Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Under Analysis

GRANITE AND RAINBOW: The Life of Virginia Woolf.\o7 By Mitchell Leaska (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 514 pp., $35)\f7

June 14, 1998|MICHAEL FRANK | Michael Frank is a contributing writer to Book Review

In "Granite and Rainbow," a new biography of Virginia Woolf, Mitchell Leaska begins by making a handful of savvy remarks that identify him as a biographer who is aware of the duplicities of his craft. So long as the process involves human perception, he explains, there is no such thing as objective reporting. Interpretations of the same source material, he allows, can differ as widely as reviews of the same novel. Biographers approach the lives they are reconstructing, he adds, under the influence of their "own private repertoire of experience and history and values and assumptions about the world."

Such a sensibility would seem up to the task of chronicling one of the most refined and self-aware literary intelligences of the 20th century. The editor of Woolf's early journals ("A Passionate Apprentice: 1897-1909") and the author of several critical studies of her work, Leaska would also seem well positioned to face a particularly difficult challenge: how to render a conventionally chronological biography just two years after the appearance of Hermione Lee's stunning and imaginative "Virginia Woolf."

Lee approached her subject by theme: Each of her chapters focused on the critical people, events and ideas in Woolf's life, and the cumulative effect was a fresh, vibrant and ineffably moving retelling of a story that seemed already familiar to readers of the shelves full of Bloomsbury biographies and memoirs. Lee's narrative managed to meet one of Woolf's own requirements for a good biography, which is that it be "the record of the things that change rather than of the things that happen." Over the course of 800 pages, her Woolf evolved, developed, deepened and matured. Further, and critically, Lee eluded one of the major dangers of biography that Woolf once laid out in a book review. Likening the process of biography to sealing the past in a magic tank, Woolf said that its subjects often move and speak "in all sorts of patterns of which they were ignorant" and have "read into their sayings all kinds of meanings which never struck them." Lee's Virginia Woolf, it seems safe to say, would be recognizable to Woolf herself.

Leaska's portrait belongs to a different category entirely. He begins by reporting that both Virginia's husband, Leonard, and her brother-in-law, Clive Bell, found her to be untruthful and a fabricator, hereby setting a tone of doubt, even suspiciousness, that colors much of the story that follows. Leaska proceeds to assert that "the familiar separation of life and work upon which most literary biography depends does not apply to Virginia Woolf. Her life and her work were inseparable, and part of that life was inscribed in every novel she wrote." Woolf's fiction, then, is to be read as fact, while her facts are to be read as fiction. Only with the appropriate biographical mediation, Leaska implies, can the enigma of Virginia Woolf be cracked.

It is true that few Woolf biographies have given such detailed attention to the psychological makeup of her parents or to the intricate anatomy of their marriage. To his credit, Leaska reviews their correspondence and vividly renders the lugubrious courtship between the greedy, self-consumed, childish and demanding Leslie Stephen and the dark, inscrutable, self-sacrificing Julia Duckworth. "We are both cripples and can help to bear each other's burdens" is Stephen's way of wooing the beautiful Julia, who, in Leaska's (as in Woolf's) view, remained all her life possessed by her first husband and true love, Herbert Duckworth, who died after four years of marriage when Julia was pregnant with their third child. For Duckworth, Julia felt passion, for Stephen pity.

Born into this difficult triangulation of mother, father and ghost, the highly sensitive young Virginia had, in Leaska's view, strong Oedipal feelings for Leslie, whose habit of equating being babied and petted with being loved was "something his little Virginia would learn from him and carry on into her own adult and married life." To gain Leslie's favor, Virginia developed a literary mind, whereas to hold the attention of her mother, the perennial nurse, she learned to be ill or in crisis. As psychoanalytic readings go, this is not implausible; what is implausible, however, as well as reductive, is the degree to which Leaska sees the entirety of Woolf's life as a mere reenactment of the parental prototypes or these early parent-child dynamics.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|