Friday, 19 September 2014

Book Review: Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf remains of a life? Which traces does a person leave behind when s/he is gone? Of course, there are things, but more importantly there are memories. Memories of occasions, of words and the voice in which they were said, of habits and gestures, of a typical odour or taste, of emotions linked with her or him… thus of bits and pieces that each taken for itself are of little importance. Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf, which I decided to review for my personal reading challenge The Great War in Literature, patches together a couple of insignificant scenes to paint the portrait of a young man getting to know life and just preparing to settle down when a beastly war swallows him up.

Virginia Woolf was born as Adeline Virginia Stephen in London, England/U.K., in January 1882. Her father was Sir Leslie Stephen, a renowned biographer, critic and mountaineer who taught his daughters at home and who influenced Virginia’s writing. After the deaths of her mother (1895) and her father (1904) she suffered nervous breakdowns, the first of many that were caused by what would probably be diagnosed as bipolar disorder today and the aftermaths of sexual abuse by her half-brother as a child. Virginia made her debut as an author in 1900 publishing personal reminiscences and essays, but she also ventured into fiction writing soon. In 1908 she began working on her first novel Melymbrosia which was published as The Voyage Out in 1915, three years after she had got married to Leonard Woolf. The couple founded Hogarth Press in 1917 and Virginia’s second novel, Night and Day (1919), appeared under its imprint. The novels Jacob's Room (1922), Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), The Waves (1931), The Years (1937), and Between the Acts (1941) followed along with several short-story collections and non-fiction work like the famous book-length essay A Room of One's Own (1929) or the biographies of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog Flush (1933) and of Roger Fry (1940). During another mental crisis Virginia Woolf drowned herself in the River Ouse in Sussex, England/U.K., in March 1941.

The opening scene of Jacob's Room is set on a beach in Cornwall during a summer holiday in the 1890s. At the time Jacob Flanders is a boy giving his widowed mother a hard time like his elder brother Archer, while his younger brother John is only a baby. Jacob passes an ordinary childhood in the small northern town of Scarborough in Yorkshire and in 1906, at the age of eighteen, he moves on to Cambridge to begin his studies at Trinity College. Although he is clumsy, insolent and inexperienced, he soon adapts to student life and makes friends. With them he indulges in the usual activities: they go to mass in King’s College Chapel, they attend the Sunday luncheon parties of their don, they get absorbed in discussions of all kinds, they row boats on the river, they read and they study. Upon the invitation of his friend Timmy Durrant he makes a trip on a yacht during summer holidays. After a few days on sea and a little quarrel, they stop by the Durrant’s summer house in Harrogate and Jacob is a success with the party despite being perceived as somewhat awkward by his surroundings, but distinguished-looking. Timmy’s sister Clara is particularly impressed by the young man’s unworldliness and also Jacob admires her as a woman with a flawless mind and a candid nature. However, after graduation Jacob goes to London to prepare for the Bar and plunges into bustling life in the streets of the metropolis. For a while he has a love affair with a young woman called Florinda and later Fanny Elmer, who poses for a painter friend of Jacob, unsuccessfully tries to impress him by reading Tom Jones by Henry Fielding because she has a crush on him. Then in the spring of 1914 Jacob travels to Italy and Greece because he adores Ancient Roman and Greek culture. He passes peaceful and impressive days with Sandra Wentworth Williams and her husband Evan, not suspecting what lies ahead.

In Jacob's Room the author traces the life of the male protagonist in a remarkably indirect way using a series of disconnected scenes that revolve around him although he isn’t always present. His character is mostly depicted as others perceive it, notably the important women in his life like his mother, his lover and friends, and takes shape only as the novel progresses. The narrative technique chosen by the author for this purpose is stream-of-consciousness which includes many passages with a powerful and poetic imagery. Although the structure of the novel is strictly chronological, the timeline is fragmented. There isn’t much of a plot leading the reader by the hand through Jacob’s life, either. Written in a more conventional style, the novel would certainly feel rather dull and boring because all things considered its story is uneventful and commonplace. But luckily Virginia Woolf made an experimental character study of it, one that is much neglected by readers because it is less accessible than other works by the same author, above all Mrs. Delloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, and her impressionistic masterpiece The Waves. This makes it a difficult read that requires quite some attention and a taste for jumping from one scene into the next almost without transition. The author’s language, however, is modern and unpretentious, thus pure delight.

All in all, I enjoyed reading Jacob's Room by Viriginia Woolf although I must admit that it isn’t my favourite among her works. The picture of Jacob that the pieces of the puzzle show in the end is a bit too incomplete to my taste, but the novel is certainly worth the time it requires to read it. Thus I recommend it.

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