Valentine to a Novel: Jacob’s Room

Kat suggests that in February we write some love letters to books we’ve loved over the years.  I thought that was a great idea.  I have trouble coming up with reviews for Goodreads,  because that implies a level of objectivity that is hard to muster; but a love letter I can certainly do.

The reason I read Jacob’s Room, the first book by Virginia Woolf I ever read, was because I liked the cover design of the edition we had, pictured here.  I wanted something “summery”, I remember, and this book, which had both Jacob’s Room and The Waves in it, appeared to fit the bill.  I’m not sure how summery I actually found it, but I’m glad I judged this particular book by its cover, because otherwise I might not have discovered my single favorite author (if I was forced to choose.)

I had pretty much no idea what I was getting into; although we’d read A Room of One’s Own in high school, I’m not sure I even remembered that Woolf was the author of it, and in any case I’m sure I didn’t know what era she lived in or what kind of writer she was supposed to be.  I’m a slowish reader, and I remember laboring a bit through the beginning, not knowing what kind of book it was going to be, not sure it had been such a good idea to read it, until I got to the end of the first chapter, and then I was in love:

Outside the rain poured down more directly and powerfully as the wind fell in the early hours of the morning.  The aster was beaten to the earth.  The child’s bucket was half-full of rainwater; and the opal-shelled crab slowly circled round the bottom, trying with its weakly legs to climb the steep side; trying again and falling back, and trying again and again.

Jacob’s Room has one of my favorite things in a novel: an omniscient narrator with a personality.  This kind of beautiful little lyric image is one of her trademarks, as is passing over large portions of event and conversation by presenting a few telling details.  She will directly accost the reader: “Now let us consider letters,” or “As for the beauty of women,” and present little mini-essays.  She has some of that cruel Virginia Woolf wit.  I love it all, and I will take it over a thousand “well-made plots” written in “transparent prose” that “gets out of the way of the story”.

Another thing about this book is that it is so angry.  It’s pulsating below the surface, but it’s furious.  Jacob is seen almost entirely through the eyes of women, who will never have his privileges and possibilities; Woolf is often unsparing towards these women, whose constrained world has made them conventional and insipid: “But Mr. Letts allows little space in his shilling diaries.  Clara was not the one to encroach upon Wednesday.”  But she’s even more unsparing towards Jacob and Timmy and by extension, well-educated young men in general: self-absorbed, sexist, shallow, pretentious.  “‘Probably,’ said Jacob, ‘we are the only people in the world who know what the Greeks meant.'”  But despite this deep resentment towards these young men, the whole book is kind of a cry of rage against the systems, “men in clubs and Cabinets,” which have killed them, so pointlessly, in World War I: “With equal nonchalance a dozen young men in the prime of life descend with composed faces into the sea; and there impassively (though with perfect mastery of machinery) suffocate uncomplainingly together.  Like blocks of tin soldiers the army covers the cornfield, moves up the hillside, stops, reels slightly this way and that, and falls flat, save that, through field-glasses, it can be seen that one or two pieces still agitate up and down like fragments of broken match-stick.” Through all the beauty and humor and observation there is this kind of scream, why do you give them everything, and then destroy it all?

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3 Comments

Filed under Inspirations, just writing

3 responses to “Valentine to a Novel: Jacob’s Room

  1. kat

    i have to revisit Jacob’s Room! interestingly, it’s one of the last Virginia Woolf books i read (To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway were the first), and i also went on to read her letters and journals after, so it is a bit of a mishmash in my literary memory.

    funnily enough, i’ll be writing about The Waves soon… :-)

    • I think one of the reasons its critical position is not as good as it might be is that it’s thought of as a sort of not-quite-successful attempt at writing Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse. But it’s really so different!

      I’ll tell you a secret, I still haven’t read Mrs. Dalloway. I have a copy. I know I’ll love it. But for just that reason I keep putting it off. I feel like I should save it for the perfect moment, or something.

      The Waves is great! Can’t wait to hear what you have to say.

  2. Pingback: Valentine to a Novel: Sixth Grade Secrets | John deBoer Custom

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