Sunday, August 16, 2009

Fiction Review: "The String Quartet," Virginia Woolf

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

In “The String Quartet” (1921), Virginia Woolf went beyond simply trying to render the experience of music in stream-of-consciousness terms; she renders the narrator’s state of mind while listening. Along the way, she raises questions about the nature of that experience. Is it aesthetic and recreational, or is it simply a means of escapism? In the end, she answers in favor of the latter. The experience of art has become a respite from the disappointments and alienation of contemporary life.

Woolf begins the story with a string of impressions, much in the way that defined “Monday or Tuesday” and took up the bulk of “An Unwritten Novel.” There’s no rhyme or reason to them from the narrator’s standpoint. She reflects on the various means of transportation to the music recital she is attending, followed by a cataloguing of the minutiae of the news and local hubbub: international treaties, the flu this year, the weather. The impressions then shift from a general contemplation of the outside world to the particulars of the scene at the recital. The narrator considers the snippets of small talk around her, and she cannot help but feel that something is lacking. One thing leads to another, but it never seems to end in fulfillment. She muses:

It’s all a matter of flats and hats and sea gulls, or so it seems to be for a hundred people sitting here well dressed, walled in, furred, replete. Not that I can boast, since I too sit passive on a gilt chair, only turning the earth above a buried memory, as we all do, for there are signs, if I’m not mistaken, that we’re all recalling something, furtively seeking something.

The narrator can impose no order on her thoughts, as she has no passion for the moment, and the worthwhile is unknown and beyond her grasp.

But if order cannot come from within, it is found without. The quartet begins their recital, and the narrator gives herself over to the thoughts the music brings to mind. It is romantic imagery she sees, beginning with thoughts of nature and giving way to fantasies of princes and swordfights and chases through the castle. Chatter from the audience disturbs her, but only briefly. She dismisses it. “The tongue is but a clapper,” she thinks. The scene in the recital hall has taken on a new grace:

The feathers in the hat next me are bright and pleasing as a child’s ratthe. The leaf on the plane-tree flashes green through the chink in the curtain. Very strange, very exciting.

The music provides structure, and if the structure is agreeable, everything in the context it provides becomes comfortable. Unfortunately, that structure dissipates once the music is done. When that happens, the narrator’s feelings of alienation and the inadequacy of life assert themselves more strongly than ever.. On the street outside, she passes by someone who asks, “You go this way?” Her reply is a resigned “Alas. I go that.” Her own life holds no promise for her.

One surmises that Woolf’s point may be that while structure is a necessity for a fulfilling life, it has to be a structure rooted in passion; the structure created by a routinized existence simply won’t do. The latter creates a chaos. Alienation is a mindset of rejection; it doesn’t organize or build, and the consequence is experience treated like detritus, a notion that Woolf dramatizes brilliantly in the story’s opening paragraphs. The enjoyment of art in such a context cannot be a celebration of aesthetic achievement. Art has become the escape from modern alienation; it provides the passion-based structure missing from modern daily life.

The challenge for Woolf as an artist is to find a structure that captures both the joy of music and the disappointment of contemporary life. Her solution was an elegant one; she creates a counterpoint between the two. The opening paragraphs render the alienation of the narrator, and they build the reader’s sense of it quite effectively—one moves from the alienation from life in general to alienation from the particulars of the scene at the recital. Then the music comes in, with the narrator’s thoughts developing from a Wordsworthian love of nature to the sentimental Pre-Raphaelite fantasies of chivalric life long ago. Romanticism defines her mindset, with her musings taking on a progression that has history’s imprimatur. It is a clever touch by Woolf. If one is going to identify a pattern of wayward thinking with an aesthetic approach, why not have it develop along the same lines as the art? Getting back to the development of the story, Woolf moves from the presentation of the music to directly playing it off the thoughts of alienation; the irritating voices of the other audience members punctuate the narrator’s music-inspired reveries. Most impressively, the reveries transform them. As the narrator puts it, “I say all’s been settled; yes, laid to rest under a coverlet of rose leaves.” And when the fantasies reach their crescendo, the story comes full circle, and the narrator finds herself back in the alienating world away from the melodies. Woolf renders alienation and the escapist power of art by creating a prose symphony that dramatizes both.

“The String Quartet” is modernism at its finest. It captures the experience of modern life, doing so through the dramatization of a single perspective with all its idiosyncrasies on full display. Effects are built more through juxtaposition than traditional cathartic structure; the story’s elements are collaged and orchestrated. I cannot quite bring myself to say that it matches the achievements of her greatest novels, but among her short fiction it definitely stands out.

Other reviews of works by Virginia Woolf

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