Book: Monday or Tuesday Eight Stories
Author: Virgina Woolf
Original Language/Translation: English
Genre: Literary Fiction, Short Stories
Page Count:54 pgs
Overall Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
There is something innately transient and eternal about Virginia Woolf’s works. Transient, because each sentence speaks with a penchant for human thought; fleeting thoughts flow into one another as if symbiotic with the human conscious while dressed in the perfect syntax to materialize it. Eternal, because that stream runs upward, hoping to merge into pool of cosmic understanding that transcends physical existence (and boundaries) into an open collectiveness. It has the capacity to extend into infinity, to break the stagnation caused by binary-ideology, but that capacity is locked from the inside. And it is precisely that which Woolf spent her writing career trying to unlock. It is that very yearning that manifested in many forms in her under-the-radar selection of short ‘stories’ titled Monday or Tuesday: Eight Stories.
I. Destruction and Re-Construction of “Story”
Now, the intent of this review-turned-essay isn’t to ponder on the ideologies that Woolf prescribed to or the nature of the conventional ‘story’, but the latter is one that cannot be avoided, at least in context. First, there is one condition that must be prefaced. There tends to be general or normative understanding of “story” – essentially, the common anatomy and progression of a story. The way various stories are digested and then evaluated tend to depend on these normative rules and understandings whether from things like “plot consistency” to “characterization” , and all of these elements have their own structural and substantive requirements. However, this rubric for ‘story’ has to be reconstructed because that universalized anatomy gets dismantled by Woolf, and by extension, the Modernists that wrote within that movement. Sense of time, linearity, concreteness, conflict/resolution all get inverted to new heights.
The trademark of the modernist movement was reinventing story-telling from the inside while distancing itself from the Romantic spirit of its predecessors and embracing contents and styles that were not only innovative but fundamentally redefining. The narratives that were once draped in lavish externalities and romantic affairs of the world now moved into the temporal and spiritual sanctuary of human consciousness; completely enraptured by the kinetic mind. This style is otherwise known as stream-of-consciousness. Often times, the entire tale would take place in the abstract space of the mind, exploring the inner-most, subdued corners of the psyche revealing unparalleled psychological breadth and new kinds of aesthetic possibilities.
When the focus of any discipline shifts as an “extreme” response to what is essentially posited as an irrelevant and insufficient status quo, what results is a complete breakdown of the building blocks that might have constituted it for eons. It is as inevitable as the very skepticism and disdain that stimulates that response (consider a literary revolution of sorts).
The reason this is all important is because the narratives [reviewed] here do not follow the traditional format of the spatially-aware-time-sensitive-linearly-moving story-telling. I’ve read countless criticisms of Woolf (and the works of many of her colleagues) that attempt to devoid the merit of their writings based on arbitrarily assigned |attributes| that claim these stories aren’t stories for they lack plot, or they don’t employ standard rules of good sentence construction (really?). The beauty or quality in these stories doesn’t lie in structural familiarity rising with the plot, sprinkled with characterization, fluffed with theme and setting, and falling with a mutual understanding where we can all nod our heads in unison. Rather, it lies its ability to redefine those very elements and present the world from (arguably) the closest manner in which one can envision it in. The style in which the narrative takes form is as important as the form that it doesn’t take, and this is where it is possible to delve into the flesh of the stories in Monday or Tuesday and recognize that the ‘Story’ is not absolute as tradition will have it. These stories and the author & movement that fueled them reminded the world then, and now that: Artistic Spirit demands innovation and experimentation not only as a constant but also in explosive bursts of radical energy.
II. Experimenting with Literary Sublimity and New Form
Virginia Woolf’s Monday or Tuesday: Eight Stories is both a blueprint for her later, more monumental works and a new experimental endeavor within the literary world. However, as a standalone work, it is quite impressive in itself. Surprisingly, when the collection was first published, it did not receive the attention it deserved either by critics nor the public. However, it was eventually marveled at and reaffirmed by the great poet T.S Eliot as being the gap between her “experimental prose and other novels”, as it was this collection that deviated from her former musings into the highly experimental form and style that she later became known for.
What makes these stories something of a novelty is first and foremost the form and structure. Sentences often streamed together in continuous thoughts, broken by external observation and then progressed by more discorded but fluid musings and perceptions (of everything inside, outside, and in between). The conversations and monologues would trail off in a dreamy realm where the narrator has a one-on-one with him/herself perceiving, questioning, revealing, contemplating, wondering but always grounded in lucid thought and their reality (which is key), since it does not mean THE Reality and it doesn’t need to. The focus generally emphasized looking from-inside the individual and perceiving the world internally, untouched by anyone or anything else. This important direction in point of view and narration elevated the form of the “short story” further into creative opportunities for form.
