Read Virginia Woolf in Manhattan Online
Authors: Maggie Gee
VIRGINIA WOOLF IN MANHATTAN
ALSO BY MAGGIE GEE
Dying in Other Words
The Burning Book
Where Are the Snows
The Ice People
The White Family
My Animal Life
For Mine Özyurt Kιlιč, with love, and for my friends in Istanbul
There is thunder as Angela flies to New York with Virginia Woolf in her handbag, lightning crackling off the wings of the plane.
Bad karma – not that she believes in it. The flight is delayed and the pilot greets them with a warning. ‘We’re expecting a little turbulence today so if the seat belt signs go on, we’d ask you to return to your seats and keep your seat belts fastened …’
Electricity flashing on chemical-rich pools 3.5 billion years ago started life, Angela reads. The power of lightning. She snaps her book closed at once.
Life on Earth
, it’s called.
Death in the air
, she’s thinking.
Taxiing, now. Too late to leave the plane.
The passport in her locker says ‘Angela Lamb’. Place of issue, London. Date of birth, 20 May 1966. There are many stamps on its pages, she’s a Frequent Flyer, she should be accustomed to storms.
The contact name at the back is still Edward Kaye, because she doesn’t know how to change it. (In any case, is she ready? They’re married. She’s in her mid-forties. Too late for another child, with another man.) Angela has one child: an only child: Gerda.
Life must have started in lots of different places, she decides as the honeyed arpeggios of the safety film unfurl. Many organelles – was that the word she liked in the book? – many cells, many pools, times, universes, lightning streaking through it all. Strong enough to spiral through billions of
years, splitting and changing, unstoppable, playful.
Life! (Is it a waste to marry only once?)
What will life do next? Where are they going?
Angela’s itinerary’s crazy: London-New York-Istanbul. Angela will fly direct from New York to Istanbul, nearly eleven hours. There are easier ways of doing it. Still Angela’s diary is demanding, geography must bend to accommodate her – the curve of the earth is certainly not going to stop her. New York for the New York Public Library, where she will read Woolf’s manuscripts in the private Berg Collection. Then Istanbul to give a paper at a big international Woolf conference, ‘Virginia Woolf in the 21st Century: Cross-cultural and Transformational Approaches’, at Istanbul University. She’s not an academic, not really, she tells people, but yes, she does a few ‘university gigs’, she has an ‘attachment’ (a Visiting Professorship).
Her real work is writing novels. She’s published by Headstone Press, recently subsumed into the gigantic Haslet group, who also make large profits from chopped, reconstituted meat. She’s popular, yes, she’s won prizes including the Iceland Prize, but she craves more: respect. To be counted as literature, which she loves – though she also likes money.
Now she’s picked up, as an alibi for take-off, Virginia Woolf’s ‘Professions for Women’, written in 1931, a human life time ago. It’s a brilliant essay, but she’s reading the same sentence over and over. Something about Woolf’s difficulties with sex and the body. ‘Telling the truth about my own experiences as a body, I do not think I solved. I doubt that any woman has solved it yet …’
Roaring down the runway!
And, as ever, part of Angela thrills to the speed as, at the
last moment, the bullet full of people noses up, up, into the air. She’s flying!
And a thought out of nowhere floats across the cabin, light as a mosquito, and lands, invisibly, on her: if I’d met Woolf, if she had met me, on the same loop of the ribbon of spacetime, what would she have thought of me?
Would she have –
Would I like her?
Charged with electricity, the thought darts onward.
Around them, around all the silver planes in this part of the air, lying this way and that below the stratosphere like so many unmagnetised iron filings, the weather systems surge, gigantic, careless, throwing off sparks from tremendous anvils fifty thousand feet up. Most jets fly at thirty-five thousand feet, so everyone’s under the cosh. The pilots are not so much tense as alert.
The chief steward of Angela’s flight is chatting to the pretty new flight attendant as she does her checks. He’s stimulated by her frightened eyes with their brown Bambi lashes. ‘There’s no danger from lightning as you know,’ he tells Neela, trying not to look too directly at her breasts. ‘The fuselage acts like a giant Faraday cage.’ Her pupils are blank, unfocused, she has no idea what he’s talking about. ‘If we take a strike, which we won’t, it would exit near the static wicks on the wings.’ ‘Wicks,’ she says, clutching at his words, ‘on the wings,’ and she sets down her pen very carefully. ‘There was something about that in the training sessions,’ but she’s thinking
the wicks of candles, burning, blazing, if it happens, I hope I’ll be brave
Everyone’s hoping they’ll break into sunlight soon, but they don’t. They continue to shudder through cloud, and the seat belt signs remain on. Outside the window, the streaming greys are uneasy, with distant flickers that may not be flickers at all,
they hope, just minute changes of light or viewpoint.
Some haul the Safety Instructions from the pouch in front of them and stare at the cracked plastic with pictures of blank little humans doing the right thing and surviving. It doesn’t show what to do if there’s lightning.
A loud creak and all the video screens come down from the roof of the cabin, stay blank, go back up. Uneasy laughter. It happens again. They laugh less, look around, not long enough to meet other eyes. Have the plane’s electrics gone wrong?
For some reason, Angela is thinking of Edward. Gerda and Edward. They have been the twin pillars of her world, but now it’s all up in the air.
Then the PA crackles into action. ‘Will everyone please remain seated with your seat belts securely fastened.’ The pilot’s voice sounds urgent. ‘We are about to go through a period of turbulence.’
Now the plane starts to jerk like a conker on a string. There’s a loud crack, some enormous force that’s indifferent to them, they are tiny and nothing and someone is sobbing.
