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BOOK REVIEWS Woolf's Essays Elena Gualtieri. Virginia Woolf's Essays: Sketching the Past. London: Macmillan , 2000. ix + 176 pp. $59.95 THE WORD essai originated with Montaigne. In French, essayer means to try out, to test. Etymologically, then, the genre of the essay is speculative and indecisive. Woolf's own view on the subject may be found in "The Modern Essay" (1922; rev. 1925): "The principle that controls [the essay]," she says, "is that it should give pleasure; the desire which impels us when we take it from the shelf is simply to receive pleasure." This is all well and good, but it must be noted that Woolf is in no way advocating a concentration on style at the cost of substance. It must surely be no mere coincidence that when reprinting this essay in The Common Reader (1925) Woolf chose to precede it with "The Patron and the Crocus" (1924; rev. 1925). After all, the central thesis of this second work is that a writer must choose his or her "patron" with great care. Woolf understood that whatever high ideals essayists may aspire to, their essays were ultimately in the power of outside forces of production. Gualtieri takes up this point: "Because of its connection to journalism, Woolf tends to see the essay as the form that is most readily influenced by changes in the distribution and composition of newspapers and magazines and therefore by changes in the size and composition of its readership. While at times such changes are perceived to be for the best, it is more usual for Woolf to stress the negative effects of an excessive encroachment of market demands upon literary activity." Gualtieri finds in this worldly strand of the Woolfian essay common ground with the Continental tradition of "literary historiography"; and in particular, the work of Lukács and Adorno. Lukács, she says, "insisted that the essence of the essay lies precisely in its ability to bring together modes of being and thinking that are commonly thought of as being in opposition to each other." The essay is both inside and outside of history, political and personal: for Lukács, it "creates a form where knowledge can be expressed as art." Gualtieri links these Marxist approaches to the paths taken by feminist writers and critics who also found themselves writing against the grain of male tradition. Because it refuses to settle comfortably into one camp or the other, the essay, she claims, allows an "exploration of the intersections between private and public, personal and political." In fact, 397 ELT 44 : 3 2001 as Gualtieri concludes, the essay "is a genre that has transformed the writer's self from something that lies outside literature into its controlling force." In the right hands, the essay can be highly subversive. As Woolf notes in "A Sketch of the Past" (1939-1940), its inherent ambivalence allows the essayist "to slip in things that would be inaudible if one marched straight up and spoke out loud." Gualtieri relates the play of ambiguity in Woolf's essays to the description of "essayism" Robert Musil gives in his novel The Man Without Qualities (1930-1942; trans. 1995). Essayism , says Musil, is "a form of living and of writing that is dispersive and without an organising centre." This recalls the opening paragraph of A Room of One's Own (1929). After telling her audience that she has failed in "the first duty of a lecturer" (to provide them with their "nugget of pure truth"), Woolf's narrator explains that "One can only give one's audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions." Throughout her long career as an essayist (longer, by over a decade, than her career as a novelist), Woolf quite consciously and deliberately refused to let her work be tied down to one thing or the other; she kept her writing open, in a state, one might say, of differ anee. Woolf was wary of labels. In her diary, for instance, she can frequently be found trying out a word other than "novel" with which to describe her book-length fiction. Her essays are no less problematic. Gualtieri notes that "Woolf's experiments with the form...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 397-399
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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