“How readily our thoughts swarm upon a new object, lifting it a little way, as ants carry a blade of straw so feverishly, and then leave it…. If that mark was made by a nail, it can’t have been for a picture, it must have been for a miniature–the miniature of a lady with white powdered curls, powder-dusted cheeks, and lips like red carnations. A fraud of course, for the people who had this house before us would have chosen pictures in that way–an old picture for an old room. That is the sort of people they were–very interesting people, and I think of them so often, in such queer places, because one will never see them again, never know what happened next. They wanted to leave this house because they wanted to change their style of furniture, so he said, and he was in process of saying that in his opinion art should have ideas behind it when we were torn asunder, as one is torn from the old lady about to pour out tea and the young man about to hit the tennis ball in the back garden of the suburban villa as one rushes past in the train.”- From the story “The Mark on the Wall”.
Second is undeniably the prose. After all, it is way that something is delivered that can induce the profoundest of effects. The way the form stretched into various realms, allowed the prose to follow suit. And Woolf’s prose is blessed with a sublimity that is hard to eschew, or not fall in complete love with. The vivid imagery conjured up by mental energy of the narrator or the unidentified voice of the story is wildly palpable and visual. It’s as if the description is more similar to visualizing a painting with all the brilliant colors of the spectrum, rather than inked words on paper.
“Stooping, holding their silver lamp above us, long they look and deeply. Long they pause. The wind drives straightly; the flame stoops slightly. Wild beams of moonlight cross both floor and wall, and, meeting, stain the faces bent; the faces pondering; the faces that search the sleepers and seek their hidden joy.”
-From “A Haunted House”
“LAZY AND INDIFFERENT, shaking space easily from his wings, knowing his way, the heron passes over the church beneath the sky. White and distant, absorbed in itself, endlessly the sky covers and uncovers, moves and remains. A lake? Blot the shores of it out! A mountain? Oh, perfect–the sun gold on its slopes. Down that falls. Ferns then, or white feathers, for ever and ever– ”
-From “Monday or Tuesday”
“FROM THE OVAL-SHAPED flower-bed there rose perhaps a hundred stalks spreading into heart-shaped or tongue-shaped leaves half way up and unfurling at the tip red or blue or yellow petals marked with spots of colour raised upon the surface; and from the red, blue or yellow gloom of the throat emerged a straight bar, rough with gold dust and slightly clubbed at the end. The petals were voluminous enough to be stirred by the summer breeze, and when they moved, the red, blue and yellow lights passed one over the other, staining an inch of the brown earth beneath with a spot of the most intricate colour. The light fell either upon the smooth, grey back of a pebble, or, the shell of a snail with its brown, circular veins, or falling into a raindrop, it expanded with such intensity of red, blue and yellow the thin walls of water that one expected them to burst and disappear. Instead, the drop was left in a second silver grey once more, and the light now settled upon the flesh of a leaf, revealing the branching thread of fibre beneath the surface, and again it moved on and spread its illumination in the vast green spaces beneath the dome of the heart-shaped and tongue-shaped leaves. Then the breeze stirred rather more briskly overhead and the colour was flashed into the air above, into the eyes of the men and women who walk in Kew Gardens in July.”
-From “Kew Gardens”
This experimentation not only resulted in a new “type” of writing altogether, but stitched together literary story-telling with other art-forms such as “visual arts and music”. This is particularly evident in her story “Monday or Tuesday” or “Blue or Green” where the respective colors are given life through word, association, and creativity. The other evidence is found in her story “The String Quartet” where the pieces being played and sounds produced are brought to life by imagistic writing.
“…the connection between Woolf’s prose and Pater’s dictum about music may have been brought to mind by “The String Quartet.” In this story, a narrator attends a performance of a Mozart string quartet. In between the narrator’s thoughts and snatches of overheard conversation, each movement of the piece is rendered in words that attempt to imitate and represent in images the sound of the music, rather than describe it. Other art forms also make an appearance in the collection, as can be seen in the visual aspects of “Blue & Green,” a short lyrical sketch that abandons narrative entirely, instead offering two impressionistic passages, first of images involving green, then of blue. These short stories are early reflections of Woolf’s interest in merging literature with other arts, particularly music and the visual arts, a theme that can be found in many of her later works (see, for example, the role of painting in To the Lighthouse and that of music in The Waves).” –Yale University’s Modernism Lab
This was the foundation of Woolf’s remarkable attempt at transcribing raw senses, mental processes, and human emotion. The sort of communication she produced as a result was all-encompassing for not only was she able to bring together different mediums of Art through words, but was able to create a style and form that literally, changed the game. And it is within some of these short ‘stories’ that one can trace the beginning of a new kind of sublimity that extended beyond any paradigm that literature might have subscribed to before.
