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The Vegetarian by Han Kang

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The outer layer of your skin, the epidermis, replaces itself every 35 days. Become a vegetarian, better yet a vegan, and soon enough your body will be formed almost completely from plant matter. This beguiling conceit lies at the heart of Han Kang’s extraordinary novel The Vegetarian, where a seemingly trivial change in the life of a young woman results in a terrifying transformation.

Split into three parts, Kang’s narrative dances tantalisingly around her central character, the too-often silent Yeong-hye. We see her through every perspective but her own, first through the eyes of her husband, then her brother-in-law, and finally her sister. As a character she appears the twisted product of the multitude of watchful eyes, the switching preoccupations, and the opinions of those around her. She herself remains mysteriously elusive, her own thoughts only ever revealed in sparing flashes interspersed throughout the narrative.

The first of these begins with a dream, a subconscious cry, the trigger that will initiate the many changes in her life to come. It is a grotesque scene, one that reemerges again and again in the book, bestowing Yeong-hye with Lady-Macbeth-like ‘bloody hands’ and ‘bloody mouth’. The vivid nightmare sees ‘those eyes, rising up from the pit of my stomach’, leaving her assaulted body in the midst of a deep and terrifying transformation as the fear of change inevitably turns itself inward: ‘Why are my edges all sharpening? What am I going to gouge?’

Food has always held a central place in how we connect and communicate with those around us, to sit around a table and ‘break bread’ is one of the oldest and most traditional acts we have. What Kang artfully shows is how the rejection of such conventions and traditions can create unpredictable and often fatal ramifications. The act of rejecting meat soon becomes one of rejecting flesh in any form, the sex life of the couple disintegrates as their bodies become different entities. When Yeong-hye rejects her husband’s advances he asks why: ‘The meat smell,’ she replies, ‘Your body smells of meat.’ Fed on different food, the two lose understanding of each other – if there was even any to begin with. This develops with a strange ferocity in the following chapter in which we see Yeong-hye openly welcome the advances of other suitors based purely on the floral paintings that adorn their bodies. She becomes not merely opposed to meat, she becomes enamoured by its opposite, ensnared by the botanical potential plants offer her, the relative seclusion and safety from a world of flesh beyond her control. The flora and fauna she clings to begin to grow in significance, becoming not just fuel for her body, but fuel for her mind, and just as her new obsession changes her body, it changes her mind as well.

Our vegetarian becomes ‘deflated from within’; her husband’s narrative is overwhelmed by his own inability to accept his wife as she challenges the conventional cage he has built for her. One of the most overused words in his segment of narrative is ‘normal’. He celebrates what he views as his wife’s ordinariness, the mundane and unthreatening shell that he had perceived her to be – any consideration for her in any manner that does not relate to his immediate needs is cast aside. She is a cook first, an object for sex second, a companion? Hardly. Yet when this definition of her ‘normalness’ is threatened, so too is the life that her husband leads. It is only when he begins to finally acknowledge that he has no power over his wife that he admits to himself: ‘I really didn’t have a clue when it came to this woman’. The simple act of choosing what to eat, casts all Yeong-hye’s relationships into disarray – no one can fathom why or how she would make such a decision without a logical explanation, because of a dream. Rather than enquiring into the cause they dismiss it.

In her isolation Yeong-hye becomes ‘utterly unknowable’ – it is not so much that she is vegetarian but that she is unlike those that surround her. She remains immobile, a fixed point careering towards a seemingly inevitable end as her family collides around her in their attempts to connect. What is most disturbing in Kang’s narrative is the manner in which the changing female body is shown as a central concern for the family at large. When her relatives hear of her vegetarianism they respond with astonishment and apologies to her husband. It’s made clear from the start that what Yeong-hye choses to do with her own body preoccupies all members of her family, and that whatever choices she may make her body remains governed by those around her – something that comes to a climax at the end of the first section when her father attempts to force-feed her meat in suffragette fashion, and she retaliates with an equally violent act.

