The Southbank Centre is currently running ‘The Rest is Noise’ festival, holding talks, performances, lectures and interviews over the course of each weekend. At the beginning of February, I bought tickets to attend the weekend titled ‘The Rise of Nationalism’, primarily to attend the ‘Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf – writing, music and modernity’ discussion.
This discussion was chaired by the esteemed Dr Delia da Sousa Correa, co-director of the Open University’s ‘Literature and Music’ research group, who was in conversation with authors Kirsty Gunn and Gabriel Josipovici. The talk was split into two parts. First, the authors each spoke of their own engagement with music and how this continues to inform their writing, both in terms of content and, more interestingly (at least for myself), form and process. This provided a natural segue into discussing the influences of Mansfield and Woolf’s approaches to music, as regards their own successes in forging a ‘narrative that is much more akin to music’, as Kirsty Gunn so eloquently put it. It was fascinating hearing the two conversations, with Gabriel bringing what seemed to me to be a very European-focused musical heritage and set of influences, given his Russo-Italian, Romano-Levantine background, while Kirsty clearly drew heavily on her New Zealand heritage and pervading Scottish influence, relating stories of her father’s pipe playing while she was growing up.
As chair, Delia opened the discussion and pinned down some key elements that particularly struck a chord with me (given my continued interest in ellipsis, absence and presence in conversation). She discussed the (now) iconic modernist stream of consciousness style that mimics an internal rhythm, rather than narrative linearity, highlighting the juxtaposition between writers’ eternal quests for rhythm (particularly in relation to modernism), yet the avoidance and imprecision of a definition for this term (see John Middleton Murry’s extremely loose and all-encompassing definition for the little mag, Rhythm), particularly for Mansfield and Woolf. She also reminded the audience of modernism’s ‘project’ of creating the lyric novel, which is still very much a project that is alive today, as evidenced by Gabriel and Kirsty.
Kirsty divulged her process approach to narrative, where she begins each book with a preoccupation with a single formative sound, the rest carefully peeled back like an onion. Over the course of the narrative, as anyone who has read The Big Music can attest to, she returns, again and again, to the infinity of the moment, that single note or sound. Music, for her, seemed to be a metaphor and a way or process with which to ‘make’ stories that ‘release the narrative from the temporal moment-to-moment’ progression of a linear storyline arc. In relation to The Big Music, she discussed the cyclic, infinite, almost mobius-like form that the narrative weaves through, almost seamlessly. What struck me deeply about Kirsty’s meditation on her working process was that the gaps, the pauses, the absences were just as integral as the moments of speech, the presence, the filled work – I guess what I mean to say is that there seemed to be equal interplay between notes, sound and silence, absence and presence that were at play, responsible for creating this ‘other kind of prose’.
Reading from Virginia Woolf’s ‘On not knowing Greek’, Gabriel identified both this essay and, significantly, Jacob’s Room as key texts for this interplay between words and music, sound and silence. Both texts are about not knowing, about unsung lives; the anti-novel or anti-biography Jacob’s Room stresses, in direct contradiction to Forster’s impassioned call to ‘only connect’, that in the post-war London environment, there was, in fact, the singular call to ‘only disconnect’. As Gabriel insightfully expressed, for Woolf in constructing Jacob’s Room, she saw no individual meaning, but rather a greater, larger place in the universal rhythm of the cosmos. The singular, individual call for Jacob throughout the first scene remains unanswered.
I came away from this talk enthused about, as Delia stressed, the intersection between fiction and music, which acted – and still does act – to make reading more participative, more collaborative. And yet, for both Mansfield and Woolf, released from the horrors of war (World War I, at least), from the old ways of constructing prose, everything could be significant – single, moving notes in a performance – or equally, they could mean nothing – we could be washed away by the whole, the larger music.