In The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and the Year that Changed Literature (Holt, Aug.), Goldstein closely examines four literary lives.
Your book opens with a quote from Willa Cather—“The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts”—that serves as its title and theme. What does she mean?
Cather wrote that in 1936, and was thinking of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses in February 1922 and of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in October. To her, and to many others, those works seemed to herald a new modernist era in which the form of storytelling Cather herself prized was no longer of signal importance. She meant it as a melancholy remark about an irrevocable change. But I think it was also a sly, literary comment about how we misread and misunderstand history.
What made you believe a book on these iconic and much-examined authors would be fruitful?
I realized as I began researching the book that there was a big story in these writers’ daily lives, and that by looking at what turned out to be one particularly important year, I could focus on the kind of details about their lives and what they were working on that definitive biographies often don’t have the space to include. I thought I could reveal the interconnections among them in a new way by focusing on this narrow period.
What did you discover about these authors that we didn’t know before?
Each of them was at a creative low point as 1922 began. That January, all four of my main subjects were in deep despair. Each was in search of what to do next, and was wondering what he or she could do that was new. As the year progressed, each of my main subjects worked very tentatively and without much hope on what would be their greatest books. Virginia Woolf turned 40 in January, and it was an unhappy milestone. In the spring, she wrote the short story that “branched,” as she put it, into Mrs. Dalloway. Forster had not published a novel in more than a decade by 1922. That spring he began to make his first substantial progress on what would become A Passage to India. They didn’t know that the books would get written.
What is it about these legendary authors that continues to hold our attention?
It is just thrilling to read the sentences they wrote, and to see how they made phrases and sentences into gorgeous wholes. The mystery of how they did it can never really be solved, and I think that is partly why we are drawn both to reading The Waste Land or Mrs. Dalloway or Lawrence’s Women in Love and to reading about the authors who wrote these and other such miraculous things.