Erik's Reviews > Between the Acts

Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf
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Sep 24, 2008


This novel, the last written by Virginia Woolf before her suicide in 1941, is as Harold Bloom wrote, difficult to describe but beautifully easy to read. He also called it something of a miracle given that it was written under the gathering shadows of madness and self-immolation. I think he calls it that because of the comic touch and delicate control of a very original and experimental book.
Like Mrs. Dalloway (and a number of other modernist novels - just think of Ullyssed for example)it all takes place on a single day - a June day in 1939. And as in To the Lighthouse a major concern is over the weather - will it rain or will it be fine? The answer will determine whether the village pageant, the central action of the novel, will be played outside. It does and only rains briefly. This allows nature to play its role, the trees, the birds and especially the cows, whose bellows at one point save the play. That is the illusion dies and death enters in (at least according the play's writer Miss La Trobe). But through the cows "the whole world was filled with dumb yearning. It was the primeval voice sounding loud in the ear of the present moment." It was we read "as if Eros had planted his dart in their flanks and goaded them to fury. The cows annhilated the gap; bridged the distance; filled the emptiness and continued the emotion." This is also what Woolf expects of art, her art which bridges the gap between time periods, between classes, between disaffectd spouces, between the acts of our lives. And the whole history of England is given through the crude but perceptive pageant, and this recalls Orlando, and like Orlando it ends with the present moment, with actors wielding mirrors and glasses to reflect the audience back to themselves. I might say the novel recapitulates all her work, but it defintely feels like a limit, a point beyond which she could not go, as if she knew this was it - only madness and death remained. But the book is a triumph over such forces, a miracle wherein the poles of unity and dispersity (as she calls it) are brought together however precariously through the play and poetic language that make up the novel. Woolf was haunted by a sense that it all breaks down to "orts, scraps and fragemnts," but what she presents us is a luminous whole.
Lastly, I think Woolf was slyly writing of herself when she says of Miss La Troble the country writer: "She was an outcast. Nature had somehow set her apart from her kind. Yet she had scribbled in the margin of her manuscript: I am the slave of my audience." Before she lost herself she gave herself through what she wrote and for this gift only gratitude remains in the receptive reader.
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Tammy Marie Jacintho well said Mr. Bloom


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