A Thousand Kisses Deep: On Rereading Virginia Woolf

by Ioanna Carlsen

Lately, I have been unhappy for both personal and political reasons, and at this stage in my life I don’t think either is going to go away. When this has happened in the past, it’s also happened to my books, to my reading: a lot does not ring true, much is unbearable, a lot is just boring.

And then I get lucky: I find the one book that just fits, is so right, I really look forward to getting into bed at the end of the day. The bliss of being by yourself with a book; I have loved this moment all my life; it is now my greatest joy, the moment I long for. I get up from it later and later.

So I found this book by Nick Hornby, Ten Years in a Tub, and I loved it—and as it was a book about reading I found a lot of books to look into in it. When reading such a book, I make these lists; it’s very enjoyable—not everything pans out, but there’s so much promise.

And besides new books, Hornby gets into rereading the classics—and I have had that idea for some time. Laboriously, I burrowed into The Past Recaptured (probably my fifth attempt to reread it); but this time, maybe with a little help from Hornby’s essay about it, I suddenly got into it. I mean I’m not saying it’s not a good soporific, if you’re not careful, or that you can’t use the endless paragraphs for that purpose when you need to…and America is “troubling my sleep” (Ezra Pound), and I do use it for that. But then there’s also Denys Finch-Hatton’s response to Karen Blixon in Africa: “you don’t fall asleep reading Proust.” The psychology, the depth of it…it’s often “a thousand kisses deep” (an idea that haunts me of Leonard Cohen’s), and in the middle of plodding through it and trying to pay attention, suddenly there’s an amazing phrase, a metaphor that, to quote Virginia Woolf, “fits like a glove.”

And speaking of her, I turned to her when I needed a break from Proust; I have all her books and a number of books about her; I haven’t read them in years. I went through a Virginia Woolf period the way you go through a Japanese cooking period and then go on to other cuisines.

But, lately, after the political backdrop of our lives turned into a nightmare—everything my generation thought we won since our coming of age, lost all over again, and to the worst kinds of politicians—I have found the contemporary novel and much of contemporary poetry are not holding up for me, or… are not holding me up.

Rereading the classics and discovering new contemporary work that doesn’t pall is something Virginia Woolf herself writes about. I can just see her in front of the fire at Monk’s House, (where of course I made a pilgrimage), a book in her hands, smoking, grimly elegant, frighteningly beautiful, taking notes for the essays she worked on in the afternoons…

I started with the essays, and found to my amazement that she is as fascinating and compelling as she ever was. Of course she is mad—you feel ashamed to say it considering her bouts with the direst insanity—the birds outside her window speaking Greek—and nothing to treat it but hot milk. But here she is, spooling out flight after flight of fancy:

In the middle of an essay on reading, you come upon this: “if, at this moment,…I could go back through the long corridor of sunny mornings, boring my way through hundreds of Augusts, I should come in the end, passing a host of less-important figures, to no less a person than Queen Elizabeth herself. Whether some tinted waxwork is the foundation of my view, I do not know; but she always appears very distinctly in the same guise. She flaunts across the terrace superbly and a little stiffly like the peacock spreading its tail. She seems slightly infirm…” and it goes on, until we get to “She breakfasts off beer and meat and handles the bones with fingers rough with rubies.” And then she still goes on, until you have the Elizabethan age itself, what makes it live, right before you.

Because it is her, and because her reading is so deep and broad, there are essays that eighty years later we are not interested in, like who really wants to read about The Faery Queen or the Duchess of Newcastle, but sometimes you think I better check, what if I miss some flight. And always you want to know what she thinks of Dickens, Austen, our own classics. I look forward to the diaries after the essays, and because it is her, I will never have to worry about a moment’s boredom. Her thoughts and her feelings, are, how can I say this, compared to what is going on around us, always the best, “a thousand kisses deep” compared to this, the farthest thing from lies and distorting the language.

I don’t know about the novels. I reread The Years a few years ago and disliked it. Of course, it’s not her at her best or even original—but I daresay if I read the middle passage on Time Passes in To the Lighthouse right now, that takes you back through hundreds of summers and rooms until you end up with no less a figure than life itself, and what it is to leave it—and none of it has anything to do with money and power, nothing at all—I believe it would break my heart.

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Ioanna self portrait croppedIoanna Carlsen’s poems and stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines, including AGNI, Poetry, Prairie Schooner, and Glimmer Train Stories. She received the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Award for Poetry, and won the 2002 Glimmer Train Poetry Open. In 2014 she published a poetry collection called The Whisperer. She lives in the country outside Santa Fe, NM. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

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