Hardy, Woolf, and The Mayor of Casterbridge

April 17: On this day in 1885, Thomas Hardy noted in his diary, "Wrote the last page of The Mayor of Casterbridge, begun at least a year ago." The novel's closing pages are typically poignant and pessimistic: the former Mayor, now a humiliated outcast, pencils his will asking to be buried in unconsecrated ground, "& that no flours be planted on my grave & that no man remember me"; the Mayor's daughter, although now "forced to class herself among the fortunate," reflects upon the life-lesson "that happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain."


In her diary Virginia Woolf tells the amusing story of going to see Hardy in 1926, just eighteen months before his death. She had just finished a draft of To the Lighthouse, one of those novels that would speak for modernism as much as Hardy's "Wessex" novels spoke for tradition and traditional storytelling. She took The Mayor of Casterbridge with her on the train, found she could not put it down and, "beset with desire to hear him say something about his books," told Hardy so. He was cheerful, welcoming, and animated, but "delivered of all his work [and] not interested much in his novels or in anybody's novels." Especially ones written by those who had given up on the old ways:

 "They've changed everything now," he said. "We used to think there was a beginning and a middle and an end. We believed in the Aristotelian theory. Now one of those stories came to an end with a woman going out of the room." He chuckled.

Though less than the torch-passing it might have been, their visit did not go unmarked: as a parting gift, Hardy presented a copy of his story collection, Life's Little Ironies, inscribed to "Virginia Wolff."

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. James Parker calls this Dickensian coming-of-age novel "an enveloping…

Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Poems That Make Grown Men Cry

And women too.  Luminaries from Colin Firth to Nick Cave and Jonathan Franzen chose the poems that bring them to tears, and the result is a stunning collection of poignant verse from writers like Auden, Whitman, Bishop, Larkin, Neruda and many others.  Warning: choking-up hazard.

The King of Pain

Trapped beneath his entertainment system, reality TV mastermind Rick Salter reflects on his life and tries to piece together the events of the previous evening. Seth Kaufman’s romp is an outrageous meditation on pain and entertainment in a deranged world in which the two are often interchangeable.

The Good Inn

Frank Black, frontman for the Pixies, has written a transgressive historical fiction with shades of Thomas Pynchon (focused as it is on the history of explosives and cinematic pornography), all set in a hallucinatory Edwardian Europe.