In the following narrative the perspective is immediately and refreshingly reversed, in stark contrast to the selfish and abrasive tone of her husband, Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law sees the events of the past section with fresh eyes, and his response is deeply empathetic. When he witnesses her hurt herself he hears ‘a sound like something snapping inside his own body’, and he preserves his shirt stained by her blood as an eerie souvenir. This bloody offering begins an obsession with Yeong-hye’s changing body.

Yet, just like her husband, Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law becomes captivated by the idea of her rather than the woman herself. In this instance rather than her ‘normalness’ he is drawn to her transformation. Unlike her husband who recoils from change, this man is inspired by it, made curious by what he sees as a creature so like and yet unlike his own wife. This obsession soon gravitates around a blue mongolian mark, ‘petal-like’ on the small of Yeong-hye’s back. The point becomes fetisized, yet once uncovered it is revealed as ‘more vegetal than sexual … perhaps a mark of photosynthesis’. The mark, like many other points, signals a deeper and more surreal evaluation of a changing state. When finally faced with her naked body, rather than being aroused, the brother-in-law instead discovers ‘a feeling that simulated something deep in his very core, passing through him like a continuous electric shock’. Like the mark itself, Yeong-hye’s transformation begins to lose its seductive appeal. Her body becomes alien rather than alluring, weakened, its human core threatened.

As the tale progresses it becomes clear that Yeong-hye’s rejection of meat is less about gaining control than it is about releasing it. Rather than appearing to take a hold of her life with the new rules she has drawn up for herself, Yeong-hye becomes a woman plagued by demons, but demons that she never truly articulates and ones that no one ever enquires about. Soon food is entirely dismissed, as is sleep. Instead of becoming more seductive when freed from the constrictions of her oppressive husband, as she loses weight and her marriage, she vegetates, day by day her own body growing more like the plants she consumes. Ironically throughout her book her actions only enhance the human characteristics of those around her. She inspires every emotion, from grief and anger to lust and joy. Her own rejection of humanity inspires constant expressions of it in those around her.

Yet the motive behind the transformation is never fully explained, the elusive ‘dream’ that plagues Yeong-hye, the one that sits in her chest, and forces her into hospital again and again, continues unexplored. Anorexia nervosa combined with schizophrenia is the doctor’s tentative diagnosis but the delusion runs much deeper than this, and what is most arresting about Kang’s prose is that she never gives the game away; we’re never sure whose side to take. Teetering between explanations both ‘ordinary’ and ‘extra-ordinary’, she leaves no room for certainty, constantly teasing the reader, and the ambiguity that remains both torments and delights.

This masterpiece of Korean fiction is finally made available to English readers in Deborah Smith’s achingly elegant prose, the first of Han Kang’s novels to be translated. Thankfully I am certain it will not be the last.

Deborah Smith has gone on to translate Kang’s novel Human Acts for Portobello Books (2016). The Vegetarian is shortlisted for the International Man Booker Prize 2016.

By Thea Hawlin

 

The Wheelbarrow by V. S. Pritchett

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In August 1960 The London Magazine published V. S. Pritchett’s short story ‘The Wheelbarrow’ alongside four poems by Derek Walcott and reviews by Louis MacNeice, Roy Fuller and Frank Kermode. Pritchett, himself an avid short story writer, professed that to write a short story ‘is exquisitely difficult’ yet – as his word choice suggests – it was also one of his favourite forms to practice. In fact, when interviewed by The Paris Review Pritchett spoke openly of his preference for short fiction:

The short story appealed to me straight away because of its shortness, and I preferred it to the novel. It represents a certain vision of reality that consists of isolating the incident. The great thing about the short story is the detail, not the plot. The plot is useful, but only for supplying the sort of detail that is not descriptive but which pushes the action forward. Many critics have noticed this about my stories.

