Jacob Flanders. Was there ever a character with a more prophetic name that that? It hangs there throughout the book as a vision of all the things that are left unspoken in the narrative. The elephant, if you like, in Jacob’s Room.
This book is remarkable on two counts. The first is in the story it tells. The scenes dance and skip before our eyes as if we were watching insects flit about a pond on a long, lazy summer’s afternoon – perhaps a hint of thunder in the air (just as Jacob encounters when in Greece). There are moments of whimsy, moments of insight into the lives of the characters who seem mostly self-absorbed, going about their own business with scant attention to the rest of the world. And yet, we become drawn into the lives of these people, perhaps because we meet in much the same way we meet and interact with real people. We come to know them through our encounters, not through an all-seeing eye; the only over-arching vision accorded us is the knowledge of what that thunder implies.
The second remarkable thing about this book is the style. Woolf’s two previous novels were fairly conventional narratives. But she wanted to break away from conventional patterns in order to better express her own view of the world and the way in which she saw characters interacting. The text teases with hints and glimpses, presents impressionistic pictures, flits from one character and one situation to another. It both builds up a portrait of events and the lives involved whilst stripping away, layer by layer, all the surface things that are of no consequence. The language is poetic, rich with imagery, yet never obscure. It reads, at times, like something from Eliot (whose The Waste Land appeared in the same year).
Also interesting about the work is that although it is about Jacob Flanders, we are rarely accorded a direct glimpse into his thoughts. What we learn of him is learned through others. For these are the memories and the memorial to one of the millions whose lives were wasted in the mud of Europe, whose sacrifice was completely in vain.
I have read and re-read Woolf ever since it was pointed out to me as a young teenager that my daily train journey to school passed the spot where she drowned herself. Not once have I been disappointed by a re-reading. Not once have I closed a book without finding whole new layers of meaning and an increased respect for what she accomplished as a writer.