Before I actually get to today’s book, I need to embark on a brief explanation. At some point last year, I felt like I was getting into a rut with the books I was choosing—I was always reading the same kinds of books, and rereading the same books off my shelves. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with the latter—we all have comfort reads, I think—but I promised myself that I was going to make some changes this year: read more short fiction, read some new-to-me authors, and reread some classics I haven’t touched in 20 or 30 years.
Thus we come to Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, which was written in 1922. I should be fair and note that I wrote my master’s thesis on Woolf’s narrative techniques, but I’m going to try really hard to not sound too academic here. I haven’t read this particular work in almost 30 years—it is not one of Woolf’s better-known novels (it’s really more a novella than novel, since it’s a scant 175 pages in length), and it’s not even one of her best ones, but it is an important one in her development as a writer because in it she departs from more traditional story-telling and begins experimenting with the narrative patterns and techniques that she later perfected in books like Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse.
I had forgotten how much I liked this book. It has no real plot, per se, and there’s no real story, either. What it really is is a character study of a young man named Jacob Flanders, except it’s hard to call him a character in the traditional sense of the word because his point of view is virtually never seen in the book and everything we learn about him is through the eyes of the people involved with him—his mother, his tutor, his college friends, the girl who loves him, the random people he encounters in his daily life. Some of these people know him well, some not at all. We don’t even really get to know him over the 175 pages that the book lasts for. He is Jacob, and he exists. But whose impressions of him are right and whose aren’t—that’s not so easy to say. In some ways, they’re all right. And in others, they’re all completely wrong.
If I were going to try and describe Woolf’s narrative technique here, I think the most accurate way I can do that would be to compare it to an impressionist painting. The picture the reader gets of Jacob takes shape over the course of the book, but it’s a very soft, blurry picture, with edges that bleed colors, and shapes that are right, and identifiable, but more suggestions than life-copies. If you consider, for example, Monet’s water lily paintings and keep in mind that he painted countless studies of the same scene, all of them different, then that’s what this portrait of a young man is like. It’s Jacob, an identifiable figure studied both casually and seriously by numerous people, each one giving just that slight shift in perspective.
Jacob leaves an impression on people, certainly. To a woman in a train, he’s a potential villain; to his mother, he’s curious and a handful and later neglectful; to his university friend Timmy he’s an intellectual to exchange ideas with; to the women he meets at the countless dinner parties he attends with no real enthusiasm, he’s someone to fall in love with. He’s no one in particular and everyone in general, a vessel to be filled by other people’s wants and desires, a sketch to be colored in. But no one sees him exactly the same way, so the portrait Woolf paints is filled in with sketches and scenes and vignettes of Jacob’s life, some occurring simultaneously, others in a linear fashion, all of them a splotch of color on the canvas that makes up Jacob’s portrait.
And color is important in this book, which only enhances the painting-like quality of the narrative: Woolf talks about colors as they move—the flash of blue on a butterfly, the grays and greens and silvers of the ladies’ evening dresses at a dinner party as they leave the room, the changing colors of the sea as the sun sets over the water, the light as it changes color in front of various London shops. Light has color, clothing has color, the wind, even, has color. No book is a painting, obviously, but this one comes fairly close.
As an experiment, this book doesn’t quite succeed for Woolf—it’s a little too detached in some ways, and the stream of conscious narrative, while beautiful in its way, makes it hard to read. Certainly the whole point of Jacob Flanders is that he is also detached, beautiful, and hard to read. We learn the most about him not through the people who give us this picture, but through the items in his various rooms that he keeps and treasures for whatever reason at those points in his life: found objects, books, furniture, his pipe. They are permanent, fixed objects in time. People are not.
And yet I’d be lying if I didn’t say I have a great amount of admiration for this kind of work. In its day it was experimental, ground-breaking, and a sensation, and Woolf, who was obsessed with time as a dimension and how we move through it, tries to capture some of what she was beginning to think about the flow of time here: that it always moves, but not always forward; it ebbs and flows around us and through us and we can never see the whole of it because we cannot see everything, only glimpses of the fabric of it now and then as we move through our everyday lives. It’s a philosophy she’d go on to perfect in Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse. To see the beginnings of it here is rather fascinating, which, for me, makes reading something like this worth the effort.