At the start of the new millennium the Royal Society of Literature founded The V.S. Pritchett Memorial Prize to commemorate the centenary of the author who was widely regarded as one of the finest English short-story writers of the 20th century. The prize is awarded to the best unpublished short story of the year.

The Wheelbarrow by V. S. Pritchett in The London Magazine.
The Wheelbarrow by V. S. Pritchett in The London Magazine.

Tonight the RSL celebrate the presentation of the annual prize with the judges who will discuss the complexities, the wonders, the highs and the lows of writing short fiction. This year’s judges include Somerset Maugham Award winner Adam Mars-Jones, Dylan Thomas Award winner Rose Tremain as well as editor Philip Hensher who has spent the last two years surrounded by short fiction in his quest to curate The Penguin Book of the British Short Story, published just last month.

Eudora Welty went as far to say that ‘Any Pritchett story is all of it alight and busy at once, like a well-going fire. Wasteless and at the same time well-fed, it shoots up in flame from its own spark like a poem or a magic trick, self-consuming, with nothing left over. He is one of the great pleasure-givers in our language’. Read an exclusive extract from ‘The Wheelbarrow’ as it first appeared in The London Magazine below:

She did not hear him. Her face had drained of waking light. She had entered blindly into a dream in which she could hardly drag herself along. She was looking painfully through the album, rocking her head slowly from side to side, her mouth opening a little and closing on the point of speech, a shoulder rising as if she had been hurt, and her back moving and saying as she felt the clasp of the past like hands on her. She was looking at ten forgotten years of her life, her own life, not her family’s, and she did not laugh when she saw the skirts too long, the top-heavy hats hiding the eyes, her face too full and fat, her plainness so sullen, her prettiness too open-mouthed and loud, her look too grossly shy. In this one, sitting at the cafe table by the lake when she was nineteen, she looked masterful and at least forty. In this garden picture she was theatrically fancying herself as an ancient Greek in what looked like a night-gown! One of her big toes, she noticed, turned up comically in the sandal she was wearing. Here on a rock by the sea, in a bathing dress, she had got so thin again — that was her marriage — and look at her hair! This picture of the girl on skis, sharp-faced, the eyes narrowed —who was that? Herself — yet how could she have looked like that! But she smiled a little at last at the people she had forgotten. This man with the crinkled fair hair, a German — how mad she had been about him. But what pierced her was that in each picture of herself she was just out of reach, flashing and yet dead; and that really it was the things that burned in the light of permanence — the chairs, the tables, the trees, the car outside the cafe, the motor launch on the lake. These blinked and glittered. They had lasted and were ageless, untouched by time, and she was not.

For more information about the event visit The Royal Society of Literature website here

By Thea Hawlin

‘I the sculptor am the landscape’ – Barbara Hepworth’s Roots of Stone

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Barbara Hepworth in the Palais de la Danse studio, St Ives, at work on the wood carving Hollow Form with White Interior 1963 Photograph: Val Wilmer, © Bowness

This year London houses a major retrospective of the work of Barbara Hepworth alongside her friend and contemporary Henry Moore at Tate Britain. The exhibition, entitled Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World promises to emphasise Hepworth’s status as a leading figure in the art world of the 1930s 40s and 50s and readdress the manner in which her work has often been overlooked with regard to her male contemporaries. A pioneer of modernism, whose sculptures can be found around the world, be it in Venice, New York or the humble coastal town of St. Ives, she produced over 600 works from 1925 until her death in 1975’; it’s about time London learned more about her.

Born in Wakefield, Yorkshire in 1903 Hepworth grew up removed from the chaotic shapes of the developing city of London, and this removal remains one of the most striking aspects of her art. “All my early memories are of forms and shapes and textures,” she wrote in her autobiography. “Moving through and over the West Riding landscape with my father in his car, the hills were sculptures; the roads defined the form. Above all, there was the sensation of moving physically over the contours of fulnesses and concavities, through hollows and over peaks – feeling, touching, through mind and hand and eye”.

