Sunday, April 16, 2017

Jottings - Slice of life- 116 ( Virginia Woolf - a biography by Quentin bell)

Jottings - Slice of life- 116 ( Virginia Woolf - a biography by Quentin bell)
I just finished reading Quentin bell’s beautiful and intimate portrait of his Aunt Virginia Woolf. Its a two volume work. Each covers a specific period of Virginia’s growth into intelligent, good looking girl with increasing signs of spasmodic madness - which was to haunt and consume Virginia throughout her life - and concomitantly her emerging genius as a novelist, thinker and writer of sublime prose with keen eye for human frailty, vulnerability and inner strength. These two irreconcilable conditions - difficult childhood and overflowing genius - often find their intersection in few chosen artists in all ages, and the task of any committed biographer is to capture these shifting landscapes of hell and heaven and present to their readers the intense personal agony, pulsating creativity, demonic energy which possesses such lives.
A biography is not a matter of simply documenting facts. It is something way beyond it. Artistic geniuses are often the product of a particular age, prevailing cultural and social conditions. Unless, the biographer has the ability to peel layers of his subject in the context of the period in which they lived and worked, understand psychological forces which shaped their heart and mind, the biography may become a mere chronological list of events, with no substance, feeling or fire in it. And what use is it for us to read such a life story of bland events? None at all!! Biographies are to be read for inspiration, for validation within ourselves of paradoxical traits which are often dismissed as eccentric and impractical, but have stood vindicated and reflected in great lives before us. if it doesn't serve that purpose, there is no use to reading a biography. In fact, well executed biographies should lift an individual to world stage, and paint for us a picture of centrifugal forces which shaped the destiny of the hero or heroine in question; the mysterious mix of birth, family, upbringing, education, friendships, disappointments, happiness and tragedy which moulded life of a budding artist, and how those tumultuous forces were channelized into a book, or a painting, or a piece of music. After all, Why should a Leonardo be the one to have painted the Mona Lisa, or only a Michelangelo be challenged to adorn the roof of sistine chapel, or a Beethoven to have composed the majestic Ninth Symphony, or only a Dante to pour his spiritual longings into his Divine comedy; or a Dickens be the one to capture the enormity of french revolution into something tangible in his Tale of two cities. These were not chance happenings, but a confluence of subterranean creative forces surging forth in specific individuals. They symbolize Bergson's “élan vital”- the primal life force which brings forth right individuals at the right time, or Nietzsche’s superman - who rises from the ashes of artistic and cultural decadence to reinstate the living fire of Mankind. Something in the very atmosphere they breathe, gives them the impetus, the power to consummate their powerful destiny and create a new charter.
The tragedy though is , more often than not, such creative lives often are torture to themselves. They would do anything to get away from the enormity of their gift and responsibility. Torn between the conventions of normal life and demands of creativity, most of them live their lives on the brink of madness. Given a little push, they would descend irrevocably into an abyss from which a return is impossible. But they are somehow pulled back to finish their ordained work. But miraculously, a helping hand in the form of a Husband, a wife, a teacher, caring friend, sometimes even a foe would gently wean them away from self-destruction and get them to live. In that delicate state of existence, they transmute their energy and genius into enduring works of art. In Virginia’s case, the helping hand was her Husband - Leonard Woolf, without whom the world of literature would have lost her without a trace.
Virginia was a complex person. Nobody really understood her well enough. There was never a doubt she was gifted and precocious, but there was equally little doubt she was mad, and her madness overshadowed many relationships she entered into. To chronicle such a life is not easy, unless a biographer can get behind her skin and empathetically look at the world through her eyes. It wasn't that Virginia was unsocial or unsympathetic, but her overwhelming sensitivity to life, the constant upsurge of creative energy, her need to be reckoned as a serious author, often blinded her from acknowledging common social courtesies. She was the first women member of the famed Bloomsbury group - a group of hardcore male intellectuals who shaped the literary landscape of pre-war era. She brushed shoulders with men who understood her genius and vitality, but couldn't accept her in that capacity. In an era, where ballroom dances, and docile courting was the norm for young ladies, Virginia preferred the battles of intellect and art. Not many of her potential suitors could stand the brilliance of her personality, and many sought reasons to malign or discredit her abilities; except few close people. She was prolific letter writer, and she poured her deepest thoughts into them, but her letters were often incomprehensible because she wrote her thoughts as it streamed across her consciousness with brutal honesty and deep feeling - a method of writing which would become hall mark of her genius. For someone writing her biography, such letters are the only material available to examine and study her life. But to do justice to it, the biographer must have understanding, sympathy and patience to decipher the context in which she wrote, and why she wrote. Quentin bell was best poised to do the job. Being part of the family, he could sift legend, folklore and myths from facts emerging through her letters and essays. He had unprecedented access to everything Virginia wrote, and more than anything else, he acknowledged the streak of madness and eccentricity which ran through his family, and Virginia was only an extreme manifestation.
What made this biography one of best I have read is the wonderful writing style of Bell himself. Over 700 odd pages , Bell uses language with such felicity and grace, it is hard to believe he hasn't written lot many books. Hardly a sentence out of place; and wherever he describes Virginia’s inner motives and reasoning, he excels. He knows his aunt was one of greatest writers of her generation, yet he weighs her talents and accomplishments impartially, presenting Virginia as a normal human being struggling to make sense of her life and purpose. His prose acts as a mirror , which reflects Virginia without distortion. For a biographer, that is a great quality.
To me Virginia’s writings are pure gold. I have read and reread all her works many times. A copy of “ Voyage out”, slim volume , always remains in my suit case. In my opinion, like Joyce, she liberated English language from its pedantic chains, and in her hands prose became poetry with all its grace, beauty and structure. For those of us who love her work, Bell’s biography will provide necessary circumference to Virginia’s effulgent creative center.
God bless….
Yours in mortality,
Bala

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