Virginia Woolf’s Sketch of the Past

Ever since I’ve started Virginia Woolf’s Sketch of the Past, I found myself wondering how it is possible to write about close relatives. Writing about a close relative is fraught with difficulty, even if you dare being completely honest in your attempt. How to achieve a portrait  without completely distorting this person’s character, or use clichés to fill the gaps we all have about someone, even a close one. In short, my question arising from this wonderful text is: how well do you know your parents, siblings, spouse?

I personally cannot even imagine starting to write about my mother like Woolf does. Is it the distance, or the right level of knowledge, purified by emotional links? Strangely enough, it seems to me, in a quick approach, that it would be easier for me to write about more distant relatives than closer ones. Does that mean that I know them better? Of course not, it’s only a fallacy: I just realize better the inadequacy, or the poor extent of my comprehension of closer relatives. I just can’t fill the gap with clichés, because the closer you get to know someone, the more inadequate the cliché seems.

A recent post by Bloglily on discovering her mother-in-law, a woman whom she’s always felt kind of distant and who has been revealing titbits of her fascinating life, got me thinking about that subject too (sorry, BL, if I distort facts about you and your MIL!). Isn’t that funny that when you get introduce a significant other to your family, you discover a whole new side of your parents, who introduce themselves in an unexpected way and perhaps get to talk about things they never told you before?Well, my post really is rambling, so I cannot resist giving you just another quote of Woolf: 

I was thinking about Stella as we crossed the Channel a month ago. I have not given her a thought since. The past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that is is like the sliding surface of a deep river. Then one sees through the surface to the depths. In those moments I find  one of my greatest satisfactions, not that I am thinking of the past; but that it is then that I am living most fully in the present. For the present when backed by the past is a thousand times deeper than the present when it presses so close that you can feel nothing else, when the film on the camera reaches only the eye. But to feel the present sliding over the depths of the past, peace is necessary. The present must be smooth, habitual. For this reason – that it destroys the fullness of life – any break – like that of house moving – causes me extreme distress; it breaks; it shallows; it turns the depth into hard thin splinters.

(In Sketch of the Past)

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One thought on “Virginia Woolf’s Sketch of the Past

  1. I wonder if V Woolf was able to write about her mother as she did because she died early on in her life. It struck me as I was reading your comments that this is perhaps why she was success.

    Just recently, I finished reading ‘The complete shorter fiction of VW’ which was great. I had spent so much time reading VW’s diaries and letters that it was wonderful to rediscover her writing.

    Great post.

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