Photograph by Laura Kolbe.
The Diary of Virginia Woolf brings into sharp focus the question of what to do with one’s life. I’m referring not to the text, to the content, to anything written on the pages, but to the objects: the books, the five published volumes.
The first bit of Woolf merch I ever bought, in Woolworths in about 1975, was a beautiful Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Waves. On the cover was a portrait of the author by someone called Vanessa Bell. I couldn’t read what was inside, gave up after about five pages, and never tried again. Around the same time, I bought similarly lovely editions of To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, both of which I did get through, under compulsion, at university, though I struggled with the preciousness, the sense of someone walking—writing—around on tiptoe. That was pretty much it for me and Woolf’s fiction until the pandemic when I was nudged toward it by an unlikely enthusiast from the American West. In Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen Larry McMurtry writes of how, after a serious illness, he found, for the first time in his adult life, that he couldn’t read fiction—unless it was by Proust or Woolf. I picked up the novels again and, despite McMurtry’s lobbying, failed to make any progress.
Which was surprising because I had, by then, come around to Woolf in several ways. In 2003 I’d gone to see Patti Smith perform at Charleston, the home of Virginia’s sister, Vanessa. This was one of several rustic hubs of Bloomsbury life, and it’s obvious, as you are shown around the bright rooms with their painted furniture, the sanctuary and liberation this place offered from the oppressive dreariness of English life between the wars. The handmade look is like a precursor of the make-do aesthetic I was familiar with from London squats in the eighties, which remains my ideal of interior design. This fitted in well with Smith’s performance when she read passages from The Waves, which sounded much better as Virginia’s clipped English “yellow” became Patti’s New Jersey “yellah.” If it sounded almost impossibly cool and contemporary that was because in places the original had given way seamlessly to Smith’s stream-of-consciousness improvisations.
Shortly after that I read plenty of Woolf that I could relish: A Room of One’s Own, the essays in The Common Reader, the essays on almost everything, in fact, and, crucially, the Selected Diaries and Selected Letters, published by Vintage and bought in Delhi in 2010. For me, then, Woolf fell into that subsection of writers whose minor works or private writings I preferred to the major ones. The closest comparison was with John Cheever, whose work can be arranged in an ascending order of importance, which is an exact inversion of the generally accepted hierarchy of merit: novels, stories and, at the peak, the posthumously published Journals. There’s also an overlap with D. H. Lawrence, much of whose best writing after Sons and Lovers is scattered across essays, travel books, dashed-off poems and letters. We’ll come back to Lawrence a little later.
Having read the Selected Diaries I was on the lookout for the remaining volumes of the complete Diary. I say “remaining” because I had inherited or absorbed volume one (1915–1919) when my wife and I merged our libraries. It was part of a lovely Penguin edition, each cover featuring a photograph of the author’s desk cluttered with all the paraphernalia of the writing life. I read that first volume as a test. Would it prove that I needed to read the other four volumes or, on the contrary, that for a lazy reader like me the Vintage selection was enough? Mathematically the answer was the latter. I was skipping, or reading without dwelling on, approximately the same ratio of entries that had failed to make the cut of the Selected. Or, to put it the other way around, I was concentrating on the same proportion of pages that had been included. There were further complicating questions, of course: Were the bits I skimmed or skipped the same passages that the editor had omitted? Did my de facto selection coincide with hers? They weren’t and it didn’t. Entirely absent from the Selected, the entry of September 10, 1918, when the twenty-six-year-old Woolf decides “to write down [her] impressions of Paradise Lost” was enough to clinch it. For a very simple reason: it’s one of the best things ever written about Milton:
The substance of Milton is all made of wonderful, beautiful, & masterly descriptions of angels bodies, battles, flights, dwelling places. He deals in horror & immensity & squalor & sublimity, but never in the passions of the human heart. Has any great poem ever let in so little light upon ones own joys and sorrows? I get no help in judging life; I scarcely feel that Milton lived or knew men and women; except for the peevish personalities about marriage & the woman’s duties. He was the first of the masculinists; but his disparagement rises from his own ill luck, & seems even a spiteful last word in his domestic quarrels. But how smooth, strong & elaborate it all is! What poetry! I can conceive that even Shakespeare after this would seem a little troubled, personal, hot & imperfect. I can conceive that this is the essence, of which almost all other poetry is the dilution. The inexpressible fineness of the style, in which shade after shade is perceptible, would alone keep one gazing in to, long after the surface business in progress has been despatched. Deep down one catches still further combinations, rejections, felicities, & masteries. Moreover, though there is nothing like Lady Macbeth’s terror or Hamlet’s cry, no pity or sympathy or intuition, the figures are majestic; in them is summed up much of what men thought of our place in the universe, of our duty to God, our religion.
