Every once in a while a book comes your way, almost as if from out of the ether, that moves you to such an extent it forces you, at all costs, to make other people read it too. Lisa Williams's Letters to Virginia Woolf [Hamilton Books] seems to be one of those books. There is usually a formula to these books: they are normally simple in construct, speak clearly and concisely to the reader - they are never overtly literary or self-congratulatory. Yet all touch something inside us, they somehow speak universally, they are magical; you know the type of book I'm talking about. Most are fables, or uniquely allegorical in style, some, like Lisa Williams’s Letters to Virginia Woolf, are epistolary in their design and uniquely human in their voice.
Part personal memoir, part meditation on Woolf's own pacifist philosophy, Williams attempts to transfer these meanings into a wider, contemporary epoch [she succeeds, not that such themes lose much punch over the years]. In succeeding in this pursuit Williams also manages to keep the book personal, relating current events and the themes covered by Woolf, in her life, to her own life experience; foremost of these is the birth of Williams’s own child. Letters to Virginia Woolf juxtaposes the image of one woman's struggle to create life, Woolf's struggle to prolong life, with those who want to destroy it - drawing largely from the 9/11 attacks in New York. Yet, what makes this an extraordinary book is Williams's knack of universal communication without literary obfuscation. Let's face it; this is a hard task when dealing with such subjects. Letters to Virginia Woolf is chopped up into short letters, vignettes, page breaks, and quotes - for such depth of subject Williams manages to convey all she needs to in just 78 extremely short pages [some containing barely a paragraph of text if that].
When reading Letters to Virginia Woolf one is taken by the hand and led agog into the world of two women, one real and the other now mythologized into a meaning to cling on to. Each of the six parts, containing the personal letters addressed to Woolf, acts as a porthole into that other world of the imagination, the world of hope and coming to terms with our beastly nature, the world of wanting, demanding that final answer. Each letter is mesmerizing in its brevity and frankness - there's no time for literary allusion here, just a lyrical, poetic beauty that speaks directly from the page. Williams writes about her childhood, family and war, interlinking each theme with fluidity and ease. Williams addresses these issues in response to the personal effect Virginia Woolf's own words have had on her - an acquiescence of sorts, a sisterly homage to the philosophy of pacifism and a two-fingered salute to the grandiloquent philosophy of war and the misery it creates.
It is interesting that Williams equates pacifism with womanhood [and why shouldn't she?] - Woolf's words are seen as universal words, but at their core lies an intrinsic understanding, on Williams’s part, of the pains suffered to help create life:
"I was convinced that the first miscarriage was a lark, a fatal mistake, so many women have one. The doctors told me it would never happen again to me. After the doctor removed the placenta and the remains of the dead embryo, I felt completely emptied out. It was as if winter had arrived early. The barren branches of trees were dying inside me, and the soil around me was dry, longing for water" [Pg 13]
Letters to Virginia Woolf remains as intensely curt, lyrical and poetic throughout. Subtle imagery is used to convey this barren wasteland of infertility, but there is nothing on show here, this is not a contrivance - we instantly feel the barren, deathly battleground, the leaves stripped bare after each detonation, the smouldering embers of Ground Zero, one woman's struggle to create life amongst all this bitter turmoil. A cruel kismet created by our own hands. And so it is Williams's unique, honest prose-style that encapsulates all and confines the reader's imagination - it is simply hypnotic in its frankness.
Williams even intersperses poems into her letters without much of a shift in pace and feeling. Soft, welcome lyrical lulls that appease the reader after each shocking admission. For instance:
"You must be/covered now/ by moon light,/and sleeping,/sleeping so peacefully/in starlight/sleeping/in a place where the dead/wait patiently/to become what is alive/once again” [Pg 23]
This is a Godless vision, yet it is one of hope, everlasting hope, that things may be reborn, but there is also a remote cynicism at hand, a simple knowing that nothing can be changed, everything is fixed - the world around us made up, a vast canvass filled by only us, our vanities and cruelties, the only inevitable outcome determined by us. Williams begins to paint a picture of a world that knows nothing but war and destruction:
"I understand now that as children we are transparent, but as we grow we inherit the violent history of the earth...And then, of course, there is the sorrow 'brewed by the earth', the sorrow of all those lives lost in the many phases and manifestations of war." [Pg 76]
And this, of course, is true. And we know it. Above all this, though, is Williams's recognition that Woolf was first and foremost a woman and a writer and thinker second. I feel it is this basic fact that is the crux to both writers beliefs. Letters to Virginia Woolf is worth owning for its simple, lyrical beauty alone, but also for its understanding of Woolf's inner machinations, the pivotal beliefs which, in the end, drove her to despair. Williams uses her past to reveal more about the present that most historical tomes I have read, the way she delicately unpeels certain events in her own life help to, somehow, make some sense of the destruction we see around us.
Just like Woolf's own 'angel in the house' Williams exorcises the ghosts of her own past to help forge a clearer present.
In this form of exorcism Williams leaves no stone unturned, she effortlessly strides the complexities of divorce, adolescence, childbirth, miscarriage, death, destruction, terrorism and war in a concise, unsentimental approach. It is quite a feat for Lisa Williams who, with the very make-up of Letters to Virginia Woolf, has all the trappings to be an overly sentimental, gushy writer, literally sopping wet, drenched in flowery prose, wilfully tugging on the heartstrings of a wounded nation - but she most certainly is not syrupy and corny. Let's get this straight. Letters to Virginia Woolf can not be as diametrically opposed to the above statement if it wanted to be. It is as far removed from the current gush we have come to know and expect in recent years. Williams's terse, honest and sharp voice does not allow such solipsistic jabbering and the whole book remains universally precise because of this. Letters to Virginia Woolf speaks the language of the everyday, the ordinary and, rather ironically, is an extraordinary book because of it. Read something different.
Lee Rourke (c) 2005
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