Jacob’s Room

Gabriel Josipovici – Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room (1922)

Virginia Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, was the editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, that monument to Victorian values, providing readers with short lives of all the great and the good who had ever served Britain – Soldiers, Sailors, Statesmen and Bishops. To his daughter, in the aftermath of World War I, such a publication seemed like an insult to all the nameless dead who lay, unsung, in the battlefields of France and Belgium. Like a challenge too. How to tell such a life, which is as worthwhile as any other but has nothing, as it were, to show for it – no honours, no medals, none of the outward signs of worldly success? And she rises beautifully to the challenge in this, the first of five remarkable novels which should have changed the face of British literature, but which, alas, form, rather, a unique archipelago in the largely conventional sea of twentieth century English fiction. Jacob’s Room is full of cemeteries, tombstones and thoughts of the dead, but at its centre is an absence: Jacob, of whom people speak, of whom they think, but who is never shown. And yet that denial of presence on the part of the author makes of him one of the most living presences in world literature. It’s a remarkable achievement.

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