Hepworth in the Mall Studio, London, 1933 Photograph by Paul Laib The Barbara Hepworth Photograph Collection © The de Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives, Witt Library, The Courtauld Institute of Art, London
Hepworth in the Mall Studio, London, 1933. Photograph by Paul Laib. 
© The de Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives, Witt Library, The Courtauld Institute of Art, London

The alchemy of art has long remained one of life’s greatest mysteries, but perhaps especially in regard to sculpture. Bertrand Russell in his A History of Western Philosophy describes sculpture as being “sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection” and it’s easy to recognize such sublime purity when encountering the minimalism and brutality of Hepworth’s shapes that seem just as rugged and mysterious as those born out of nature. As in Michelangelo’s vision the process of sculpture is one of release: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free”. There is a cathartic liberation to be found in the entire process of Hepworth’s work, of slicing and cutting at a material, not to destroy it or pummel it into willful submission, but to allow it to speak more clearly. She was able to bring forth a torrent of emotion from the most quiet and sedate of materials; she brought life to stone.

Squares with Two Circles 1963 Tate © Bowness
Squares with Two Circles 1963 Tate © Bowness

Yet for all her ability to conjure with such materials it was the human figure that remained “first and last” in the natural world for Hepworth. “In the country [it] becomes a free and moving part of a greater whole”. When we walk in the world we connect to our surroundings, on a basic level our feet tread the paths that many have taken before, looking from afar we become a moving and present part of the earth we live on, we acknowledge our place in it, even through the notionally insignificant movement of simply getting a breath of fresh air. “This relationship between figure and landscape is vitally important to me” she declared “I cannot feel it in a city”. It’s a truism that despite the vast concentration of human bodies in the meccas of London and New York and similarly vast cityscapes the number of people actually dehumanizes those bodies around us. Shuffling onto the tube at rush hour it’s often hard to find one’s humanity when you have your nose pressed into a stranger’s chest. It’s in moments such as these that the proximity of people and landscape, the swift deviation from natural landscape, of harsh angular lines and shiny metal surfaces emerge. We retain our humanity (just) but we lose something of the grandeur of nature, we replace it instead with grandeur of our own making.

The city machine is a famous trope in literature and art, the great guzzling giant that has been tormenting the human race since the concept of ‘the city’ began with all the violent smog and dirt it brought with it. Like Henry James upon returning to New York in 1904 to discover the newly erected sky scrapers in his The American Scene (1907) we can feel the buildings are only “giants of the mere market”. The mountains of modernity, the mountains we build to replace the rolling hills are those fuelled by a futile materialism. Personally I prefer the Italian for such buildings: grattacielo, which translates literally as ‘sky grabber’, a name much more fitting to the desperate reach that such buildings suggest; rather than scraping the sky we grab at it, with little success. By the 1930s these developments had spread, and Hepworth moved to Cornwall with her then husband, the painter Ben Nicholson. Retreating to the coast in 1939 Hepworth found the power she had been unable to find in the developing metropolitan world, and with this rekindled connection to landscape produced some of the finest sculptures of her career.

The move clearly affected Hepworth’s practice. Works produced were named Sea Forms, Rock Formation, Sea Formation, Figures in a Landscape, all centred around this new environment in which Hepworth would remain for the rest of her life. One work in particular Pelagos (‘sea’ in Greek) has been explicitly identified as being inspired by a particular view of the bay at St Ives. The view captures the point at which two arms of land enfold the sea from both sides, an embrace that remains at once still and tormented. From this view Hepworth creates a hollowed out spiral formation, similar to a shell, a wave or “a rolling hill”. Taunt strings pulled across the carcass of wood become expressive of “the tension” Hepworth felt between these natural elements “the sea, the wind or the hills”.

