Well, here we are, and if you cast your eye over the room you will see that Tubes and trams and omnibuses, private carriages not a few, even, I venture to believe, landaus with bays in them, have been busy at it, weaving threads from one end of London to the other. Yet I begin to have my doubts— If indeed it’s true, as they’re saying, that Regent Street is up, and the Treaty signed, and the weather not cold for the time of year, and even at that rent not a flat to be had, and the worst of influenza its after effects; if I bethink me of having forgotten to write about the leak in the larder, and left my glove in the train; if the ties of blood require me, leaning forward, to accept cordially the hand which is perhaps offered hesitatingly— “Seven years since we met!” “The last time in Venice.” “And where are you living now?” “Well, the late afternoon suits me the best, though, if it weren’t asking too much——” “But I knew you at once!” “Still, the war made a break——” If the mind’s shot through by such little arrows, and—for human society compels it—no sooner is one launched than another presses forward; if this engenders heat and in addition they’ve turned on the electric light; if saying one thing does, in so many cases, leave behind it a need to improve and revise, stirring besides regrets, pleasures, vanities, and desires—if it’s all the facts I mean, and the hats, the fur boas, the gentlemen’s swallow-tail coats, and pearl tie-pins that come to the surface—what chance is there? Of what? It becomes every minute more difficult to say why, in spite of everything, I sit here believing I can’t now say what, or even remember the last time it happened. “Did you see the procession?” “The King looked cold.” “No, no, no. But what was it?” “She’s bought a house at Malmesbury.” “How lucky to find one!” On the contrary, it seems to me pretty sure that she, whoever she may be, is damned, since it’s all a matter of flats and hats and sea gulls, or so it seems to be for a hundred people sitting here well dressed, walled in, furred, replete. Not that I can boast, since I too sit passive on a gilt chair, only turning the earth above a buried memory, as we all do, for there are signs, if I’m not mistaken, that we’re all recalling something, furtively seeking something. Why fidget? Why so anxious about the sit of cloaks; and gloves—whether to button or unbutton? Then watch that elderly face against the dark canvas, a moment ago urbane and flushed; now taciturn and sad, as if in shadow. Was it the sound of the second violin tuning in the ante-room? Here they come; four black figures, carrying instruments, and seat themselves facing the white squares under the downpour of light; rest the tips of their bows on the music stand; with a simultaneous movement lift them; lightly poise them, and, looking across at the player opposite, the first violin counts one, two, three—— Flourish, spring, burgeon, burst! The pear tree on the top of the mountain. Fountains jet; drops descend. But the waters of the Rhone flow swift and deep, race under the arches, and sweep the trailing water leaves, washing shadows over the silver fish, the spotted fish rushed down by the swift waters, now swept into an eddy where—it’s difficult this—conglomeration of fish all in a pool; leaping, splashing, scraping sharp fins; and such a boil of current that the yellow pebbles are churned round and round, round and round—free now, rushing downwards, or even somehow ascending in exquisite spirals into the air; curled like thin shavings from under a plane; up and up…. How lovely goodness is in those who, stepping lightly, go smiling through the world! Also in jolly old fishwives, squatted under arches, oh scene old women, how deeply they laugh and shake and rollick, when they walk, from side to side, hum, hah! “That’s an early Mozart, of course——” “But the tune, like all his tunes, makes one despair—I mean hope. What do I mean? That’s the worst of music! I want to dance, laugh, eat pink cakes, yellow cakes, drink thin, sharp wine. Or an indecent story, now—I could relish that. The older one grows the more one likes indecency. Hall, hah! I’m laughing. What at? You said nothing, nor did the old gentleman opposite…. But suppose—suppose—Hush!” The melancholy river bears us on. When the moon comes through the trailing willow boughs, I see your face, I hear your voice and the bird singing as we pass the osier bed. What are you whispering? Sorrow, sorrow. Joy, joy. Woven together, like reeds in moonlight. Woven together, inextricably commingled, bound in pain and strewn in sorrow—crash! The boat sinks. Rising, the figures ascend, but now leaf thin, tapering to a dusky wraith, which, fiery tipped, draws its twofold passion from my heart. For me it sings, unseals my sorrow, thaws compassion, floods with love the sunless world, nor, ceasing, abates its tenderness but deftly, subtly, weaves in and out until in this pattern, this consummation, the cleft ones unify; soar, sob, sink to rest, sorrow and joy. Why then grieve? Ask what? Remain unsatisfied? I say all’s been settled; yes; laid to rest under a coverlet of rose leaves, falling. Falling. Ah, but they cease. One rose leaf, falling from an enormous height, like a little parachute dropped from an invisible balloon, turns, flutters waveringly. It won’t reach us. “No, no. I noticed nothing. That’s the worst of music—these silly dreams. The second violin was late, you say?” “There’s old Mrs. Munro, feeling her way out—blinder each year, poor woman—on this slippery floor.” Eyeless old age, grey-headed Sphinx…. There she stands on the pavement, beckoning, so sternly, the red omnibus. “How lovely! How well they play! How—how—how!” The tongue is but a clapper. Simplicity itself. The feathers in the hat next me are bright and pleasing as a child’s rattle. The leaf on the plane-tree flashes green through the chink in the curtain. Very strange, very exciting. “How—how—how!” Hush! These are the lovers on the grass. “If, madam, you will take my hand——” “Sir, I would trust you with my heart. Moreover, we have left our bodies in the banqueting hall. Those on the turf are the shadows of our souls.” “Then these are the embraces of our souls.” The lemons nod assent. The swan pushes from the bank and floats dreaming into mid stream. “But to return. He followed me down the corridor, and, as we turned the corner, trod on the lace of my petticoat. What could I do but cry ‘Ah!’ and stop to finger it? At which he drew his sword, made passes as if he were stabbing something to death, and cried, ‘Mad! Mad! Mad!’ Whereupon I screamed, and the Prince, who was writing in the large vellum book in the oriel window, came out in his velvet skull-cap and furred slippers, snatched a rapier from the wall—the King of Spain’s gift, you know—on which I escaped, flinging on this cloak to hide the ravages to my skirt—to hide… But listen! the horns!” The gentleman replies so fast to the lady, and she runs up the scale with such witty exchange of compliment now culminating in a sob of passion, that the words are indistinguishable though the meaning is plain enough—love, laughter, flight, pursuit, celestial bliss—all floated out on the gayest ripple of tender endearment—until the sound of the silver horns, at first far distant, gradually sounds more and more distinctly, as if seneschals were saluting the dawn or proclaiming ominously the escape of the lovers…. The green garden, moonlit pool, lemons, lovers, and fish are all dissolved in the opal sky, across which, as the horns are joined by trumpets and supported by clarions there rise white arches firmly planted on marble pillars…. Tramp and trumpeting. Clang and clangour. Firm establishment. Fast foundations. March of myriads. Confusion and chaos trod to earth. But this city to which we travel has neither stone nor marble; hangs enduring; stands unshakable; nor does a face, nor does a flag greet or welcome. Leave then to perish your hope; droop in the desert my joy; naked advance. Bare are the pillars; auspicious to none; casting no shade; resplendent; severe. Back then I fall, eager no more, desiring only to go, find the street, mark the buildings, greet the applewoman, say to the maid who opens the door: A starry night. “Good night, good night. You go this way?” “Alas. I go that.”
When she wrote this Modernist short story in 1921 as part of a collection of eight short-stories called “Monday or Tuesday”, Virginia Woolf was thirty nine years old. She had allowed herself the indulgence of writing this way, between her more serious writing commitments as a treat and a reward, for persisting with the much more demanding task of novel writing.
That she had fun writing this piece is something that is seems clearly undeniable, but beneath the rush of words on can almost hear the persistent hum of anxiety – like the whine of a machine that is overheating and cannot be turned off.
The style of writing classified as ‘Stream of Consciousness’ is one that documents the flow of thoughts and images as they arise and fall away to be replaced by others in the waking mind, but ‘The String Quartet’ is not so much a stream as a torrent.
It is only with difficulty that any connections at all can be found between the seemingly inexhaustible images.
We are all familiar with the kinds of reveries that overtake us when we are caught up in listening to music – when a kind of day-dream comes over us, and while our eyes remain unseeing, we watch transfixed the shifting scenes that float across the screen of our imaginations.
The enjambments of images maintain a connection with the movements and notes in a manner that is coherent – meaning that they in one fashion or another cohere.
There might not be any discernible meaning in the unfolding process, but while the trance or reverie lasts, it conveys us in a reasonably smooth way from one point of the music to another.
Not so in the case of this story. There seems to be an almost strident out-of- synch cacophony of thought that begins with the social contract between two unnamed people, and their ensuing decision to attend a performance together.
Though the story is called ‘The String Quartet’ – there appears to be no apparent reason why it should be so called.
We have no idea of what the evening’s program was – except that it included some Mozart. Now, I have to admit that the sheer busyness of Mozart’s music seems to me to be terribly conducive to racing thoughts – but here the thoughts have clearly begun to race long before even the first notes of music were heard. Here music and images seem to run along their separate grooves, and only occasionally swerve to overlap.
A mind that grasps each fragmented moment of time as it passes is something quite different from a fragmented mind – and the consciousness that we see displayed in ‘The String Quartet’ belongs to the latter and not to the former type.
This is The mirror cracked from side to side and then broken into a further thousand splinters. It has the crazed onrush of uncontrolled images which are not associated ideas – there is no sociability in them – they are a mad crowd of thoughts jostling to clamber one atop the other in their haste to be selected.
Woolf had at least five major manic episodes in her life, and during one of them she talked non-stop for three days. During her first manic episode at the age of nineteen, she heard the sparrows outside her window speaking in Greek. We have no idea what they said – whether they were the auspicious emissaries of Aphrodite, or the less unfortunate ones that God is always said to see as they fall, but without the benefit of the least kind intervention on his part.
If we should stop to consider that this fast- flowing lahar of torrential thoughts was collected and recorded and inflected to reveal humour and irony and order in the midst of manifest chaos, we can begin to grasp the huge degree of skill and talent that went into the task: It would seem akin to an announcer fluently and unhesitatingly calling a horse-race of a thousand horses, with each word clearly enunciated, and the winner spotted in the moment that a blur of noses approach and touch the finish line.
That writing saved and sustained Woolf’s life – until the completion and revision of her final novel Between the Acts, is undeniable. That it served as a substitute for engaging directly with the world beyond the one that she created within her own mind is something that is beyond our ability to determine with any degree of certainty. What is certain, however, and that beyond any shadow of a doubt, is Woolf’s brilliant facility to orient herself as an observer of fugitive thoughts and fleeting moments. Her surpassing skill in this regard has never, in my opinion, been even distantly approximated.
We all know from time-to time what it means to be possessed by our own teeming thoughts, but our unidentifiable little demons seldom obey our orders, or even so much as do our bidding. Woolf’s Gadarene legions on the other hand, would all seem to be known to her by name, and It would appear that she could compel them by some expulsive command to leap over the cliff of her awareness in such a fashion that she could skillfully order them take their proper places and assume the form of a brilliant piece of writing such as this.