Clearly, I had to read all five volumes which meant that I had to find the remaining four.
It is possible, as you don’t need me to tell you, to buy almost any book on the internet, however long it’s been out of print. But doing that robs life of one of the things that gives it purpose. For the last decade I’ve always been vaguely looking out, in real life, as it were, for these other volumes. In the last five years the search has intensified. Even if I went out to buy something unimportant, like a propelling pencil, say, I was conscious that this errand might be the pretext that led to the discovery of those supremely desirable objects, volumes two to five. It was frustrating but that is the nature of any of life’s projects, like being stuck in your sagging tent with nothing to read but a rain-warped paperback of The Waves, hoping the weather will break so you can make the long-postponed attempt on the summit of K2. The waiting and thwarting are part of the undertaking, enhancing the eventual achievement. Hence the joy of that unforgettable day, October 8, 2018. I was shopping on Golborne Road, on the way to buy sea bass from the fishmonger—and there it was: volume five (1936–1941), in very good condition, outside a junk shop, for a pound. If that’s not a moment of (budget) being I don’t know what is.
I had the first and last volumes and needed only the piggy (three, to be exact) in the middle to complete the set. The key word here is set. I was now obliged to get the remaining volumes in that same Penguin edition, and finding these, in the wild as it were, was unlikely to happen since I was living in America (which made the discovery on Golborne, when I happened to be back in the UK for a short stay, even more extraordinary). Game on, as they say!
What happened next, as so often happens in life, is that I did the very thing that eats away at the foundations on which a fulfilling life is built. I broke my own self-imposed rule and bought volume two (1920–1924) on the internet. I was going through one of those irrational, insane, balance-of-the-mind-disturbed phases when I couldn’t think of anything to read so I clutched at the life-saving straw of volume two. It arrived in worse condition than advertised. It looked like a book—it was a book—but it was also a lesson and rebuke in printed form. Even though there were no previous underlinings in biro—that would have been intolerable, possibly fatal—every hour spent reading this copy was so tainted by the foxed cover, the brown paper, the all-around shoddiness, that I could hardly bring myself to open it.
So let’s summarize things as they stood at the beginning of this summer. I turned sixty-five, had an estimated ten or fifteen years left to live, two volumes to find, and half of volume two still to read in this grubby edition that I couldn’t stand the sight of. And another thing had come into play, something I’d become increasingly conscious of over the previous decade. Occasionally we all have to look up dimly remembered quotations on the internet. That’s an invaluable resource but at a deeper level of satisfaction I need to see the words in full context on an actual page.
One of the strange noncoincidences in the lives of Woolf and Lawrence is that despite having so many business associates, acquaintances, friends, and enemies (in Lawrence’s case people were constantly shifting back and forth between these last two categories) in common, they never met. Lawrence corresponded briefly with Leonard Woolf about a house rental in Cornwall but in the seven volumes of his letters (all of which I own) he makes no mention of Leonard’s famous wife. He never set eyes on her but from a train in Italy she saw him sitting on a bench with Norman Douglas, looking “pinched and penetrated.” That is the most amazing glimpse in the whole of literature. I’d first read about it in The Faber Book of Writers on Writers and then in various biographies of Lawrence. I guessed I’d read about it in the Selected Diaries, too, but to properly experience the unexpected fleetingness of this sighting, in the flickering hurry of life, I wanted to read it in the real time of the complete Diary. I knew it had happened but didn’t want to know when it was going to happen, so avoided looking it up or reading anything else about it. There were many reasons for reading the complete Diary but this was the main one. That, as Philip Larkin concluded in the course of another train journey, was where I was aimed. To use another sporting cliché, there was everything to play for.
Life went on. I had other little bibliographic targets to hit, was preoccupied with and distracted by the usual jumble of half-formed intentions. I had books to write, friends to see, drinks to drink, promises to keep. But always there was the ongoing project of looking out for volumes three and four of the Woolf complete diaries. There were also what might be called corollary occasions when, shortly after leaving a well-stocked secondhand bookshop—I’m thinking in particular of the Iliad Bookshop in North Hollywood—I realized that although I happened to have bought a copy of News of the World by Paulette Jiles (a book I hadn’t even been looking for that had been made into a film not worth seeing) I’d somehow forgotten all about Woolf’s complete diaries, the very things that I was most looking for. It was like that moment in a car when you become suddenly conscious that for the last twenty minutes you’ve been completely oblivious to the fact that you were driving. The thing is, that’s part of driving too; that’s book-hunting, that’s living alright.
And then I read that, having been unavailable for ages, the diaries had been republished by Granta. Wow.
