apart”
This was one of the previously unpublished stories, and I’m thankful Leonard decided to share it with us; it’s such a perfect miniature of Woolf’s love of a particular theme. The title states this essential question of Woolf’s, one that appears in nearly all of her novels: How is it that people can come so close and yet still be so far apart? It’s a question that she asked in the previous story (“Lapin and Lapinova”) and it’s a question she’s asked before. (Recall, Mrs. Dalloway: “And even between husband and wife there is a gulf.” And Mrs. Ramsay sinking down into herself in the living room in To the Lighthouse.) Woolf loves exploring the bonds between union and isolation, community and solitude, and I think it’s one of the things that she does best. In this story, we meet Mr. Serle and Miss Anning, who have just been introduced, coincidentally, by Mrs. Dalloway herself. The narrative thread weaves back and forth between their spoken conversation and their inner monologues (another common Woolf device). It’s a beautiful read; peaceful, swift, pulsing with all of that poetic, electrifying language that she seemingly draws from sunlight and pure space. But it’s all about people in the end, as it always is: “Of all things, nothing is so strange as human intercourse, she thought, because of its changes, its extraordinary irrationality, her dislike being now nothing short of the most intense and rapturous love, but directly the word ‘love’ occurred to her, she rejected it, thinking again how obscure the mind was, with its very few words for all these astonishing perceptions, these alternations of pain and pleasure. For how did one name this.” This man and young woman are struggling to speak to each other, trying to communicate beneath the bare, polite words they are actually saying, and yet failing. The story ends with an interruption from another party guest, and this thundering last line: “And they could separate.” There it is again: that gulf, that eternal separation between people.

“The Mark on the Wall”
I was pleased to discover this story in E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, which I read this summer. Forster uses a passage from “The Mark on the Wall” to illustrate differences in narrative technique. If I remember correctly, he uses it anonymously and then attributes it to Woolf only after making a few glowing comments about her style. It is unusual in this collection because it is a work that sounds distinctly autobiographical. Even if the speaker isn’t Woolf, one could easily imagine it to be. There isn’t really even a storyline: someone is looking at a mark on a wall and wondering what it is. This is flooring to me. That someone could even take that idea and make something of it! How incredibly dull that sounds: a story about someone looking at a mark on a wall. And yet this story is anything but. The speaker speculates with fascinating clarity and yet unstable grounding–switching back and forth, peppering paragraphs with questions, descriptions of the outside world, what else is going on in the house, and so forth. All in this general vein: “I might get up, but if I got up and looked at it, ten to one I shouldn’t be able to say for certain; because once a thing’s done, no one ever knows how it happened. Oh! dear me, the mystery of life; the innacuracy of thought! The ignorance of humanity! To show how very little control of our possessions we have…” I won’t give away the ending, because there is one, and it is satisfying, oddly. But it’s definitely worth reading. It demonstrates Woolf’s prodigious (and I’d say, unparalleled) ability to hold a subject loosely in her fingers and let it go where it wills.

“The Lady in the Looking-Glass”
This story begins with a statement that is unusual for Woolf because of its simple audacity; Woolf does not often succumb to aphorisms. But this one begins in bold print: “People should not leave looking-glasses hanging in their rooms any more than they should leave open cheque books or letters confessing some hideous crime.” It’s strange because Woolf rarely if ever uses “thesis statements” for her stories, and yet this is the hinge for this compelling vignette. The looking-glass is stationed in a room that is constantly changing and flickering; “Nothing stayed the same for two seconds together.” The doors and windows seem to be breathing, “a perpetual sighing and ceasing sound, the voice of the transient and the perishing.” But in the looking-glass everything is still, composed, unchanged. And then we meet a woman. The mistress of the house, Isabella Tyson, is in a “thin summer dress, carrying a basket.” We follow her outside, to her garden, and then inside, to the corridors of her mind, which are compared to the layout of her home. Woolf writes that “her mind was like her room, in which lights and advanced and retreated, came pirouetting and stepping delicately.” And her mind is at once rushing and sweeping thousands of ideas… until she steps inside and stands before that mirror. She pauses. “Here was the woman herself. She stood naked in that pitiless light. And there was nothing.”

She closes that story with repeating the opening line: “People should not leave looking-glasses hanging in their rooms.” For there is a danger, Virginia Woolf would tell us, of looking too closely at the self, of investigating the perilous landscape of the soul. She wrote this, I feel, in understanding of the perfect irony of that assertion: because investigating the soul was precisely her line of work. And it was dangerous to her. It drove her back and forth between madness and sanity, dangling her between death and life. But the stability of her vision is what gives such life to her prose, what allows her to survive, even now, beyond her death. We welcome her to come and haunt us.

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