Jacob’s Room opens, in medias res, as Betty Flanders, Jacob’s mother, is writing a letter. Almost exactly halfway through the novel, Woolf pauses to consider letters. The incessant expenditure of words on weighty and weightless things.
And the notes accumulate. And the telephones ring. And everywhere we go wires and tubes surround us to carry the voices that try to penetrate before the last card is dealt and the days are over. “Try to penetrate,” for as we lift the cup, shake the hand, express the hope, something whispers, Is this all? Can I never know, share, be certain? Am I doomed all my days to write letters, send voices, which fall upon the tea-table, fade upon the passage, making appointments, while life dwindles, to come and dine? Yet letters are venerable; and the telephone valiant, for the journey is a lonely one, and if bound together by notes and telephones we went in company, perhaps—who knows?—we might talk by the way.Reading Jacob’s Room, I thought of Twitter, and the constant connectedness that it offers, and I wondered, as Woolf might, whether this accumulation of tweets deepens our friendships, makes us more intimate. In Jacob’s Room, people write letters, they have conversations, words accumulate between them—and they remain opaque. Jacob falls through the cracks of his own life. The effect is fragmentary, Twitteresque—a series of disconnected observations.
I imagine Virginia Woolf on Twitter—
The church clock, however, strikes twelve.
updated about 8 hours ago
Whether we gain or not by this habit of profuse communication is not for us to say.
updated about 5 minutes ago
Ladies with green and white umbrellas passed through the courtyard.
updated about a minute ago
The mind wanders. The eyes wander from the page. I find myself distracted by afternoon sunlight flashing off the ReMax sign down the street as the wind shifts it—like a kind of code. Things outside the book speak to me, at times, more clearly. Perhaps that’s what I found so appealing about Virginia Woolf, twenty-five years ago, when I drowned myself in The Waves and To the Lighthouse and Between the Acts. Life and art folded together. Looking up from the book was like being in the book still. There is no division...
And yet the impression is of division. Divided attention. The space between people. The War intervening and breaking everything apart. When we first hear Jacob’s name, shouted by his older brother on the beach in Cornwall, it is divided: “Ja—cob! Ja—cob!” Archer shouted.
How do we make things whole? Or is wholeness always an illusion, and life only a collection of related fragments? Here we are, standing under the dome of the Reading Room of the British Museum:
Closely stood together in a ring round the dome were Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, and Shakespeare; the literatures of Rome, Greece, China, India, Persia. One leaf of poetry was pressed flat against another in a density of meaning, a conglomeration of loveliness.
“One does want one’s tea,” said Miss Marchmont, reclaiming her shabby umbrella.
Miss Marchmont wanted her tea, but could never resist a last look at the Elgin Marbles.
The wires to the Admiralty hum.
Everything is interconnected, and the things that connect us—the wires endlessly humming with news, the entangling alliances—are what tear us apart.
The novel ends in Jacob’s room. Letters are strewn on the table, as if he had expected to return from the War. His friend Bonamy, who loved him, stands at the window and cries: “Jacob! Jacob!”
The echo of Jacob’s brother calling him.