The Mark on the Wall

Carrington_Stephen_Tomlin

(Carrington and Stephen Tomlin via http://spartacus-educational.com/)

Writing to Leonard Woolf on 17 July 1917, Lytton Strachey praised the inaugural production from the Hogarth Press. This was ‘Two Stories’, one each by Virginia (‘The Mark on the Wall’) and Leonard (‘Three Jews’), with four woodcuts by Carrington. To Carrington, two days earlier, Strachey wrote: ‘The Woolf booklet has come – but probably you’ve seen it. Damn them – they haven’t put enough ink on your cuts. I adore the snail. Virginia I consider a genius.’

Now to Leonard, Strachey wrote: ‘The “Two Stories” was a most cheering production. I never could have believed it possible. My only criticism is that there doesn’t seem to be quite enough ink. Virginia’s is, I consider, a work of genius.’[1]

Mark-on-the-wall

Via Echoes from the Vault: a blog from the Special Collections of the University of St Andrews
https://standrewsrarebooks.wordpress.com/2011/10/19/highlight-two-stories-and-kew-gardens-%e2%80%93-new-woolf-acquisitions/

The machining and inking had been Leonard’s responsibility; Virginia’s the typesetting, binding and distribution. Carrington’s (unsigned) woodcuts earned her fifteen shillings.[2] Virginia had written to her on 13 July: ‘We like the wood cuts immensely. It was very good of you to bring them yourself—We have printed them off, and they make the book much more interesting than it would have been without. The ones I like best are the servant girl and the plates and the Snail.’[3]

‘The Mark on the Wall’ is a little less than seven pages in my copy of the short fiction.[4] It was clearly significant for Woolf: more than a dozen years later, she wrote to Ethel Smyth, ‘I shall never forget the day I wrote The Mark on the Wall—all in a flash, as if flying, after being kept stone breaking for months.’[5] A breakthrough, then: and ‘a work of genius’?

Woolf_Shorter_Fiction

Perhaps it is. It’s certainly ingeniously suggestive and brilliantly keeps in play the definite and the indefinite. That mark on the wall is both. Though unidentified until the end of the story, it’s an apparently fixed point from which to take off on imaginative flights or to trawl through memory. That juggling is present from the first line: ‘Perhaps it was the middle of January in the present year that I first looked up and saw the mark on the wall.’

‘Perhaps’. It starts with uncertainty: and the middle of a month is fairly definite but not exact. ‘I first looked up’—might the narrator have seen it before, say, looking downwards at it? But the second sentence is key: ‘In order to fix a date it is necessary to remember what one saw.’ So the material—and the source of what is written, the memory—is immediately transposed into a visual key. Commenting first on the ‘mock-precision, the pseudo-historicism of the story’s method’, Sue Roe notes that ‘the mode is pictorial; and the history invoked resides in the history of painting, rather than that of literature.’[6] Roe then draws upon Kenneth Clark’s description of Leonard da Vinci’s comments in his Treatise on Painting about such phenomena as firelight—and stains on walls—as stimulants to the free play of imagination.[7] And Woolf’s story not only takes off from that mark on the wall, indulging in the free play of her imagination but the story itself provokes something similar in the reader. We bring to it half-remembered or half-recognised references, books, pictures. Did Woolf place them there—or do we? Readers recognise this fruitful uncertainty when faced with all manner of stories, novels and poems, of course, but the effect is very pronounced here, I think.

So, while ‘Tumbling head over heels in the asphodel meadows’ might vaguely recall Homer’s Odyssey, look how that sentence ends: ‘like brown paper parcels pitched down a shoot in the post office!’ The dictionary firmly asserts that ‘shoot’ is a recognised alternative to ‘chute’—but still, ‘shoot in the post office’, a year after the Easter Rising in Dublin and the occupation of the General Post Office on O’Connell Street, is bound to catch some people’s attention. It certainly caught mine.

