'Virginia Woolf,' a festival of flattery

April 16, 1995|By Donna Rifkind | Donna Rifkind,Special to The Sun

"Virginia Woolf," by James King. Illustrated. 699 pages. New York: Norton. $35

Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? Her latest biographer, James King, for one. His new book can be judged by its cover: burnished gold letters on a serious black field, from which Mrs. Woolf's magnificent head looms in a photograph by Man Ray. Make no mistake, this jacket says: This is not biography but hagiography, not so much a look at the real Virginia Woolf as a hallelujah to the stony goddess of women's studies by a cringing academic pilgrim.

These days we like our biographies massive and important-looking, and Mr. King, a professor at Canada's McMaster University who has written books about Cowper and Blake, delivers the goods; yet what does he contribute to the flood of Woolf scholarship that, say, Lyndall Gordon's "Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life" (1984) or Phyllis Rose's "Woman of Letters" (1978) does not?

Mr. King claims that his book is a "total revaluation" of Woolf as a writer and the first full-scale attempt to explore the relationship between her life and work. That life is given thorough, if pedestrian, treatment: the writer's 1882 birth and gloomy London childhood with a beautiful distant mother who died too soon and a famous, forbidding father, the banally evil half-brothers who sexually molested her; the bouts of mental illness; her central role in the Bloomsbury clique; the long, fruitful marriage to Leonard Woolf; the intense relationship with her sister Vanessa Bell and the writer Vita Sackville-West; the founding of Hogarth Press; the experience of two world wars and, in 1941, her suicide.

There are errors here. Vanessa both marries and bears her first child in February 1908 (the marriage actually took place in 1907). T. S. Eliot's magazine, the Criterion, here becomes the New Criterion, which today might amuse that contemporary journal's editors but is wrong nonetheless. There isn't nearly enough material about the exertions, sexual and otherwise, of Woolf's Bloomsbury friends. (They were a lusty group, after all, and here their juice is missing, along with much of Leonard Woolf's complexity.)

As for Virginia Woolf's oeuvre, what we are given is not a "revaluation" but a festival of flattery, in which all her works, novels and non-fiction alike, are assessed as masterpieces of equal pricelessness. Even Mr. King's toughest criticisms are just reconstituted praise: "'Jacob's Room,'" he writes, "is a book in which one too readily feels its author's genius."

This kind of sycophancy benefits neither newcomers to Woolf's work nor her fans. "To the Lighthouse," "Orlando," the collected essays these are the books that still deserve our attention. "The Waves," "The Years" - can anybody get through them? There is no shame in admitting that it simply cannot be done.

We hardly need another biography that makes a monument of Woolf and precious dead artifacts of her books. More valuable would be a reappraisal of her for the MTV generation. What can her life, devoted passionately to the power of literature, possibly mean to a culture bewitched by images, for whom the written word has nowhere near the ascendancy it had in her day?

Donna Rifkind, a former literary agent and magazine editor, is writing a book of essays about Los Angeles. She contributed to the anthology "Beyond the Boom." She writes for the American )) Scholar, the New Criterion and the Wall Street Journal, among others.

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