Tuesday, August 31, 2004


It has become increasingly apparent to me that I might want to keep a copy of this book

close at hand while reading John Crowley's collection. Parts of "Her Bounty to the Dead," in the interweaving of memory and the present, reminded me of Nabokovian approaches. The third story in Novelties & Souvenirs, "The Reason for the Visit," also reminds me of Nabokov--the ethereal, cerebral Nabokov. This is the Nabokov of abstractions, manifested in some of his early work and in his last novels.

In "The Reason for the Visit," the body or spirit or ghost or idea of Virginia Woolf visits a nameless narrator, who may or may not be some manifestation of John Crowley. The narrator tells the reader that in the past he has conjured up Dr. Johnson and Max Beerbohm, but that this visit is different.

A silence fell and she [Woolf] rolled a cigarette. The difference between imaginary visitors and real ones is that with imaginary visitors you can immediately start in on whatever it was that occasioned the visit, without preamble or confusion; the elevator occasioned Johnson, and when it had been explained to him, and he had rejected the explanation in favor of his own, then the visit was over. But she and I must face each other now in an uncomfortable silence, with a whole world around us to be explained, or ignored; we must choose.

There is an outside possibility that Crowley means this literally--that some sort of time travel is involved--but I certainly hope this is not his meaning. It's more likely a device to imagine a visit by Virginia Woolf to a person in her future. Woolfe's name is never mentioned, but hints loom large everywhere, including "I can't remember if I ever got the lighthouse."

The abstract quality of the story, as in Nabokov's more successful fictions of this sort, is masked by an attention to detail--with regard to Woolf's appearance and the setting--but it's not really enough to draw our attention away from the artificial nature of the story.

After some meditations on the nature of time, the reader is treated to a kind of reverie that puts me in mind of Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (although it's been a long time since I read it):

And yet when she was gone, her scent lingered a long time in the room, a scent chosen nearly at random in a shop in Jermyn Street; a scent chosen for its lovely name, not its odor, which she didn't like to trouble the clerk to demonstrate for her on the inside of her wrist where the blue vein beat. Besides, she must reach before it closed a shop nearby, if she could remember the street and how exactly it intersected with this one, where pens were sold, and where she would be able to make her demands more specific--where, that is, she would have demands. Standing in Oxford Street, oddly exhilarated by the first breath of ancient autumn which cut through the London air like a new nib across coarse-grained paper, she thought suddenly to telegraph Leonard to say that after all she had decided to stay up in town and attend Lady Colefax's party...

I imagine that readers closely familiar with Woolf's work will find much in "The Reason for the Visit" to delight them. For me, the only delight to be had was at the paragraph level, in sentences like the ones above, which provide a groundedness that the story as a whole does not possess. There is a lovely sense of longing and regret--and, on Crowley's part, an admiration--that hangs over the story like a fog, trying to obscure the artificiality of the entire effort. I did not really enjoy reading "The Reason for the Visit," but I admired its parts.



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