Random Reading (#4): Virginia Woolf’s Roger Fry: A Biography (1940)

Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry (1940). Cover design and portrait of Roger Fry by Vanessa Bell

I had avoided reading Roger Fry: A Biography (1940) until this past summer, though I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it’s because Woolf seems so reticent in her diary and letters to accept the project and so frustrated and limited by the genre itself. Perhaps it’s because of my own lack of interest in biography . . .

Whatever the reason, I finally sat down with Roger Fry in July. I can’t say that it changed my life (the way Three Guineas did), but I was intrigued by Woolf’s method of arranging short and long passages from Fry’s essays, books, letters, and other writings into long-ish chapters that read more like verbal sketches than narratives. I found myself loving how Woolf not only introduces but anticipates a quotation or a turn of phrase that becomes one of the biography’s many refrains. For instance:

From Les Baux he moved on to Martiques, cycling with his easel strapped to the carrier. He preferred travelling alone, he confessed, for then he could give his whole mind to the landscape. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the landscape in his life. He analysed it in all its vagaries and its moods, its asperities and its charms, as if it were a human being. The atmosphere of the country affected him almost as much as the human atmosphere, to which he was, as he said, “horribly sensitive”. “Aren’t atmospheres”, he wrote, “the reallest things there are?” (223)

I admit that I am delighted not just by how quotable Fry is. (His words about meeting André Gide continue to stay with me all these months later: “He’s a real event in my life at a time when events are very rare. [. . .] He’s almost too ridiculously my counterpart in taste and feeling. It’s like finding a twin” [211].) I am more delighted by the capacity of Woolf to make such quotations resonate, giving them relationships to other moments or movements or crises (in thought, feeling, occupation). Whether it’s the slow break from his parents’ vision of his career in science, his abandonment of religious faith, his time in the United States, his everyday life during the war, his failure in attaining a university position, his success as a touring lecturer, or his musings on aging and writing . . . regardless of whatever Fry is so eloquent in describing or analyzing, Woolf is equally impressive in her role as commentator, summarizer, and occasional speculator.

Indeed, it is difficult not to linger with correspondences between Woolf’s thought and Fry’s when reading the biography. Though it has not gone unnoticed in Woolf studies, of course, there’s something important about experiencing firsthand Woolf’s inspired invention of phrases like “moments of vision” (similar to “moments of being”) (161) or “common seer” (similar to “common reader”) (226-27). And, of course, no account of Woolf’s resistance to lecturing as an pedagogical mode is complete without her contrapuntal description of Fry as lecturer:

Somehow the black-and-white slide on the screen became radiant through the mist, and took on the grain and texture of the actual canvas. [. . .] As the next slide slid over the sheet there was a pause. He gazed afresh at the picture. And then in a flash he found the word he wanted; he added on the spur of the moment what he had just seen as if for the first time. That, perhaps, was the secret of his hold over his audience. They could see the sensation strike and form; eh could lay bare the very moment of perception. So with pauses and spurts the world of spiritual reality emerged in slide after slide—in Poussin, in Chardin, in Rembrandt, in Cézanne—in its uplands and its lowlands, all connected, all somehow made whole and entire, upon the great screen in the Queen’s Hall. And finally, the lecturer, after looking long through his spectacles, came to a pause. He was pointing to a late work by Cézanne, and he was baffled. He shook his head; his stick rested on the floor. It went, he said, far beyond any analysis of which he was capable. And so instead of saying, “Next slide”, he bowed, and the audience emptied itself into Langham Place. (262-63)

Although I am sure this is not Woolf’s desired effect, passages like this make me wish not only that I could have witnessed Fry’s lecturers myself but that I could have witnessed Woolf’s private musings on her friend and on others. She draws out on nearly every page of this work—as she does in her essays on writers and thinkers and historical periods—something interesting and captivating, moving and insightful that inspires a double admiration: of Woolf’s object of study and of Woolf herself. Though she praises Fry for his ability to see and notice (170, 256), Woolf demonstrates that she too notices and sees and is capable of turn Frying into the very sort of “atmosphere” or shape or whole or landscape that he spent his lifetime investigating in the visual arts. The final pages of the biography are a testament to Woolf’s ability to compose, that is, to draw together components into an open shape that takes on an unexpected texture or consistency.

Final paragraph of Roger Fry: A Biography (pg. 298). Note: Spinoza! (Also quoted/paraphrased on pg. 278.)

Here is Fry becoming-landscape:

And human beings are not works of art. They are not consciously creating a book that can be read, or a piecture that can be hung upon the wall. (294)

And yet:

If for a moment we attempt [Fry’s] own task and assume that he was an artist who began his work in 1866 and continued it with immense energy and inventiveness for sixty-eight years, we can perhaps single out a few of the qualities that gave it shape. There are certain phrases that recur, that seem to stress the pattern of the whole. His own words “It gives me pure delight” might serve as a beginning. They bring to mind the little boy who sat in his own private and particular garden at Highgate, watching for the bud to burst into flower—”I conceived that nothing could be more exciting than to see the flower suddenly burst its green case and unfold its immense cup of red”. What was true of the child in the garden was true of the man all through his life. There was always some bud about to burst into flower; there was always some flower that gave him pure delight. But the critic who attempts to analyse the composition of his own work of art will have to note that his flower did not burst suddenly and completely into its immense cup of red. There were many obstacles. We recall the pond in winter; the “lack of simple humanity” in his upbringing that long cramped and fettered him. Sunningdale and its floggings followed; from them he learnt a hatred of brutality that lasted all through his life. From Clifton and its “crass bourgeois respectability” sprang his intolerance of the Philistine, of the conventional. Cambridge, of course, meant liberation. Only there again nature thwarted him. She gave him the capacity for pure delight, but a mind quick to doubt, to reason, to analyse, to dissect—perhaps to destroy pure delight. It was only after much waste of time and temper that he set to work with all his faculties upon the picture. The critic therefore has to record no steady and uninterrupted progress, but rather a series of sallies and excursions in different directions. Sensation beckons one way; training and reason another. The Quaker, the scientist, the artist, each in turn took a hand in the composition. And then happiness, a medium that would have solved many difficulties, was snatched from him. He had no centre. (294-95)

Woolf’s paragraph continues, flooding into yet another paragraph that mimics Fry’s self-described tendency to “stop” his explanations on “the edge” of “the depths of mysticism” (297). The Fry who recurs through these pages—in the end—is  an identity or an individual or even a person. Rather, much like Woolf herself, he attains what Deleuze terms haecceity, a thisness or thusness the difference of which is rendered and repeated so effectively in Woolf’s selective compositions of clippings, arrangements, suggestions, comments, and sketches.

Reading on . . .

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