Friday, January 19, 2007

Woolf and the creative process

I just finished Julia Briggs' Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life. What distinguishes this "biography" is that the focus is squarely on Woolf as an artist. Woolf was an exemplary diary keeper, and Briggs' uses great resources to show how she created her books from conception to publication. Even if you are not a particular Woolf fan, any one interested in how artists work, in the mystery of the creative process, would enjoy reading this book. Also, for anyone doing research on specific works by Woolf, this is an excellent reading guide. I found myself--a devoted Woolf fan--newly impressed by her serious work ethic, complicated as it was by her fragile mental health and fragmented by two major wars. (The Woolfs split their time between the country and the city, but Woolf was passionate about London. One of her former homes was destroyed, and her last home in London was damaged by WWII bombing.) She was deeply devoted to her craft. She could have reeled off traditional narratives by the score, but she was passionately attached to the idea of finding new forms to get at the truth of being. She wanted to write books about the inner workings of our minds, about all the invisible things that shape what we are and what we do.

I also highly recommend Hermione Lee's full-length biography of Woolf, which is more of a traditional "life" bio. It came out several years ago, and this spring Lee is publishing a new biography of Edith Wharton, which I will probably pick up. In addition, Claire Tomalin (Jane Austen, Samuel Pepys) has a new bio of Thomas Hardy out now that sounds very good. They're all dropping at the same time!

My next "big read" is history, however. I just started Niall Ferguson's War of the Worlds: The Descent of the West. I think it's going to be really interesting, if sobering. He's looking at the extraordinary violence of the last century and attempting to analyze it in new ways--apparently he's turning a few standard arguments on their heads; for example, instead of the rise of Western power and influence, he sees a "reorienting toward the East." Anyway, I've plowed through the 70-page introduction and just begun the first chapter.

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