Document asked six of our favorite writers how living in isolation changed their consumption of art and media. In the second installment, Olivia Laing finds a strange sense of comfort in Virginia Woolf's war diaries
Olivia Laing, writer, novelist, and cultural critic, is the author of three works of non-fiction, To the River, The Trip to Echo Spring, and The Lonely City, as well as a novel, Crudo.
“I’ve been finishing a book, a distraction I’m very grateful for—it’s like climbing down rung by rung into a different world each day. Most of my reading has been for that, from the collected writing of the abstract painter Agnes Martin (fantastic, a bit like a Buddhist Gertrude Stein) to The Autobiography of Malcolm X. But I have been reading for consolation too. The first thing I picked up once lockdown started was the final volume of Virginia Woolf’s diaries, written as the Second World War began. It sounds strange to find a diary about war and depression soothing, but there’s something very invigorating about Woolf’s intense, high-stakes concentration and curiosity, her determination to log all the strange and disturbing phenomena, from the bombing of her beloved London squares to what to cook under rationing (haddock and sausages). The diary led me back to another much loved book, Mrs. Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light. It’s a biography of Woolf and the women who worked for her, and it’s fascinating on bodies, disgust, need, and why we make art.
As for music, I’m obsessed with Judy Collins’s “Send in the Clowns”, which was on the radio when I woke up one morning and is now looping through my head. And I wouldn’t be nearly so cheerful without the weekly infusion of ecstatic chaos in the form of Mx Justin Vivian Bond, who is performing a lockdown cocktail slot every Thursday on Instagram live. I love that people are making art in their bedrooms, as if we’ve all been turned back into anxious, hopeful teenagers again.”
See what Marlon James has been watching under lockdown