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2006-01-30

Virginia Woolf (b. Adeline Virginia Stephen)
B. 1.25.1882 London / D. 3.28.1941 River Ouse, Sussex
Suicide / Drowning

I have just come from a lecture on modernist literature delivered in Manhattan by one of my old English professors at college. This was the first college-related event I've attended since leaving college 23 years ago. My hopes were accordingly unrealistic and high. If in these many years I’d been to other alumni events, or even one, I’d have been prepared for what there in the thick of it suddenly loomed: the plain fact that everybody was at least as interested in the other attendees as in the topic.

Me too.

Besides the professor I didn’t recognize anyone, again maybe something that happens at alumni events but I wasn’t prepared for the disappointment. Then one guy who came in looking 60 had a name-tag that dated him to the class before mine, filling me with horror as I realized I could be looking at old friends and not know them. And naturally I’d filled several idle moments picturing a subtle after-crowd invitation, with subsequent bon-mots delivered—a wee wishy-wish I might have snuffed had I held other alumni events in my memory.

I could have used the mental space for a better daydream.

Strange to say, amid all my false imaginings of my first alumni event I never imagined standing up to ask a question—and in fact when questions were invited, I did not. I blame a little my situation, seating-wise, book-ended by two women were wandering south of Lincoln Center; one sweated thunderclouds of flowery perfume from pink cashmere.

My Femme was unwillingly subdued.

Arriving as a pair they’d divided over sightlines and then continued to fuss, in whispers, about the volume. During the question-and-answer period, a tiny notebook, paper, and pen were passed back and forth across my sternum as a dispute flared over whom should call the other tomorrow and when.

I require more tranquillity

The question of why modernist authors such as Kafka and Proust and Faulkner wrote difficult books seems to me at least as much a matter of how they imagined readers as how they pictured time. In my experience, writing becomes difficult—in that sense—when readers have become a matter of private faith and practical indifference,

leavened occasionally by paranoia.

Why, I might have asked instead, was I being overwhelmed and stifled by memories of my worst days as a student of modernist literature? It was summer break after my freshman year in college, and I still owed an English paper which circumstances and emotions I don’t remember now had kept me from actually writing, although I’d shared my notes. These I studied for hours, stretched out and twisting on a blanket in the grass of our parching lawn. I couldn’t understand most of what I’d written. The topic involved Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, which I no longer understood either. Yet I could see that I’d had three or four beautiful and possibly unusual ideas about it—ideas which now appeared like alien or interstellar artifacts left behind in the appalling collision between my mind and this novel.

I remember the torpor, I remember being matter embedded with something I hadn’t the strength to remove.

Somehow by July I managed to write the paper; I’d write many more papers at college, usually on time. I’d excel. It always felt lucky. Behind each page I wrote were beetle holes, snake trails, ants, maple seed noses.

Nature I knew would engulf me.

Of course I remember you, he replied. (In parting I’d approached and asked a question after all.) I could not afford to buy his book; I passed the table and the New York night engulfed me. It occurs to me I ought to write a letter containing the congratulations I forgot to say, along with questions, once I buy and read the book of course. I wonder whether I will. Writing letters like that isn’t something I do.

This is what I do.

Consolation Site: From before

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