This intermingling of art and life was central to Hepworth. Just as she lived with nature so she lived with her sculptures: “It’s lovely to live with a sculpture, because it changes in every possible light; all through the day, moonlight, artificial light – any light – it’s always changing”. Art is greatest when it features as a natural part of our everyday lives. The artistry of life itself, of falling leaves, of a sun setting, of waves crashing, of the light changing is essential to the way we live whether we recognize it or not. When Hepworth talked about her work she was adamant that it retain this fundamental connection to its origins:

I always envisage ‘perfect settings’ for sculpture and they are, of course, mostly envisaged outside and related to the landscape.

Whenever I drive through the countryside and up the hills, I imagine forms placed in situations of natural beauty and I wish more could be done about the permanent siting of sculptures in strange and lonely places.

I prefer my work to be shown outside. I think sculpture grows in the open light and with the movement of the sun its aspect is always changing; and with space and the sky above, it can expand and breathe. Wood sculptures, of course, are not happy out of doors; but they have other properties more tactile and intimate which relate to an indoor life.

One of Hepworth’s greatest strengths as an artist was her recognition of her state as a product of her surroundings, as she put it: “I the sculptor am the landscape”. The crisscrossed Yorkshire moors of her childhood are not only the building blocks of her eye for sculpture but also the foundations of the way she perceived life and art. The world itself is artistry, nature, God, whatever you call it; the force of life is the greatest artist the world has known and one that great artists such as Hepworth pay homage to in every piece they create. For Hepworth more evidently than most the regular forms of nature, of the world around her, were the most powerful she could find.

In his 1954 The Art of Sculpture Sir Herbert Edward Read put a particular emphasis on this palpability of sculpture. Here was art that one could touch, one could reach out and connect to on a fundamental level. This actuality that sculpture presented and the possibilities its solidity posed were suddenly viewed as proof of a certain authenticity. Sculpture was a cure for alienation; it was the art that asked its viewers to engage. Unlike traditional mediums of pen, ink and paint, a sculpture stood in the real world, not confined to the walls of a gallery. It was able to invade the social consciousness in the same way it was able to invade the world around it.

This emphasis on the space of sculpture abounds in Hepworth’s work. In one letter to her friend, the critic Herbert Read, Hepworth even talks about the physical journey of the viewer and the importance of this interaction of man and environment: “Imagine the critic having to climb a hill, or walk a mile through a forest…to see a sculpture”. Environment, setting, location, the landscape of a sculpture – these were not merely additional wonders to Hepworth but part of a piece’s construction. Setting was as resolutely important as the materials used and the shapes created. Sculpture not simply a matter of viewing, but of experience on every level; an entire process of encounter. Watching old archival footage of Hepworth at work you can see the care that’s taken in her constructions, the meticulous mapping out, each move planned out to perfection as she builds her own architectural landscape.

Walking into Hepworth’s garden in St. Ives I feel like a pilgrim paying homage. The peace of the space is unexplainable but intensely powerful. Every contour of each carefully crafted piece is perfectly aligned with those of the natural world, of the human form, the hill, the ocean, yet nothing is set in stone (ho ho). Nothing aligns exactly, everything is left subtly understated, lovingly fluid, a point of ambiguity in which the viewer brings to the sculpture all they desire. The plants are left to grow, to weave up and into the stone, curving round the bases, framing splits of view that come between far-off leaves.

Sculpture itself here reaches its pinnacle as a form of landscape in one piece entitled River Form: metal, and water come together to form a land set apart from the world around it, an invisible sphere that shelters a pool of water from reflection. Hepworth takes Bronze, a metal used for centuries to make coins and instead returns it to a state of earthy silence, reminiscent of the stone it comes from. This cradling leads to a strange vacuum of space, a sanctity of silence in which water rests in isolation from the earth, from the sea, from the sky. Instead it is subject only to the bronze that surrounds it, playing off the material as it breathes slowly. For that is something this particular sculpture teaches you; water breathes, despite its isolation. Its rigid cutting away from any other environment forces Hepworth to create an alternative habitat and within this habitat despite its stationary position the water continues to ripple, its reflection on the bronze above it shimmering, not with the reflection of sea or sky, but a strange translucent reflection interior to itself.

