I chose writers I like to read and I asked them to write as much or as little as pleased them. I am not interested in the tyranny of length. One good sentence is better than a hundred pages of blather. Perhaps with this in mind I asked four poets: Eavan Boland, Carol Ann Duffy, Jackie Kay and Jo Shapcott. I wanted to be specific about matching titles to authors. I felt there should be a connection of some kind and also that the writer and the critic should be in sympathy. This has happened. The essays are sharp, imaginative and full of zest. Listen to Eavan Boland on To the Lighthouse -
"This is not a novel of Englishness; it is not a novel of history, it is not a document of society. I mistook a case study of these realities for a deeply subversive, increasingly heartbroken dialogue with them. But that dialogue still needs to be grasped at the angle it was created:slantwise, askew."
Slantwise. Askew. These are a poet's words, but as Carol Ann Duffy says in her piece on Mrs Dalloway, ' We carry poetry inside us, even if we do not read it or write it. Woolf is a writer who allows her readers to stand inside the lived moment.'
Intensity. Intimacy. Woolf wrote as a poet. In her introduction to The Waves, Gillian Beer talks about what it is that Woolf helps us to discover - "Something permeable, something intimate, something closer to our silent experience than fiction usually permits. And something that seeks through language to reach the habitual states of being where language hardly counts, as Bernard, the professor-writer among the characters at last perceives, 'Blue, red even - they distract, even they hide with thickness instead of letting the light through.' "
I wanted to let the light through. I wanted the introductions to rip down the curtains and throw open the doors so that the work could be entered freely and with pleasure.
I was very lucky to get Peter Ackroyd to write on Orlando - who better to write on the biography of transformation than the man who has transformed biography? And he delivered three weeks early, which cannot be said for Jackie Kay or Valentine Cunningham to whom I had to send Hand of Doom faxes in Bodoni MT 72 point Ultra Bold.
Never mind. What I got was a tornado of a piece from Jackie Kay for Between the Acts and the kind of unshowy deeply intelligent scholarship from Val Cunningham on Mrs Dalloway that reminds you of what learning could be like. All the critics in this series, whether Lisa Jardine, Frances Spalding or Steven Connor, know how to engage their readers. Nothing ponderous has been allowed, but then nobody ponderous was asked.
For Jacob's Room, Woolf's War novel, Lawrence Norfolk's lovely, very English meditation is set against the tougher, European sensibility of Elisabeth Bronfen, Professor of Comparative Literature at Zurich. Susan Hill on Woolf's last novel, The Years, and Erica Wagner on her first, The Voyage Out, offer new and pleasing readings of books, that in my view, belong as much in the body of Woolf's work as the rest.
Jo Shapcott calls Night and Day 'a love song about London'. Margaret Reynolds, co-editor on the series, jams into Orlando like an academic on XTC, opening her introduction with 'Are you making an appointment to be penetrated on Friday?' Well, it is a quotation.
I asked for celebration and play because these are qualities strongly present in Woolf's work. Art is celebration. Celebration of our humanity and imagination.
A celebration of continuing life. These essays are sometimes funny, sometimes moving, always vigorous, never boring. In her piece on Between the Acts, Lisa Jardine drew me to the quote I wanted to describe the introductions in relation to the books themselves:
'like leaping dolphins in the wake of an ice-breaking vessel.'