Then the dust on the mantelpiece, ‘the dust which, so they say, buried Troy three times over, only fragments of pots utterly refusing annihilation, as one can believe’ (84). This surely glances—or does it?—at the excavations of Heinrich Schliemann in the 1870s, who claimed to have discovered ancient Troy, granting material meaning to Greek words and phrases that had survived in texts as disembodied signifiers but could now be attached to jewellery, armour, cups and masks. ‘As his discoveries persisted, more and more Homeric words came to mean something producible, something belonging to the universe of the naturalistic novelist.’[8]

Sophia_schliemann_treasure

(Sophia, Heinrich Schliemann’s wife, wearing treasures recovered at Hisarlik)

Also striking is the example of the person or place or process glimpsed from the train window that Woolf’s narrator invokes to convey the abruptness with which she was separated from the ‘very interesting people’ who ‘had this house before us’—this recalls such specific examples as Ford Madox Ford’s The Soul of London, where he writes of ‘so many little bits of uncompleted life’, of how ‘the constant succession of much smaller happenings that one sees, and that one never sees completed, gives to looking out of train windows a touch of pathos and of dissatisfaction.’[9] There is an ingrained human desire to see the end of stories: and this frustrates that desire. Much modernist art and literature, though, does so in order to provoke a different desire, subject to a different kind of satisfaction. The closed narrative, in literature as in life, seals off the innumerable other possibilities. As Declan Kiberd observes of Ulysses, ‘Joyce seeks to capture not just the openness but also the randomness of life, something which it is almost impossible to do in a neat narrative.’[10]

But the glimpse from the window of the speeding train can stand for a central feature of modern art: in an age of transformational technological and scientific change, that art is increasingly marked by the unstable, the fragmentary, the minute, the unfamiliar. And we, the readers, the viewers, the listeners must, to a greater extent than ever before, fit those fragments together and shape a meaning for ourselves.

So I experience a faint but strengthening suspicion that a reader might, if so minded, see here, in miniature, not only much of Woolf’s career—at this stage, she’s published only one novel—but also, in miniature, a great deal of modern, or modernist, writing. There’s the uncertainty of genre: in what sense is it ‘a story’, or autobiography, or an essay? Then the folding of a fiction into a fiction, the narrator picturing a man, a scene but deciding that this ‘historical fiction’ is dull and doesn’t interest her, so she imagines another narrative, in which she enters a room and joins a discussion. There’s the instability that attaches to the statement or assertion immediately undermined or countermanded, the firmness of outlines thinning and dissolving. There’s the playfulness and punning of words like ‘reflections’, both thoughts and looking-glasses: ‘As we face each other in omnibuses and underground railways we are looking into the mirror; that accounts for the vagueness, the gleam of glassiness, in our eyes’ (85).

And what of the war, often treated obliquely in her novels? The phrase ‘since the war’ occurs almost exactly halfway through the story, after a discussion of ‘a few of the things lost in our lifetime’ (84) and the ‘military sound’ of the word ‘generalisation’. Then the narrator mentions ‘those barrows on the South Downs which are, they say, either tombs or camps.’ And, ‘Of the two I should prefer them to be tombs, desiring melancholy like most English people, and finding it natural at the end of a walk to think of the bones stretched beneath the turf. . . . ’ (86).

And then, of course, the irruption of the second voice onto the page, announcing the intention to go out and buy a newspaper: ‘“Though it’s no good buying newspapers . . . . Nothing ever happens. Curse this war; God damn this war!”’ (89).

Carrington_Snail

(Snail: woodcut by Carrington: via http://scholarlyediting.org/2014/editions/intro.markonthewall.html)

And, at the last, the snail. Symbol of slowness, in this maelstrom of rapid thought and quicksilver phrases; an image of fragility with its brittle shell, yet remarkably enduring, certainly throughout this tale; and a shell that is spiral, a turning and winding about a central axis.

A work of genius—very likely.

 

References

[1] The Letters of Lytton Strachey, edited by Paul Levy (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 358.

[2] Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (London: Chatto & Windus. 1996), 364.

[3] Virginia Woolf, The Question of Things Happening: Collected Letters II, 1912-1922 (London: The Hogarth Press, 1980), 162.

[4] The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf, edited by Susan Dick, second edition (Orlando: Harcourt, 1989), 83-89: page numbers in brackets.

[5] Letter of 16 October 1930: A Reflection of the Other Person: Collected Letters IV, 1929-31 (London: The Hogarth Press, 1981), 231.

[6] Sue Roe, ‘The Impact of Post-Impressionism’, in The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf, edited by Sue Roe and Susan Sellers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 175. Roe has just been discussing another short piece (or pair of very short pieces), ‘Blue & Green’, both strikingly visual.

[7] Roe, ‘The Impact of Post-Impressionism’, 176-177.

[8] See Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber, 1972), 42-44, on the significance of Schliemann’s discoveries for the author of Ulysses.

[9] Ford, The Soul of London (1905), collected in England and the English, edited by Sara Haslam (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2003), 40, 41.

[10] Declan Kiberd, Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living (London: Faber and Faber, 2009), 154.

 

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