It’s wonderful that finally Hepworth’s work will be brought back into the public eye by appearing in London. But it will be intriguing to see how exactly the curators of such an exhibition manage to maintain the importance of setting to Hepworth’s works. Looking out into the garden, the sun setting, the light catches the side of the bronze and stone in St. Ives turning the gray a glassy shade of blue in the twilight. Against the evergreen of the garden it is as if the sea is slowly erupting from the sculptures. Watching the light fade and the stone shed the remnants of the day shade by shade, the bronze burning in the evening light, I wonder how the clammy interiors of the museum walls will care for these creatures of stone. I wonder how the eerie life, the revelations of these silent reflections of Hepworth’s touch, will fare if uprooted.

By Thea Hawlin

J by Howard Jacobson

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Howard Jacobson once joked that one day he might attempt to write a book without the letter J, and his thirteenth novel J finally makes a wry nod to this past comment. A densely written and irrevocably complicated book, J—despite using the letter freely throughout—envisions a world in which it is all but eradicated, replaced instead with a strange hybrid, a J crossed with the silence of two fingers traced over it. Closer inspection of the book’s cover reveals this same crossing, suggesting that the novel isn’t really called J at all. This playing and confusion, even with the novel’s own title, reflects accurately the nature of this perplexing but intoxicating tale that will leave you second-guessing till the end.

We follow loosely the love that develops between a middle aged woodworker Kevern and the young artist Ailinn, and the trials that riddle their relationship, among them a murder in their village. In fact the initial investigations of the detective looking into the murder, a strange slippage into detective fiction, actually proves to be one of the novel’s most engaging parts. Often it’s in the relatively small and simple moments that Jacobson is able to show off most effectively; his eye for detail is certainly keen, from the brilliant description of a woman’s toes that opens the book, to the evocation of the sagging skin on a dying man’s face. One moment in particularly seems to stand out like a short story in the depths of the plot, the simple yet haunting portrayal of a marital squabble. The conflict is handled beautifully, an ‘exchange of unpleasantries’ that echoes the repeated patterns of married life. The repeated patterns of thought and life invade the very language and form of the argument itself, the scene moulded around the dilemmas and questions it addresses, switching from voice to voice, from exchange to exchange.

The loose allegory of the Holocaust the ‘what happened if it happened’ event of which no one speaks, haunts the dystopian world of the novel like a plague. This ambiguity, combined with the frequent references to the mysteriously elusive ‘they’ compound an uncertainty in the narrative that becomes practically commonplace for the reader. In the process of reading we quickly becomes accustomed to the ridges and upsets in the narrative, the nervous flitting between fact and fiction, between what has happened and what may have only been a dream, a memory, a shard of fantasy: they come together in shocking and spiralling collisions.

At times the intrinsic trickery that Jacobson sustains seems to lose its edge; although his style often borders on majestic, at other times it suggests pretension: those features that will annoy and grate on readers seem to also be the features that Jacobson is most anxious to highlight. ‘The art, they explained, when they could be bothered to explain anything, lay precisely in the offence’—much the same could be said of Jacobson’s novel, the confusion and disarray in it is deliberate and finely tuned. It’s something of which Jacobson is clearly aware, and yet unafraid of; temporal weaving and unweaving is important to the novel, which seems to be falling backwards and forwards on and over itself and the literary canon many times; a nod to Moby Dick is most evident with large epistolary sections revolving around an ‘Ishmael’ figure, but there are elements of many genres twisted around and played with—sometimes to the detriment of the narrative, but often to its enhancement. The narrator observes that art ‘for its adventuresomness, is also capable of being the most recidivist of human activities, forever falling back in reaction to what was itself a reaction to something else’, and this book seems to enact this absolutely; recidivist perhaps to the casual reader; but adventurous and ultimately brilliant for those who care to look closely enough.

