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Christine Reynier. Virginia Woolf’s Ethics of the Short Story

Claire DAVISON-PÉGON
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Christine REYNIER. Virginia Woolf’s Ethics of the Short Story. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, ISBN: 978-0230227187.

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1One has only to try and bring to mind the collection of texts that makes up a body definable as ‘Woolf’s short stories’ to realise that a critic setting out to give a synthetic appraisal of them is embarking on a somewhat intrepid mission. Even the word “body” seems rather optimistic for a corpus whose limits are decidedly hazy: do sketches from childhood count? What about essays adopting a markedly fictional or decentred voice, or autobiographical tales interwoven with skeins of fantasy? Do the fragments later reframed into novelistic interludes, or character studies really fall into place alongside deliberately crafted shorter fictions, experimental musings or playful potboilers? And what about pieces that seemingly began life as a diary entry, or as anecdote, before re-emerging as stories plumped up for the purpose by editors, publishers or academics?

2So varied and disorderly does this motley assembly seem, and so drawn out across a writer’s entire career, composed in such diverging contexts and for such a variety of readers, that it would appear hazardous indeed not only to mark out a clear outline for this elusive body, but to speak out confidently in defence of its aesthetic and ethical unity.

3Yet this is the challenge that Christine Reynier takes up in her recent study, reminding the reader from the outset that despite the ever-expanding mass of books and monographs on Woolf, her shorter fiction remains the decidedly overlooked, poorer member of the family, neglected as much by critics and publishers of the short story as by Woolf scholars. The former would seem to have left her stories to the mainstream specialists —with the exception of Hermione Lee’s two volumes, The Secret Self, one is struck by the near absence of titles by Woolf in anthologies of English or twentieth-century short stories for instance—, while the latter appear to read the stories essentially as minor preludes to the major works. Yet however tentative the notion of a body of stories is, there is no denying the dense, often exalting and highly crafted nature of the works that might fall within this frame, and for this reason alone, Christine Reynier’s work is a hugely welcome contribution to Woolf scholarship and to critical and theoretical inquiry into the short story as a genre. But it is far more than this. For an English-speaking readership, it provides a rich and insightful entry into recent Woolf scholarship in France, as well as a very successful example of how those two French exercises, the explication de texte (a form of intricate, articulate close reading that opens onto a fuller understanding of textual dynamics) and the essai de philosophie can enter into dialogue with critique and praxis more commonly found in Anglo-American approaches. Indeed, it might even be suggested that the work reads as a splendid crash-course in recent French critical debate, being so firmly grounded on concepts ranging from Barthes, Deleuze, Guattari, Lacoue-Labarthe and Levinas to Rancière, and on works often not available in translation. But it also draws resourcefully on Bakhtin and Attridge to provide a dialogic critical space, which is thus an ethical and truly European space with no divisive British Channel, whereby to explore the limits and coherence of its premises.

4Perhaps to counter-balance the fuzziness of its corpus, the study itself is extremely clearly and distinctly mapped out, with each chapter covering a very specific angle of the short stories, and drawing on one or two focal stories to prove its point. The first chapter is a remarkably astute exploration of what Woolf herself conceived of and appreciated as the short story, solving the disappointing absence of reflections by Woolf herself on her own short-story-writing praxis by drawing on remarks she scatters throughout her essays and reviews concerning shorter fiction written by her elders, her models or her contemporaries. By assembling the random comments — crisp dismissals, impatient reservations and generous praise — found in a variety of texts (foremost among which are ‘An Essay in Criticism’, ‘Rereading Meredith’ and  ‘The Russian Point of View’) Christine Reynier sketches out what she calls a “working framework” (20) that illustrates what Woolf admired and expected in shorter fiction; this framework stands as a template defining her own goals and practices. The approach enables Christine Reynier to explore how Woolf favours an “impersonal art of proportion and emotion”, where the short story is conceived along the lines of Greek literature, impersonal, ungendered, spare, pure in line and yet rich in intensity. Several characteristic features within Woolf’s own stories are thus highlighted by such a tangential approach, seemingly peering over Woolf’s shoulder to look at how she looked at the fiction of others and thereby conceivably perceived her own. Meredith, Hemingway, Chekhov and Mérimée thus emerge as gauges reflecting back on an art Woolf herself was trying to perfect, in which emotion should be sparse and yet foregrounded, where the ego should be deposed while vision should remain intensely personal, with conversation used sparingly while dialogues are woven across and throughout the textual fabric, and where the silent and the spoken intermingle.

