Archive for Sunday, December 29, 2002

Virginia Woolf still looms large

December 29, 2002

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— The obsession can begin at any time.

In high school, for example.

"I first read Virginia Woolf when I was 15," says author Michael Cunningham, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Hours," features both Woolf's work and the author herself.

"This older girl, who I had a crush on, threw me a copy of 'Mrs. Dalloway' and said, 'Why don't you read this and try to be less stupid.' I had never seen anything like her writing. I remember thinking, 'She's doing with language what Jimi Hendrix does with guitar."'

Or in the middle of a successful career.

"I hadn't read her as a kid. ... She had sort of a presence, but I didn't know any details," says actor Nicole Kidman, who read Woolf in preparation for her role as the author in the recent film version of Cunningham's book.

"Her inner life is so powerful. And to play a writer of that brilliance, I had the thought of electricity entering her mind, passing down through her hand and through the pen. I feel my life now is imbued by Virginia Woolf."

More than 60 years after drowning herself in the River Ouse near her home in Sussex, England, Woolf continues to inspire writers, movie stars, academics and many others. She is the rare writer profound enough for scholars to scrutinize and famous enough to have her likeness -- the still, somber eyes; the strong, sensitive nose -- printed on Barnes & Noble shopping bags.

Her books sell hundreds of thousand of copies each year and both her work and her life have been sources for contemporary artists. "Mrs. Dalloway" and "Orlando" are among the Woolf books adapted into movies, and the author has become a dramatic character in an acclaimed play, "Vita & Virginia," and in the film version of "The Hours."

Woolf desired fame, but also feared it. "You have the children," she once wrote to her sister, Vanessa. "The fame by rights belongs to me." But in the early 1930s, with two books already written about her and a third on the way, she wondered if her life would triumph over her work.

"This is a danger signal," she noted in her diary. "I must not settle into a figure."

Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen in London, in 1882. Her mother, Julia Duckworth, was a member of a prominent publishing family, and her father, Leslie Stephen, was a literary critic whose friends included the writers Henry James and George Eliot. Virginia was educated at home, and in a letter to a friend she recalled "mooning about alone among my father's books; never any chance to pick up all that goes on in schools -- throwing balls; ragging; slang; vulgarities; scenes; jealousies!"

In her early 20s, she helped form the "Bloomsbury" group of writers and thinkers who advocated socialism, pacifism and atheism. Members included novelist E.M. Forster, biographer Lytton Strachey and political theorist Leonard Woolf, whom Virginia married in 1912.

Virginia Woolf was soon writing for newspapers and published her first novel, "The Voyage Out," in 1915. She later became a leading "modernist," believing literature needed to free itself of plot and conventional narrative. Novels such as "Mrs. Dalloway" and "The Waves" were books of interior monologues and shifting perspectives, devoted less to the straight line of storytelling than to the random ways of the mind.

Sexually abused as a child and orphaned in her early 20s, Woolf suffered from periods of severe depression and first attempted suicide in 1913.

On March 28, 1941, she filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself.

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