By Thea Hawlin

How to Be Both by Ali Smith

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‘Ho this is a mighty twisting thing’. So begins half of Ali Smith’s How to be Both and a ‘mighty twisted thing’ it is indeed, a book that itself excels in the art of being ‘both’.  The novel maintains two states of existence; divided into two halves from very different historical periods. Produced in two versions, Smith varies the order in which the two halves are consumed by her readers, physically exploring concerns with appearances and the things that lie beneath them, of being and of not being.

One narrative begins with the troubles of the renaissance painter Francesco de Cossa, revealed here as a girl in disguise, an artist who is herself an example of the multiplicity of the novel’s title, perfecting the art of ‘being both’. The other narrative, set in the modern world, focuses on the recently bereaved George or Georgia, and is littered with iPads and porn, framed as ‘photos’ as opposed to the ‘eyes’ of painting. The contrast is striking and deliciously so.

What George learns is that despite her declarations that ‘history…tends to be well and truly over’ is that it is history that is precisely the thing that is never truly over, it’s always lingering beneath the surface, an undercoat to our everyday lives. As her mother says ‘seeing and being seen, Georgie, is rarely simple’, and this is the novel’s main preoccupation; it holds a deeply engrained concern for perception, how things are and how they are seen. ‘And which comes first?’ George recounts her mother asking ‘What we see or how we see?’

Both girls are searching for something within their lives, both motherless, both finding their way in the world in very different yet intriguingly corresponding ways. Smith notes in one interview how our teenage years remain ‘the last malleable state of us’. This sense of human malleability is something that courses throughout this novel, the fact that we are ever changing, forever pretending, forever attempting to ‘be’ so many things and it is this human struggle of attempting to ‘be’ at all that is captured.

Smith is no stranger to the Booker shortlist, and How to be Both may be her third time lucky, but at times the wit seems to border on gimmicky.  The formal play Smith introduces forces us to stop and consider our own perceptions as a reader; perception itself a key element of how the novel comes to be. The book seems painted as freshly and quickly as a fresco, divided and yet united in the tale it tells, encouraging us to read and re-read to understand every nuance. Ironically, it is this very urging towards profundity that seems to point up the limitations of the form. You can’t help but feel that there needs to be a little more depth to this tale, and its loose threads leaves you unsatisfied and searching for more; How to be Both is clever, but ultimately a little two-dimensional.

By Thea Hawlin

Virginia Woolf – Art, Life and Vision

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© Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © National Trust / Charles Thomas

Virginia Woolf viewed greatness as a “positive possession”. In her mind greatness was “a bodily presence; it has nothing to do with anything said. It exists in certain people”. Undeniably Woolf was such a person, although she herself might never have realised it. This exhibition is a testimony to the greatness that lives on with such energy in the “bodily presence” of her work. However the collection displays not merely physical copies of Woolf’s collected works but combines them with an array of objects that culminate to create a strikingly intimate portrait of the writer who often went out of her way to avoid the gaze of others.

The individual objects adorning the three conjoined rooms are the things that stand out with most visceral impact: the weathered but wonderfully coloured first edition copies of Woolf’s writing by Hogarth Press; the rushed and uneven lines from personal letters; her walking stick. These remnants of Woolf’s life highlight the wonderfully material manner in which she regarded life itself; Woolf was a collector of moments. She was a writer who watched the world and ached to record every detail, from the joy of purchasing a lone lead pencil, to the intricacies of personality and place. She herself declared the importance of the material: “We sit surrounded by objects which enforce the memories of our own experience”. Objects are imbued with meaning, and Woolf was someone who understood this acutely.