5The second chapter is construed as quite a structural approach to the stories, starting from the paradoxical dynamics of rationality and intensity, impersonality and emotion, proportion and spontaneity to study how the short fiction works as both fragment and frame, embedding narratives which break off in tangents and play with the vagaries of thought as they work towards a conclusion. This focus on textuality and textual construction illustrates how the stories all emerge from the interplay of framing devices and “leakage”, from the early tales such as ‘A Dialogue upon Mount Pentelicus’ or ‘The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn’ via the better known and largely admired masterpieces like ‘Kew Gardens’ or ‘A Mark on the Wall’, through to more conventional or whimsical pieces such as ‘Lappin and Lapinova’ and ‘The Shooting Party’. Reynier argues in favour of an over-arching narrative logic by drawing particularly on theories of fragmentation and the literary fragment as propounded by Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy on the one hand, and Walter Benjamin on the other, whereby wholeness and incompletion, unity and dispersion are brought together in a single unity or synthetic whole. She highlights in particular how even the most traditionally conceived pieces evade the totalising pressures of perfect closure, to ensure emotional intensity is always blended with inconclusiveness. By providing a structural reading of the stories, Christine Reynier thus shows how Woolf breaks down familiar patterns not only of short-story telling, but also short-story reading, so that, like Miranda in the orchard, or Roland Barthes in Le Bruissement de la langue, we read with our eyes detached from the text.

6Chapter Three studies the use of conversation within the stories as a means by which to sound out the complex relationship between self and other in Woolf’s works. Careful attention is paid to silent exchanges in which encounters are consolidated by networks of unspoken conversation or ‘subconversation’, in moments of exchanged bliss that are often near mystical states (the mystical remaining one of those domains that Woolf critics continue to steer clear of as Gillian Beer ruefully pointed out). While Christine Reynier clearly sets the conversation as a decidedly ethical meeting of two subjects, or of inter-connected subjectivities, she does also admit the intensely destructive nature of verbal exchanges too, as found in a number of Woolf’s texts.

7This ethical space wherein self and other are characters within the text opens out in the fourth chapter to embrace writing and reading frames that are staged by the texts themselves. We thus follow Woolf’s use of transtextual and metatextual devices to see how textual dynamics rely on story-telling processes, interwoven public and private spaces, moments of vision and a visionary creative process. Close readings of ‘Lady in the Looking Glass’ and ‘The Haunted House’ illustrate particularly well how the stories fictionalise theories found in the essays and stage the processes of composition, celebrating the richness of literary constructs as opposed to the ordinariness or emptiness of the real world. Christine Reynier shows incisively how, while Woolf’s musical prose may fall within the realm of the sensuous “textes de jouissance” that Barthes famously celebrated, she is decidedly un-Barthesian in her conception of the “happy alliance” bringing writer and reader into an intimate, emotional exchange, thus by-passing the exclusive, antithetical divide that marks the death of the author. The ethical dimension of literary construction is pushed to its limit in this chapter (notably when the author reads creation as transgressive violation or even ‘visual rape’ which is discomforting indeed) but in the end writing is posited as a form of reading, reading as a form of writing, in a generous, ethical exchange.

8The fifth chapter builds on the notion of conversations extending beyond textual space or the immediate confines of individual reception, to consider how Woolf’s short stories can also be read as forms of engagement in which political standpoints are firmly written into aesthetic endeavours. Here, Christine Reynier makes a strong argument in favour of silence as a ruthless narrative strategy in ‘The Legacy’ and ‘The Shooting Party’ where the stifled voice of Angela’s diary for example reads as a poignant and outspoken silence that speaks for a generation of Edwardian women whose repression in terms of sexuality and suffrage is to be read alongside the masculine and bloodthirsty dynamics of the hunt. As this final, synthetic chapter builds into a dynamic argument in favour of commitment woven into an often misleadingly unpoliticised textual surface, Christine Reynier returns to the Bakhtinian notion of polyphony to show how an arena of voices gives the text a democratic impulse, relying on hybrid genres and obscure minor lives. She thus argues that metafiction, as employed by Woolf, is decidedly not the self-reflexive, narcissistic, intransitive device that it is so often deemed to be but a powerful political weapon that champions impurity and challenges generic and vocal authority.

9The book is an extremely engaging study of Woolf’s short stories, that indeed also makes perfect sense as a reading of Woolf’s craftsmanship as a whole, for the textual strategies being foregrounded here are as much a part of the novels and essays as they are of the shorter fiction. It surely paves the way for more inclusive readings of Woolf’s shorter fiction within a general corpus of short stories; it links up well with recent political readings of early twentieth century fiction that mark a welcome and much overdue departure from earlier beliefs in modernism’s sterile autonomy. It is a work that invites questions and reservations as well as it provides arguments or answers, but in this respect too, it shows that criticism, and not just fiction, can (or perhaps should) be construed as an ethical encounter.

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Référence électronique

Claire DAVISON-PÉGON, « Christine Reynier. Virginia Woolf’s Ethics of the Short Story », E-rea [En ligne], 8.1 | 2010, mis en ligne le 21 septembre 2010, consulté le 19 août 2017. URL : http://erea.revues.org/1436

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Claire DAVISON-PÉGON

Lerma, Aix-Marseille Université

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