This involved a dizzying recalibration of purpose but several things were immediately clear. First, it really took the shine off getting volume five for a quid. Second, it was going to be all or nothing. I couldn’t have volumes one, two, and five in the old Penguins and three and four in the new edition. This was not just me being obsessive. No one in their right mind could have countenanced the ungainliness and asymmetry of that. Either I’d keep looking for volumes three and four in the old Penguins (with the attendant risk that I might snuff it before I found them) or splash out on the new Granta ones. I grappled with this for days even though it was, from the start, a total no-brainer. I got—was always going to get—the lot.
This reissue is one of the great publishing undertakings of recent years, a public service practically, albeit one that involved my eating a big plate of crow. Each volume has a new foreword by a contemporary writer. Why didn’t they ask me? I’d love to have done that! But there’s no denying the elegance of the objects, each of which has a stylish black-and-white photo on the cover board (there’s no dust jacket). The paper is a relaxing cream, and the type, large and clear, is so easy on the eye I wonder how I squinted through the smaller font and cramped pages of the Penguins. Volume two of the Granta comes in at 447 pages compared with 371 in the Penguin. With the text having been reset like this I spent quite a bit of time transferring my old annotations from the first Penguin volume to the new pages of this edition, but that’s fine, the kind of boring clerical task that I enjoy—almost as much as I enjoyed getting back on the horse and picking up where I’d left off reading volume two.
The other remarkable thing about these elegantly hefty volumes is that they’re surprisingly light. But not light enough to take to Italy where I was going to be spending a month. This would involve a lot of train travel so I reverted to the wretched old Penguin volume two. For the last several days of the trip my wife and I were staying with our friends Joanna Hogg and Nick Turvey in Tuscany. Nick had rejuvenated a decrepit old table in our bedroom by painting it primrose yellah. It looked very pretty but he must have used the wrong kind of paint. It wasn’t wet but it remained tacky and the cover of volume two became glued to it. Part of the photo came off, stuck to the table, and the stress of this led to the whole cover falling apart shortly after. It was a delicate situation. Nick could claim that I’d slightly spoiled his “new” table but from my point of view he’d completely ruined my horrible old book. It didn’t really matter because as soon as I returned from Italy I transcribed all the latest markings into the new Granta edition and moved on to volume three. But imagine if I’d brought that new edition and set it down on the table overnight? Would the glossy finish have been enough to protect it (the book from that viciously clingy table, I mean)?
Anyway, the important thing is that volume three (1925–1930) continues to be great, even if bits of it are a bit of a bore—quite a lot of a bore in quite a lot of places, actually. I’m still slipping and skipping at roughly the same ratio and rate that I did in volume one but am plodding along, inching towards the point when VW will see DHL on the train in Italy. I was hoping this might have happened in volume two when I was in Italy, on a train ideally, but it didn’t. It’s still to come, I’ve no idea when. At the moment it’s all Knole House, Vita, Orlando, rain and fret in England. Then we suddenly leap from March 1927 to May. An editorial note explains that the Woolfs spent most of April in Italy. There are no entries for April but “VW’s letters give a spirited and detailed account of their travels; see III VW Letters, nos. 1741-7.” So the episode with Lawrence—the episode that wasn’t even an episode—wasn’t in the Diary at all. Obviously I don’t have III Letters but I’ve checked my edition of the Selected and yes, there it is: a letter to Vanessa dated April 9, 1927:
Looking out of the carriage window at Civita Vecchia, whom should we see, sitting side by side on a bench, but D.H. Lawrence and Norman Douglas—unmistakable: Lawrence pierced and penetrated; Douglas hog-like and brindled—They were swept off by train one way and we went on to Rome.
It’s as I’d remembered it, but even better: “pierced” rather than “pinched.”
The fact that this passage is not in the Diary don’t mean, to put it in McMurtryese, that I ain’t going to continue reading them. That’s the thing about life, something you think lends it a purpose doesn’t last forever. A thing you’d set your sights on turns out to be a misremembered mirage, but that doesn’t mean you give up and stop; like some parched traveler in the desert you keep stumbling on, keep on keeping on in that same direction. Then something else comes along, perhaps taking you in a different direction altogether and that may well turn out to be an illusion too but God knows you’d be lost without it. You tell yourself that it’s better to be a never-say-dying moth than to drown yourself in a stream of consciousness. You say: Remember, if you keep looking there are still bargains out there! You start wondering about trying to get hold of all the volumes of the complete Letters, even though the surprise has been drained out of that much-anticipated surprise nonencounter on the train in Italy. You think, Maybe if the Diary proves a success Granta will consider reissuing the Letters too and might ask me to write a foreword—or, even better, pay to reprint this little essay, maybe without the moth-and-drowning gag which was both juvenile and in rather poor taste. Which means, on reflection, that it is indispensable.
Geoff Dyer is the author of many books including, most recently, The Last Days of Roger Federer.
Last / Next Article