III. The Matter at Heart: Content in Review
The form, prose, and structural points of these stories have been briefly elucidated upon, so it’s only natural that a little bit on the content; the bloodwork of these stories be discussed in an evaluative fashion.
This collection of stories are not just peculiarly fascinating in form but also because of how well they present Woolf’s spirit as a writer, experimental vigor as an artist, and unfiltered rawness as a human being. Each story is a psychological snapshot of the time and situation it’s depicting, offering an abundance of perspective and an unmatched capacity for manifesting those perspective – one of the many ways that Woolf employed to clear the binary smoke (for one example of gender, often times speaking in gender-neutral tones and multi-perspectives).
The stories vary in length, subject, and style as some are more focused on internal resolves of the narrators while others were more experimental in nature trying to capture sensory and artistic portraits into words. Along with the many types of stylistic choices that Woolf was fiddling with, there was an intense focus on thematic profundity that worked in tandem with the psychological forefront of the works. Bitter isolationism, warm nostalgia, forlorn romances, societal satire, introspective value, and on and on are fully found within the matter of these stories. Woolf being interested time with psychology often wrote with such a strong candor and grasp on the various facets of psychological ideas that it often times felt like one was sitting inside the head of the speaker watching the birth and death of the thoughts as they spoke or subvocalized them, and fully melting into the process as it happened.
Yet, there was a common factor that I found brought all these perhaps seemingly disconnected stories together (with perhaps the only exception being “Blue or Green”). That factor being a kind of rejection of an objective truth backed by a singular reality. Most of these stories are married by an imaginative reality through “fabrication” of sorts, because truth is never really there or ascertained; that fabrication comes in the forms of perspectives and that there is always a search for “something”. I hesitate to use the word fabrication, but in this context, imagine it as sort of a supplement rather than a falsity. Now, the perceived reality is the imagined reality and multiple perspectives coexist in it, as is envisioned throughout the narrative. For example, in the story “Monday or Tuesday”, an unknown consciousness is contemplating and describing various images, ideas, and sensory observations throughout the day which begins with a lazy heron flying over. Throughout this story, Woolf penetrates into the way of the heron which has no mind for time and is completely disassociated with it, which then is suddenly juxtaposed by the ticking of the clock and the consciousness’s conscious desire for the “truth”. These various dualities are found in almost every story; bringing out contrasting elements and painting their coexistence in the reality perceived by the entity that is narrating. This constant renewed effort to understand the truth whether it be through meaning as is set up “Monday or Tuesday” or the past as in “Kew Gardens” or whatever conduit used often just remains a superficial goal, since that is generally the the portal that allows the story to probe the mind and heart of the perspectives involved.
The way these complex nuances and ideas came together often in no more than half a page was astounding. The kind of development these stories contain, from a narrative perspective is microscopic, as it deals with the minute grains of thought-process, but grand in terms of effect. Compare an unfiltered mental snap-shot of the event, rather than an external reiteration, and the point itself can be actualized. There is just something innately visceral about “reading somebody’s thoughts” – literally. That’s the sort of development I found in the pages with the many narrators of these stories, and it was satisfying as could be.
IV. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Really, these set of stories should be devoured by everyone who enjoys literature, wants to be a writer, likes Woolf, dislikes Woolf, likes reading, is alive – basically. They contain the purest form of the Artistic spirit and bear the processes of the artists with every word, as un-conventional as they may be, but hey, isn’t that Art? It must evolve, as it is a sign of our own evolution in whatever way it may be. And although, this collection isn’t much read and wasn’t/isn’t very popular, it contains some of the most eclectic, and prose-laden stories I’ve had the pleasure of reading. All of these stories harbor a certain éclat that is hard to fully verbalize, but should be experienced, nonetheless.
Thoughts are transient, but Woolf’s works eternalizes human thought – in all of its stochastic glory – in the eight stories found within this collection, and albeit they have been argued countless times by countless critics as “story-less”, I say to anyone looking to expand their horizons, to eradicate normative absolutes regarding story-telling, to find themselves within the galaxy inside – to read this collection.
 Discussed on the Modernism Lab @ Yale University