Janus Sisters: Ol’ga Forš and Virginia Woolf

Martha W. Hickey, Portland State University

At the end of the nineteen twenties two women writing looked out at the sea.  Whether Ol’ga Forš or Virginia Woolf ever caught a glimpse of the other in the images refracted through the Waves and Crazy Ship has not been fixed, but both writers believed that it was the face captured in the mind’s eye that identified  essential being. This paper  explores the sources and mode of representation of these two narratives that are as unexpected in their resemblance as they are striking in their differences. Waves was the culmination of Woolf’s efforts to write the “unauthored book” and let the characters speak for themselves. Forš never gave her “the author” so large a part and so much liberty to voice opinions as in Crazy Ship. Characters were “citizens” of the author's imagining. Where the sea is a living and reoccurring presence and defining rhythm in Waves, it is essentially an abstraction, a guiding idea for Crazy Ship. The titles suggest where their views diverge. Crazy Ship is an epithet that Forš invented for a cultural institution known as the House of Arts where writers and artists gathered in hopes of sustaining Russian literature in Saint Petersburg after the October Revolution. The house that stands along side the sea in the unattributed moments of Waves is a private, not a public one. “Waves” is one of Woolf’s elemental words of one syllable that approximate the real, the truth of the moment, entire and free of the divided self that names what it observes.

Nevertheless there are shared essentials that invite comparison in these inverted images. Both give the voice of the writer to a persona that is masculine in gender, although it is attenuated by associations with a woman’s sensibility. Both narratives sequester the “lady writing.” Rooms represent consciousness, places are defined by memory and the drama is enacted by those “others” who gather there. In both narratives, writers refer to the painter’s art for clues to the essential vision of the real and project rhythm as the expressive force creating the design of the whole. Each narrative reaches its conclusion over nine “waves” that move against sequence and order, but not against the patterns of changes. Their shared sense of the difficult translation of rhythm into spatial terms, and shared interests in French literature and Italian art meet in the writer that may have been their closest mutual interlocutor – Marcel Proust – at whom each may have cast a backwards glance as they traveled on separate journeys by car through France in the spring of 1927, the seminal year for both works.


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