Frances Spalding has assembled an insightful and brilliantly selective variety of works. An array of old photographs detail the biographical particulars of Woolf’s growth, from her childhood holidays in St. Ives to older social explorations, both with other writers and in the comfort of her own home. We’re allowed, at least for these moments, to glimpse into the world of the young Woolf, perched on a wooden chair watching her sister paint, playing cricket, the same hauntingly large eyes looking wistfully out at us. Woolf was famous for her aversion to the camera and the artistic urges of those around her who sought to capture her in paint. A portrait by Duncan Grant appears almost as a study, a homage to the flecked brushwork of the Post Impressionists the Bloomsbury group championed. In reality the brushwork—although fine—is also hurried, flecks of base coat clamouring to the surface with colours straying from stark outlines. An attempt to capture the fleeting presence of Woolf herself who threatened the painting entirely with the constant danger that—as Grant recalls—“she might just get up and walk out”. Vanessa Bell goes further than Grant’s bold lines and obscures her sister’s face altogether in several studies, a stylistic trait but one perhaps fuelled by the restlessness of one of her original sitters.

Woolf’s relationship with her sister and with the medium of paint is something that cannot help but pervade the entire exhibit, the interrelated nature of the two arts of writing and painting tied together by Woolf herself: “One should be a painter.  As a writer, I feel the beauty, which is almost entirely colour, very subtle, very changeable, running over my pen, as if you poured a large jug of champagne over a hairpin.” The device works well, particularly for an exhibition that so revels in the medium and textures of paint. The ‘silent art’ that Woolf so admired next to her own was one that dominated her life and this keen influence is recognised strongly here and brought into new light with the various works of art that line the walls.

Spalding desires us to find not one Woolf, but many, a myriad of personalities and interests, and we do. The many portraits show a kaleidoscope of perspectives, differing eyes that view the same subject and all draw out markedly differing and intriguing results. We are guided to meet Woolf the child, Woolf the writer, Woolf the fashionista; the list goes on. We see Woolf from every angle. One moment she leaps out at us in oil colour, a rosy red lipped woman, half smiling, who blends delicately into the background, her cardigan melding softly with her surroundings in Roger Fry’s portrait; we turn a corner and she’s cast in bronze by Stephen Tomlin.

 “Painting and writing have much to tell each other” Woolf observed in 1934 and this dialogue between mediums runs throughout the entire exhibition. Roger Fry declared her a writer who recognised and effectively utilized “the very texture of words”, her infamously convoluted prose a parallel to the post-impressionistic works that surrounded her. This mingling of mediums allows differing pieces to play off each other, highlighting and echoing different impressions of Woolf. One moment she is an austere black and white portrait, the next an animated and frustrated voice trapped within spidery scrawls upon a page.  Her presence is presented to us as a palpable form. She remains in the letters, the scribbled sketches, the half worked out ideas, even in an old copy of her childhood ‘Newspaper’ just as much as her likeness lingers in her many official portraits. The secretive snapshots from personal collections offset formal sequences from well known photographers of the 1930s such as Man Ray and Gisèle Freund along with George Charles Beresford’s famous 1902 platinum print. Her face is everywhere, but it never looks the same.

The exhibition begins and ends with the trauma of war. It starts with recollections of ‘street haunting’ in London during the bombings of WWII, opening with a large photo of the bombed exterior of Woolf’s house in Tavistock Square. The fireplace decorated by Vanessa Bell protrudes oddly out into the open air, the rubble leading up to it like a strange ghostly staircase; a scene of vulnerable uncovering and disintegration. By the final room we are shown a similar turmoil with the outbreak of the Spanish civil war. A portrait of Woolf’s nephew Julian Bell who died in the relief efforts in 1937 is placed poignantly next to Picasso’s drawings and advertisements for his famous Guernica exhibition.  Woolf maintained that “Thinking is my Fighting”, and it is in these striking moments of context that the exhibition is most powerful, and most powerfully makes us think, with its subtle combinations of private and public life, the worldly sitting comfortably and illuminatingly next to the personal….

by Thea Hawlin

http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/virginiawoolf/home.php

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