Making Existentialist Waves (2)

A few weeks ago, I was thinking aloud about the similarities that struck me between Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, published some seven years after Woolf’s book. The more I read the Woolf, the more striking the similarities seemed. Two more examples struck me forcibly. Bernard, towards the end of the book, almost quotes Edmund Husserl’s famous phenomenological dictum, “to the things themselves”:

How much better is silence; the coffee-cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee-cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself. Do not come and worry me with your hints that it is time to shut the shop and be gone. I would willingly give all my money that you should not disturb me but will let me sit on and on, silent, alone.

Virginia Woolf: The Waves

The second concerns Sartre’s preoccupation with biography in Nausea. His character Roquentin discovers (as I described in my last post on the subject) that, for him, writing biography is impossible since the chaos of real life bore little resemblance to the recorded anecdotes told of a life. Woolf’s character Bernard makes several references to his biographer, all of which carry echoes of Sartre’s preoccupations, including this:

‘Once I had a biographer, dead long since, but if he still followed my footsteps with his old flattering intensity he would here say, “About this time Bernard married and bought a house . . . His friends observed in him a growing tendency to domesticity . . . The birth of children made it highly desirable that he should augment his income.” That is the biographic style, and it does to tack together torn bits of stuff, stuff with raw edges. After all, one cannot find fault with the biographic style if one begins letters “Dear Sir”, ends them “your faithfully”; one cannot despise these phrases laid like Roman roads across the tumult of our lives, since they compel us to walk in step like civilized people with the slow and measured tread of policemen though one may be humming any nonsense under one’s breath at the same time- …’

Virginia Woolf: The Waves

It is intriguing to speculate how not only Woolf’s stream of consciousness style might have influenced Sartre but also, subconsciously or otherwise,  the ideas she was writing about. As TS Eliot probably said, “good writers borrow, great writers steal.” It often pays for artists to play down their most significant influences. Draw attention to them and they risk commentators endlessly speculating on the similarities and differences between the artist and their model. This can be a distraction.

I know this might only be interesting to a small group of people who have read and enjoyed both of the books concerned. There is, I think, though, a more general point. I, for one, being a casual reader, was surprised to find the similarities I found. Rightly or wrongly, I kept Woolf and Sartre in quite separate compartments in my view of things: although I thought of both as Modernist novelists I had not made the connections between them I discovered by reading their work side by side. Partly, I think, this is to do with their very different backgrounds and with the very different backgrounds of the characters they invented. It is also to do with what they set out to achieve: for example, Sartre, I read, was very influenced by American “hard boiled” fiction. There is also the matter of the use of the “existentialist” label: the words existentialism and Sartre are inseparably wedded. Occasionally, the word is linked with Woolf, but not often: I may be missing something but in a quick search I found only one or two footnotes to essays suggesting that it would be interesting to explore existentialist ideas in Woolf’s writing.




Making Existentialist Waves

Perhaps I’m misjudging her but I find it hard to imagine Virginia Woolf in a black, turtle-neck sweater, smoking a Gitane. I also think Jean Paul Sartre might have raised an eyebrow or two at  her preoccupation with the servant problem. However, rereading The Waves (published in 1931) as I am, and having read  Sartre’s first novel Nausea (1938) relatively recently, I was struck by the similarities of theme. Simone de Beauvoir said that Sartre was influenced by the use of stream of consciousness by Woolf and other Modernist writers but does it run deeper than that? And could one usefully describe Woolf as an Existentialist novelist? I’ve had these thoughts at the back of my mind all the way through The Waves. The passage below is one of several where, for me, the issues came to the fore. The characters in The Waves are said to resemble specific members of Woolf’s circle. The character Rhoda is said to be based on Woolf herself and the state she describes herself as being in bears more than a passing resemblance to the “nausea” described by Sartre’s character, Roquentin. The emphases are mine:

There were lamp-posts,’ said Rhoda, ‘and trees that had not yet shed their leaves on the way from the station. The leaves might have hidden me still. But I did not hide behind them. I walked straight up to you instead of circling round to avoid the shock of sensation as I used. But it is only that I have taught my body to do a certain trick. Inwardly I am not taught; I fear, I hate, I love, I envy and despise you, but I never join you happily. Coming up from the station, refusing to accept the shadow of the trees and the pillar-boxes, I perceived, from your coats and umbrellas, even at a distance, how you stand embedded in a substance made of repeated moments run together; are committed, have an attitude, with children, authority, fame, love, society; where I have nothing. I have no face.

‘Here in this dining-room you see the antlers and the tumblers; the salt-cellars; the yellow stains on the tablecloth. “Waiter!” says Bernard. “Bread!” says Susan. And the waiter comes; he brings bread. But I see the side of a cup like a mountain and only parts of antlers, and the brightness on the side of that jug like a crack in darkness with wonder and terror. Your voices sound like trees creaking in a forest. So with your faces and their prominences and hollows. How beautiful, standing at a distance immobile at midnight against the railings of some square! Behind you is a white crescent of foam, and fishermen on the verge of the world are drawing in nets and casting them. A wind ruffles the topmost leaves of primeval trees. (Yet here we sit at Hampton Court.) Parrots shrieking break the intense stillness of the jungle. (Here the trams start.) The swallow dips her wings in midnight pools. (Here we talk.) That is the circumference that I try to grasp as we sit together. Thus I must undergo the penance of Hampton Court at seven thirty precisely.

