Life Itself

Billie Holiday in Concert

In this month of reading only works by women authors, I have made an interesting discovery. The only works I have read this month that have the feeling of life itself are Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room (1922) and Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights (1979). 1920s London and Postwar Manhattan come alive in these books in a way that even James Joyce’s Dublin in Ulysses failed to with all the literary allusions.

Woolf and Hardwick make us feel present in a simple and direct fashion. It is almost as if they were writing their own autobiographies as they lived their lives. Sleepless Nights even reads like an autobiography. For instance, she knew Billie Holiday and writes about her as if she were a close friend:

A genuine nihilism; genuine, look twice. Infatuated glances saying, Beautiful black star, can you love me? The answer: No.

Somehow she had retrieved from darkness the miracle of pure style. That was it. Only a fool imagined that it was necessary to love a man, love anyone, love life. Her own people, those around her, feared her. And perhaps she was often ashamed of the heavy weight of her own spirit, one never tempted to the relief of sentimentality.

She goes on for several pages about the singer, all of them more real and vivid than anything I have read about any performing artist.

In the same way, Virginia Woolf in Jacob’s Room and Mrs. Dalloway (1925) make the reader feel he or she is walking the streets of the London of George V. One does not feel one is in the past: She makes the past feel like the present.

Even Marcel Proust, whose description of the states of mind of his characters is without peer, cannot put the reader on the street running for a trolley and registering the sights and sounds of the city.

I am not sure I have expressed myself properly. I will have to investigate the matter more deeply. Stay tuned.