Sophie Cunningham on the ‘crazy challenge’ to revive Leonard and Virginia Woolf | Australian books

WWriting a book can be like completing a Rubik’s Cube: No matter how long you work on it, and no matter which way you flip it, the colors refuse to align. Until one day, with one movement, everything is in place.

Melbourne writer Sophie Cunningham has been solving her own mystery for over 12 years before clicking on it. The result was her brilliant – and wonderfully bizarre – third novel, this devastating fever.

“I tried many different versions, with different ways of telling the story,” Cunningham says. “It was hard, because some of the writing I’ve done has been among my best – but that doesn’t mean I have a novel.”

In essence, this devastating fever is a book about the Bloomsbury Group, a group of English writers and thinkers active in the first half of the twentieth century. In particular, it is a book about Virginia Woolf’s husband and collaborator, Leonard. The group has inspired more literary productions than they produced – but Cunningham took on a new one.

Much of the novel is metafiction, set in modern times, about writer Alice’s 16-year journey to write her own book on Leonard Woolf. But Alice’s book – also titled This Devastating Fever – is spiraling out of control, its subject matter impractical and its author prone to digging through rabbit holes, much to the chagrin of her impatient agent. Meanwhile, the ghosts of Leonard and Virginia keep visiting—either to reprimand her (Alice focuses too much on their sex lives, Virginia says) or to pass on more information, as she wrestles with material she already has.

The book jumps between the present and the past. It includes the sweep of Leonard’s adult life, from Virginia’s courtship to her death and beyond; Presently we meet Alice on the eve of the Millennium, and leave her sometime around the seventh Melbourne shutdown where, in the case of zombies, Zoom meetings are taking place out of bed while the book is finished.

Cunningham also spent 16 years writing this devastating fever is one of the few ways writers manipulate what is real and what is not. Like Alice, she teaches writing, lives with her wife in Melbourne, and is swept up in her research spanning the continent. In one scene, Alice participated in the Zoom book launch of a true novel, Animals in That Country, which Cunningham helped launch roughly in 2020.

But Cunningham says it is wrong to assume that she was writing literally about herself and others; Aside from one or two exceptions, everything in the book is made up.

Even the proxy? I ask. Sarah’s character is so beautifully drawn and defined that she feels like a real person.

“I’ve been in publishing for over 30 years – I’ve been able to draw on a deep well of knowledge to create a character that I felt was so special,” Cunningham says.

Takeaway? Don’t call it subjective fantasy, and don’t try to guess who it is. Everyone is creative – except for the members of the Bloomsbury group.

Sophie Cunningham
“Leonard was a very complex character,” Sophie Cunningham says. Photograph: Alana Holmberg/Okoli for The Guardian

Those who are fascinated by the Bloomsbury group usually focus on its brighter stars, such as Virginia Woolf, her artist sister Vanessa Bell, E.M. Forrester and John Maynard Keynes. So: Why Leonard?

Cunningham was in Sri Lanka in 2005, a year after the tsunami, as she was researching her second novel, Bird, when she came across his books and magazines. Prior to his marriage, he had spent some time as a colonial civil servant in what was then Ceylon, at the height of the British Empire.

“[Leonard] He was a very complex character,” says Cunningham. “From reading his works, I realized that he was very intelligent. He was a judge and harsh with the people – the system was not so much fun for the locals who lived under it – but he was a critic of imperialism. Every generation likes to think it’s more awake than the previous one, but I don’t think that’s true. He was raising issues that we are still discussing today.”

Wolf left Ceylon for London, where he fell in love with Virginia Stephen, and moved into arranging a funky home with her and her siblings. While Leonard Wolff was modern in many ways, he still had an unpleasant side.

“Early in the process, I was self-observing. I wanted people to like him, but later I wanted to make him a really complicated person – and that involved bringing in other aspects of his personality.” In the book, Alice goes on a similar journey. “I think he was a bit naive. He was a very serious guy who took things very seriously – like anti-Semitism – and people thought he was a bit boring about it.”

We follow Alice as she visits Sri Lanka to find Leonard Wolfe, then to Bloomington, Illinois, to browse through his papers. She spends time walking in the South Downs, and returns to Melbourne to meet periodically with her agent, who is trying to get her writing back on track.

Virginia and Leonard Woolf photographed in 1914.
‘I Think It Was A Bit of a Naive’: Virginia and Leonard Woolf Photographed in 1914. Photo: Granger Historical/Science Photo Archive

Cunningham’s research took her elsewhere. At the Peradeniya Library in Kandy, Sri Lanka, I came across a disturbing name in the library’s guest book: world-renowned biographer Victoria Glendinning had seen the Leonard Wolf archive as well.

This could only mean one thing: a blockbuster biography was on the way (Glindening Book Leonard Wolf – Life, came out in 2006). A straightforward historical or autobiographical novel by a lesser-known writer who risked being overshadowed by Glindenning’s book.

“If I change my mind until I do non-fiction, that door is now closed,” says Cunningham. “I was interested in the crazy challenge of bringing people back to life which has been analyzed so much. It sounds crazy – but not much has been written about it. [Leonard] Even the Glindenning Book.”

But then life got in the way – and the book was set aside for other projects. Cunningham wrote two non-fiction books—Melbourne and Warning: The Story of Hurricane Tracy—and became editor of the literary magazine Mengin. “Leonard Wolfe’s Gone to Sit Back.”

Any writer will tell you that putting a novel in the drawer to “mature” is a dangerous game: too long and moving on from work that suddenly seems out of date. But Cunningham never lost sight of it, completing more drafts and going on more international research trips.

“The fact that I didn’t give up on it made me ask, ‘Why do we write novels?'” “I came so close to losing my temper – people are so obsessed with Virginia and Leonard, there will always be an extra layer of scrutiny.”

This devastating fever of Sophie Cunningham.
This devastating fever by Sophie Cunningham, by Ultimo Press. Photo: Ultimo Press

Cunningham experimented with different devices to make the book work. For example: “I said to myself, ‘These are like stuffed animals in a diorama’ — and then I made a full draft with them in my dioramas!”

She says reading Jeff Dyer’s book Out of Sheer Rage in 2017 “gave me a boost.” This book follows the British writer as he attempts – and largely fails – to write an autobiography for D.H. Lawrence. “[My] Then the book became about process and writing, and it gave a sense of possibility. Call me paranoid but people didn’t think I could do that. I thought, ‘Damn you – I’m finishing this book. “

Like the book itself, the title can be read on multiple levels: this devastating fever might refer to Leonard’s words about love, to an epidemic, or to Alice’s night sweats while trying to finish her novel. For a book that has won so many lives, over many years, it feels remarkably fresh.

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