About a boy

“I am what I am, and intend to be it,” for which there will be no form in the world unless Jacob makes one for himself.

—Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room (1922)

The Waves is no doubt the most singular book on friendship in the English language, but because my copy is part of a double edition, poor Jacob’s Room went unnoticed for years. How glad I am to have finally read it. Compared to the demands of The Waves, one can positively tear through Jacob’s story (though, really, one should never “tear through” Woolf’s prose—how beastly). It is a tender telling of a young man’s life. We witness him come into his own intellectually, travel the world, and attempt to decipher the differences between love, sex, and attraction. 

Jacob would have shared Woolf’s disdain for the middlebrow, though unlike Woolf, he is terribly earnest in his pretensions. As such, Jacob’s Room captures perfectly how the idealism of youth collides with the absurdity of adult life and the chaos of the world. Here is Jacob on the cusp of adulthood, still in formation, though already so much himself:

Insolent he was and inexperienced, but sure enough the cities which the elderly of the race have built upon the skyline showed like brick suburbs, barracks, and places of discipline against a red and yellow flame. He was impressionable, but the word is contradicted by the composure with which he hollowed his hand to screen a match. He was a young man of substance.

Anyhow, whether undergraduate or shop boy, man or woman, it must come as a shock about the age of twenty—the world of the elderly— thrown up in such black outline upon what we are; upon the reality; the moors and Byron; the sea and the lighthouse; the sheep’s jaw with the yellow teeth in it; upon the obstinate irrepressible conviction which makes youth so intolerably disagreeable—”I am what I am, and intend to be it,” for which there will be no form in the world unless Jacob makes one for himself.

And when you finish, I recommend you read through “Middlebrow” for a laugh.

4 thoughts on “About a boy

  1. Just read “Middlebrow”–gosh she is wicked. But after reading her diaries (the anthology published by her husband) it’s hard to get out of my mind just how personally she took all of her critics. That letter was probably only a thin veneer of tongue-and-cheek wicked irony over a well of insecurity, anger, resentment, and doubt.

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