All bets are off: Neela screams as the plane falls through space-time: thoughts collide,
Mum told me not to do this job
Virginia Woolf goes flying through the air
and lands somewhere else entirely
Yes, it’s begun.
Suddenly there’s time again; & I’m in it.
Plenty of time.
(Is there? – or just a bright gap in the night of unknowing?)
I spent …
seven, eight decades
… in the dark – a normal lifetime.
And now I am here – am I? Back on the blade of the here & now.
Will I leave any mark when I write? Will this new world read me?
Its unending light, which they all take for granted, cuts orange slats in the blinds of my room at night. Past two, three, four in the morning, the light streams on, and my head strains away like a land-locked sea lion.
I used to live, long ago, in a low quiet house, which had darkness at night & smelled of the garden, lilacs & roses, cut grass, cheroots … Leonard. June nights: him safe in the house nearby. Bats & owls, my brain racing, sometimes, but often calm – knowing I was home. One doesn’t notice how sweet … (Who was it that said ‘Observe perpetually’?)
Somehow I slipped a century. Stones in my pockets weighted me down – I sank, bursting – Then nothing. So many years in the dark. It seems I was not forgotten.
Someone longed for me, here in New York where I never went – someone hungered, and hauled me back up,
protesting, yanked me through hedges & gates of dreams, and untidy, sleepy, stunned, I was suddenly half-awake in Manhattan, Virginia Woolf in Manhattan, and it is – can it be, really? – the twenty-first century. You see, I wanted –
I wanted to sound up to date, that was all. Because my Istanbul paper was called ‘Virginia Woolf: A Long Shadow’, and I decided to look at the primary sources. I’d forgotten a lot since I first read her. So I booked a last minute package to New York, where Woolf’s manuscripts are kept.
She did mean so much to me back when I started. Yes, she was a talisman.
Something more fundamental than the paper. Where was my life, and my writing, going? I thought it might help to be close to her.
Perhaps I should begin with my daughter. (V. never had children, of course. There I’ve done better.) Gerda is thirteen. I have kept her alive! And she’s newly away at school. A rather good one, Bendham Abbey, though no-one in my family had ever been to public school before. Hard, very hard for me, sending her away, and Edward protested …
don’t think about that
. Second term, Gerda would be fine. Mobiles were banned – it’s archaic, but apparently, problems with theft, concentration in lessons. I told her we could email every day …
. So that was fine. In theory.
Of course, I am busy, as I explained to Gerda.
Odd thing – Virginia’s the quintessential English writer – but there they all are, in the New York Public Library, all those famous manuscripts,
Orlando, The Waves, To the Lighthouse
. In the Berg Collection, the dim red leather comfort of the Berg.
I suppose in the UK I’ve got used to being treated with a certain – not deference, no, but people have been nice to me, since I won the Iceland Prize. And the Apple Martini Prize. My name has become quite well-known. The Apple Martini shifts a lot of books, and actually made me money. Me and Gerda and Edward, that is. Holidays in Egypt, Australia, Jamaica. A new, better house. I’m a success. Success, success, that shiny slippery word, which I hope will never slip away from me.
Once people I met on planes or trains would ask ‘Will I have heard of you?’ and I would say, ‘Probably not.’ But now they say, with a dawning smile, ‘Oh yes, you’re quite famous, aren’t you?’, and ask if I’m going to write about them, and I smile at them politely, thinking ‘Not a chance.’ Then they ask me if I know JK Rowling, and I say ‘I met her at a party once, but really she was talking to Philip Pullman,’ and honestly, they still get quite excited.
I am successful, and I’m still quite young. Though not as young as I used to be.
She ran after me as if I were a brigand. Once I saw it was a middle-aged woman, I let myself be caught. But it unsettled me, the way she said my name. Not ‘Mrs Woolf’, ‘Virginia’.
She knew my name
To be honest, in New York my name means very little. Whereas Virginia Woolf was huge here in her lifetime –
New York Herald Tribune
No 1 best-seller with
, on the cover of
magazine, etc. And afterwards, she did cast a long shadow.
Growing bigger and deeper in the seventies and eighties as all the other women were eclipsed. On every university women’s
studies literature course, first and dead centre:
Virginia Woolf and this, Virginia Woolf and that, Virginia Woolf and the also-rans
. She’s special, clearly, but all the same – isn’t it just easier to fetishise one person? Then you don’t have to think about the rest.
I’m certainly not jealous.
In her best work, she wrote for everyone. The clarity, the astonishing reach, the perception.
When I died I thought I was almost forgotten, gone.
So this is what happened, as I understand it. (Only Gerda will believe me. She stares right through me with those pale blue eyes half-hidden by long thin red-blonde lashes, and then she shivers and hugs herself and says, sing-song, ‘Re-ally, Mummy?’ Gerda was raised on fairytales.)
New York. No pickup at the airport. When I called the hotel to remonstrate, they said there was no record that the plane had landed. Sleepless night, glaring orange hotel sign outside my window. Everything felt frazzled and burnt out. Yet underneath, something itching, energetic.
I slept. And woke: to a new beginning.
A new day, after all, in New York! One of my favourite things, a New York morning. So what if the breakfast room was overcrowded? A fat man shouldered his way out and I nipped into his seat by the window. Sun on my eggs. Outside, the wide street streaming with purpose. I’m a positive person, it’s one of my virtues – Edward was a bit of a moaner. The gorgeous light scored straight to the park. The hotel was a dump, but near Central Park.
I love it all. The skating rink, the joggers, the lake, the spring
trees, that delicate yellow – the zoo. Oh yes, I love the zoo. It’s a play zoo, really, tiny and lovely. Monkeys, bears, in the heart of the city, so alien and mysterious. Alive in the moment, so different from us.