Bill Goldstein’s book looks at a single year (1922) in the life of four writers — Virginia Woolf, E M Forster, T S Eliot, and D H Lawrence — all of whom were at some sort of creative impasse at the beginning of the year, and all of whom, by the end of it, had set out in a new direction:
“Behind these four writers’ creative struggles and triumphs and private dramas—nervous breakdowns, chronic illness, intense loneliness, isolation, and depression, not to mention the difficulties of love and marriage and legal and financial troubles—lay a common spectral ghost: the cataclysm of World War I that each of them, in 1922, almost four years after the Armistice, was at last able to deal with creatively.”
None of these writers fought in the war, but all were deeply affected by it. Lawrence, for instance, had pretty much been hounded out of Britain; first being found unfit to fight, then being suspected (because he had a German wife) of being a spy. Woolf’s mental suffering during the war might have happened anyway, but it certainly can’t have helped to know that, while she was fighting her own inner battle, the world on the outside was tearing itself apart. Eliot’s breakdown — partly due to overwork, partly to his troubled marriage, partly to the effort of writing his poetry — expressed itself in The Waste Land, but chimed well enough with the post-war mood that, when it eventually came out, was taken to be expressive of the times. E M Forster, meanwhile, had been stuck on his “Indian fragment” for more than ten years. His previous novel, Howard’s End, had come out back in 1910, and some people were assuming he’d died.
The War shattered the world, and with it all the old certainties. To these writers, it was as if the very nature of human being had changed. How could anyone write in the same old way? But all four very much needed to write, and needed to find a new way of doing it, to say what they had to say:
“The techniques these writers experimented with in 1922 were an attempt to make personal and artistic sense of a dislocation in time and consciousness between the country England had been before the war and what it was now, and between the artists they had been then and the pioneers they were becoming.”
What each of them needed — or had found, but needed the confidence to see through — was a way of exploring their inner worlds, of expressing dissonant, complex inner states, where there was no established technique for doing so. It was as if, as far as the novel was concerned, human beings had ceased to be defined entirely by their position in a society bound by shared values (as they were to the Victorians), and now had to be understood, each of them, as a world of their own. Eliot’s The Waste Land is perhaps most purely about that sense of isolation and separation; Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, with its narrative centre skipping from character to character, combines that sense of each us being our own, separate, vibrant inner world of memories, sensations, regrets, judgements, and passing notions, with the sense of constantly brushing against the equally distinctive worlds of others, all the time apart from them, but at the same time connected, by shared memories and experiences.
Eliot finished The Waste Land near the beginning of the year — during his convalescence from a breakdown — but seems to have spent most of the rest of 1922 being difficult with his potential publishers, on the one hand asking for as much money as he could get, on the other failing to type up the poem and let his publishers see what they were actually paying for. Forster returned from an official position in India, stopping in Egypt to see a man he’d fallen in love with years previously, only to find him dying. Woolf began the year in bed, recovering from illness. Lawrence, the writer who, of the four, I know least about, is the most distant from the others. While Woolf, Eliot and Forster all met up quite often in England in 1922, Lawrence was in Italy, Australia, Ceylon, and then America. (Perhaps for the best. As Goldstein says: “There was very little about Lawrence that wasn’t irritating to someone… The only possible permanent reconciliation with Lawrence was a posthumous one.”)
The thing that seems to have acted as a turning point for at least the three novelists covered here was reading two books. James Joyce’s Ulysses had been serialised between 1918 and 1920, but was published in hardback in 1922, and it was in this form that Woolf, Forster and Lawrence read it. This was also the year that translations of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu started coming out in English. And generally, among those three novelists, the basic reaction seems to have been the same: that Ulysses was technically impressive, though something of a drag to get through, but Proust was a revelation, offering proof that there was a way to explore the new inner life in a novel.
Eliot told Woolf that Ulysses was “a landmark, because it destroyed the whole of the 19th century”, but that wasn’t what a novelist desperate to find a way to start a new novel wanted to hear. Woolf felt Ulysses was important, but found it “a mis-fire” — “Genius it has I think; but of the inferior water.” Lawrence and Forster made similar remarks. With Proust, though, the language is very different. “I plunged into Proust,” Forster wrote. Woolf longed to “sink myself in” Proust “all day”, and, Goldstein notes, although she realised she couldn’t write like Proust, soon enough, having read him, “she was writing like herself again.”
By the end of 1922, Woolf was working on Mrs Dalloway; Forster on A Passage to India; Eliot had published The Waste Land; Lawrence, in Kangaroo, had written directly of the experiences that had led him to leave wartime England.
Inevitably, I can’t help thinking about the fantastic and supernatural fiction of the time. I’ve covered some of it on this blog: 1922, for instance, saw the publication of E R Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, which certainly wasn’t seeking new models of what it meant to be human, but can still be seen to be addressing the aftermath of the war, though in a very different way. Stella Benson’s Living Alone (1919), and J M Barrie’s Mary Rose (1920) are both post-World War I works, and Tolkien’s experiences in the war certainly shaped The Lord of the Rings. But it was the supernatural fiction of the 1890s that seemed to have already been writing about a new way of understanding what it meant to be human. The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde and The Portrait of Dorian Gray both addressed the idea that the old model, of people being a single, distinct personality both within and without, no longer worked. Modernist works like Mrs Dalloway and The Waste Land seemed to be trying to work out how to write about what it meant to be human when you threw away this idea of being a single person altogether. The Waste Land takes fragmentation as its central metaphor. Hesse looked at the same idea — of one person being multiple — in his 1927 book, Steppenwolf. His idea was that that inner multiplicity could only be fully accommodated by indulging every part of it to the full. (Which reminds me of what Krag says to Maskull as the reason for his having to make such a violent, disturbing, and personality-changing journey across Tormance in A Voyage to Arcturus: to “run through the gamut”.)
But it seems to be Woolf, in Mrs Dalloway, who accepts and finds a way to work with the idea that we are not of “fixed and enduring form” (as Hesse puts it), by presenting her protagonists less as characters in the Dickens manner (with fixed external traits and not much else besides) than as constantly-changing centres of experience, whose personalities alter depending on whom they are with, and what memories or sensations come foremost to their mind. It feels like the most healing of the ideas made in response to this “world broke in two”.
But, of course, it has its dark side, in Septimus Smith, the most explicit victim of the World War presented in any of the four works Goldstein discusses. Smith is an example of what can go wrong with this new idea of human beings, when they lose their delicate centre and become trapped by violent memories and unfaceable emotions overpowering their present reality. Smith’s “writings” — his obsessive and often nonsensical ideas — are his way to try to fix some sort of centre in his wildly-decentred inner world, but they are unworkable (“there is no death”, “there is no crime”, “trees are alive”). Where Mrs Dalloway herself slips nostalgically into the past and drifts back to the present, all the time making new, minor adjustments to her understanding of herself, Smith flounders in a storm of experiences that no idea of what it means to be human can ever help him with. For him, the world is The Waste Land, but it’s debatable whether reading Eliot’s poem would have helped him. Perhaps reading Woolf’s novel might?