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Night and Day- By Virginia Woolf- Book Review


Literature doesn't levitate over the messy mayhem of life. It is not a flower which blooms in isolation. Stories begin to breathe in the cusp of social context and the characters of the story. The delicate balance between the data and the desire, statistics and the sublime texture of human feelings extending between the individual and the environment- is where Literature finds its feet. The success and failure of a writer lies in reaching this place of perfect balance. If she leans too much towards the environment, she ends up writing propaganda pamphlet; if she leans totally towards the individual, she ends up writing a handicapped story resembling a diary, written from the perspective of one individual only.  Even when someone like Dostoevsky writes Notes from the Underground, which largely happens within the mind of the protagonist, there is still a definite sense of society in which the individual exists, even if by implication. 

Night and Day, which is the second novel of the most exceptional novelist of last century, Ms. Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) after On Voyage Out.While her first novel was widely appreciated, this was not exactly the darling of many critics in her time. Ms Woolf tells a story, beautifully, painstakingly, with each word carefully picked and polished. Unlike her later books, for instance, The Waves, Ms Woolf does not toy with experimental-ism in this novel.This is a story well-told as Ms. Woolf's stories are and writing exquisitely, as she always wrote. The story, much in Dostoevsky fashion, is written with the characters given huge emphasis. Words dance in the dark distances between human souls, expanding a moment and contracting the other, like a humongous beating heart, which connects all the characters of the story. Words are beautifully placed, taut but never tense; softly ripe, but never limping into too much of ripeness. 

Ms. Woolf finished writing this novel in November, 1918, right about the time the War ended. While the story has fleeting references to the War, the war is not a subject and we do not find the ominous shadow of the war hanging over the story. This is not a war-story. Many took objections to this fact. A writer that Ms. Woolf herself was a big fan of took seemingly the strongest jibe on her, when this book came out. Katherine Mansfield an established writer at the time, and one whom Woolf considered a friend and sort of mentor, called this book a lie in the soul in her letter to John Middleton Murry, as according to her, the story totally ignored the War, as if it never had happened. In her review of the book in Athenaeum she is kinder, even commendatory of Woolf's writing, though with her annoyance about the contemptuous ignore which Woolf  offered to the war visibly simmering beneath her praise, when she wrote:

"The strangeness lies in her aloofness, her air of quiet perfection, her lack of any sign that she has made a perilous voyage- the absence of any scar."

While I love Katherine's writing, I do not agree with her. Ms Woolf's characters don't float with aimless ambiguity like balloons. They have their feet on the ground, firmly placed in a very real world. One finds the references to the struggle for women's voting rights, the class conflicts between an elite and erudite literary lit-up world of Katherine Hilbery, grand-daughter of a famed writer, scion of a rich, culturally and economically rich family. Mary Datchet is a study in contrast, who comes from not a privileged background and still has carved a space for herself by choosing the life of a working woman and in process, writes Ms Woolf, lost the look of the irresponsible spectator and had taken on that of a private in the army of workers. 

Virginia Woolf is wise, witty and timeless. The legacy, the illustrious family name sits heavy on the Katherine's emancipated shoulders longing to grow wings and fly off. She struggles between the obligations of her great name and the choices she wants to make. Ms. Woolf focuses on these very human issues and choices. A calculated distance that she keeps from the developments of a very interesting story, allows her space to fit in brilliant observations which are as relevant today as they were when they were penned. Take an example here:

'It may be said, indeed, that English society being what it is, no very great merit is required, once you bear a well-known name, to put you into a position where it is easier on the whole to be eminent than obscure.... One finds them at the tops of professions, with letters after their names; they sit in luxurious public offices, with private secretaries attached to them; they write solid books in dark covers, issued by the presses of the two great universities, and when one of them dies the chances are that another of them writes his biography.'

She is written with amazing clarity about the cozy club of entitled elites, who go about trotting their famed family names. Unfortunately, things today haven't changed much from the way they were in 1919. It is this timelessness and eternal beauty of language which makes this book thoroughly enjoyable. Do read. This book is like a mirror to human life and human history. 

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