On Being Ill, by Virginia Woolf, introduction by Hermione Lee. Ashfield, MA: Paris Press. 64 pages. $20. BUY NOW

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Perusing this delicate yet powerful little book, we can't help but admire the shapeliness, the eloquence, the stylishness, and the incisiveness of the essay it contains. Nor can we fail to notice the witty paradoxes that animate and lend additional sparkle to this bright display of originality and intelligence. The first of these seeming contradictions involves the apparently random, casual, and deceptively whimsical way in which the piece is structured, the almost profligate inclusiveness that, as Lee aptly notes, allows this essay of twenty˝five or so pages to consider "not only illness, but language, religion, sympathy, solitude, and reading. Close to its surface are thoughts on madness, suicide, and the afterlife. For good measure, it throws in dentists, American literature, electricity, an organ grinder and a giant tortoise, the cinema, the coming ice age, worms, snakes and mice, Chinese readers of Shakespeare, housemaids' brooms swimming down the River Solent, and the entire life˝story of the third Marchioness of Waterford." Skip a sentence, and you'll miss the moment at which Woolf's attention turns from the challenge of imagining heaven to the difficulty of reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire when one is ill. In fact, each of the essay's mercurial, impulsive shifts reflects a solid logic, an organized progression toward a particular goal, though only in the final paragraphs of "On Being Ill" is the reader at last able to see what Woolf has been working toward: an affecting, resonant recapitulation and illustration of the inadequacy and superfluity of language in our efforts to describe human suffering. Which is, perhaps needless to say, also the most paradoxical aspect of the essayˇthe verbal pyrotechnics, the scintillating clarity and richness of the phrases and sentences in which Woolf tells us about the poverty and limitations of language.

In the final section of "On Being Ill," Woolf segues abruptly ("But enough of Shakespeareˇlet us turn to Augustus Hare") from a consideration of the reasons why the invalid is the ideal reader of Shakespeare to a summary of Augustus Hare's now forgotten The Story of Two Noble Lives, an apparently middlebrow biography of two aristocratic British women, Charlotte and Louisa Stuart. The essay ends with Lady Waterford learning that her husband has been killed in a hunting accident: "She knew it before they told her, and never could Sir John Leslie forget, when he ran downstairs on the day of the burial, the beauty of the great lady standing to see the hearse depart, nor, when he came back, how the curtain, heavy, mid˝Victorian, plush perhaps, was all crushed together where she had grasped it in her agony." The passage echoes an earlier section, in which Woolf describes how hard it is for a sufferer to find the words to describe physical pain: "He is forced to coin words himself, and, taking his pain in one hand, and a lump of pure sound in the other. . . so to crush them together that a brand new word in the end drops out." It's this crushing of sound, of the word, of pain, of the velvet curtain, that, Woolf is saying, trumps all our efforts to describe the universe of illness, the parallel world so close and yet so distant from the realm of the healthy. It may well be that she's right, that no one can describe that experience with accuracy, let alone precision. Yet "On Being Ill" will convince its readers that no one has ever come closerˇand in the process, provided more pleasure and wisdomˇthan Virginia Woolf.

ClaiFrancine Prose's most recent book is The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired (HarperCollins, 2002).

 
     
     
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