Virginia Woolf: The Waves

Listening to Haydn (4)



Sooner or later, any discussion of Haydn’s music gets round to his “sense of humour”. The Farewell and the Surprise symphonies are the famous examples of this which are often discussed. I’m sure, when I was at school, we were told that Haydn was simply a jolly chap who liked amusing and alarming his audiences and, though this is probably true, I think there was a lot more to it than that.

I won’t repeat the famous story behind the Farewell  Symphony. However, one only has to listen to it to realize there is a lot more going on than mere leg-pull. It is an intense, serious piece of music and the phased departure of the musicians towards the end only serves to intensify it further. It puts one in mind of the kind of theatrical approach to musical form Modernist composers such as Ligeti or Kagel might have employed.

I was pleased to discover that I was not the first person to find myself thinking of a resonance with the work of the 18th century writer, Laurence Sterne. In fact, a parallel was frequently drawn in Haydn’s lifetime and, I discovered,  Haydn himself had Sterne on his bookshelf. And just as echoes of Haydn can be found in the work of Modernist composers, so the work of Sterne -in particular, the novel Tristram Shandy- influenced Modernist writers. The similarities are part influence and part a matter of a common sensibility: the relationship between the work of both men has been written about at length by David Wyn Jones in his book, Haydn.

“Shandean” is a term often used to describe work that reflects the spirit of Tristram Shandy. Sterne himself said of his writing: “”I write a careless kind of a civil, nonsensical, good humoured Shandean book…” Tristram Shandy is famous for its twists, turns and digressions, which Sterne light-heartedly writes about in the book itself and even illustrates:

I am now beginning to get fairly into my work; and by the help of a vegetable diet, with a few of the cold seeds, I make no doubt but I shall be able to go on with my uncle Toby’s story, and my own, in a tolerable straight line. Now,


Tristram_Shandy_Plot_lines *

These were the four lines I moved in through my first, second, third, and fourth volumes (Alluding to the first edition.)—In the fifth volume I have been very good,—the precise line I have described in it being this:



By which it appears, that except at the curve, marked A. where I took a trip to Navarre,—and the indented curve B. which is the short airing when I was there with the Lady Baussiere and her page,—I have not taken the least frisk of a digression, till John de la Casse’s devils led me the round you see marked D.—for as for C C C C C they are nothing but parentheses, and the common ins and outs incident to the lives of the greatest ministers of state; and when compared with what men have done,—or with my own transgressions at the letters ABD—they vanish into nothing.

Laurence Sterne: Tristram Shandy

The most Shandean of Haydn’s symphonies, in my opinion, has to be No. 46, especially in its final movement with its ts eccentric formal changes of direction (during which it seems to come to an end more than once!). To quote Wikipedia:

The opening  [of the fourth movement] is a typical energetic theme in the violins which is rapidly taken up and developed, with the horns prominent in their high register. The music rushes on only to break off suddenly, interrupted by the closing passage of the minuet [the third movement], followed by the repeat of the whole of the second half of the minuet. The horns then burst in again with the main finale theme, but fade away and the music stutters almost to a halt. Then, on an underlying pedal on the horns, the strings take the movement and symphony to a rapid and abrupt close.

What is the point of all these digressions and dislocations? In Sartre’s novel, Nausea, the main character, Roquentin, is researching the details of the life of an 18th century historical figure with a view to writing a biography. However, he decides that since he can’t understand the day-to-day chaos of his own life he certainly won’t be able to understand the life of an historical character which has been reduced to a series of recorded accounts. The stuff of life is the chaos, not the stories we create to try and make sense of it.

Similarly, Sterne’s Tristram could have stuck to his plan and given a straightforward account of the events of his life. However, had he done so, what would we know of him? Instead, every hour spent reading his ramblings is an hour spent with the man. We enjoy his chaotic company, which is surely preferable. As I said, in Nausea, Sartre’s Roquentin, faced with chaos, finds writing biography impossible. In Tristram Shandy, Tristram finds writing autobiography impossible. He puts this down to the effect on his personality of the circumstances of his conception. However, the ironic reference to “a rational Being” in the opening suggests a more more serious, philosophical aspect to this. Sterne (unlike the atheist Sartre) was a vicar and, I suggest, Tristram is his idea of a typical, irrational human forced to surf the Age of Enlightenment:

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider’d how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost;—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me.

Laurence Sterne: Tristram Shandy

If the impossibility of writing autobiography draws our attention to Tristram’s personality then perhaps Haydn’s digressions draws our attention to the music itself. It is all too easy to follow the course of a classical symphony unaware that you are really not listening to the music. Once you are familiar with the form you can usual tell where you are in it at most given moments: these bars sound like a minuet, these, the trio. Tracking its course can, unconsciously, be uppermost in the mind of the listener when what the composer wants us to do is simply listen. Like one lost in the hills forced to pay close attention to the landscape, a listener unsure of his or her bearings has to pay more attention to the soundscape. Also, like Tristram, perhaps Haydn, if he simply wants to digress from the matter at hand, does so! If art imitates life, it has at times to be spontaneous and unpredictable.




*Illustrations: Laurence Sterne [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons