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Translating Woolf’s Essays: Reflections on an Experience of Polyvocal Writing

Traduire les essais de Woolf : réflexions sur une expérience d’écriture polyvocale
Catherine Bernard


Cet article revient sur ce que traduire les textes de Virginia Woolf nous dit de sa propre pratique d’écrivain. Il montre comment la traduction est bien cette « épreuve de l’étranger » qu’évoque Antoine Berman, mais avant tout comment elle est un levier herméneutique dévoilant le travail de ventriloquie auquel se livre Woolf dans ses essais. Il montre comment c’est dans sa propre langue qu’elle fait l’expérience de l’altérité. Cette torsion ou queering de la langue de référence est ainsi pour elle l’occasion de repenser les postures linguistiques et les assignations identitaires imposées par la culture et de négocier une dialectique complexe du masquage et du démasquage linguistique et culturel.

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Notes de l’auteur

In memory of Robert Davreu

Texte intégral

Un chemin qui traverse des paysages multiples
s’écrit toujours au singulier
Wajdi Mouawad

1In her 2006 study Cosmopolitan Style. Modernism Beyond the Nation, Rebecca L. Walkowitz insists on the necessity to rethink the experience of cultural affiliation explored by such modernist writers as Conrad, Joyce and Woolf, as well as later explorers of cosmopolitanism such as Ishiguro, Rushdie or Sebald. For Walkowitz, cosmopolitanism is not a stable essence, but the product of a specific set of attitudes towards what lies beyond the immediate remit of the known; attitudes that allow ‘cosmopolitan’ writers to ‘imagine that conditions of national and transnational affiliation depend on narrative patterns of attentiveness, relevance, perception, and recognition’ (6). Disorienting culture and disorienting the self in order to open oneself up to defamiliarizing influences and in order to unhinge the ethnocentric and logocentric economy of literature was of key importance to the modernist project. In that sense, the defamiliarisation propounded by the Russian formalists was the expression, in the field of form, of a broader concern with the necessity not only to displace culture at large, but to generate a salutary wariness of ‘the generalizations of collective agency’ as well as of ‘political commitments defined by national culture’ (Walkowitz 8). Such a process does not simply consist in opening the text up to alien influences; it also requires we become aware of how defamiliarisation works from within, thus troubling the established differences between the familiar and the unfamiliar, as the self at times becomes the stranger within. As the modernist poetics of exile has shown, the dialectical construction of a sense of literary and cultural identity is always already fantasmatic, as much as it is deeply rooted in an intimate experience of collective identity haunting the surface of the text (see Snaith). Woolf’s scholars have long explored her ironical and polymorphous relation to her own literary culture and more widely to the experience of cultural community. In her recent Modernist Commitments. Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism Jessica Berman insists on the strategic function of literary empathy in her work, whether it be with Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Jane Austen or Shakespeare’s imaginary sister:

Imagining herself into these many identities, with their various habits, conditions of existence, and distinct ways of riding ‘at a gallop across life’, provides Woolf with food for thought and material for fiction. But it also presents her with an ethical imperative tied to aesthetics: the imagination may help us know other lives despite their distance from our own, but its aesthetic process ought not erase that distance or deform those lives, which beckon because, not in spite of their alterity. (39)

2This process of alteration, or of queering, to appropriate Derek Ryan’s use of ‘queering’ in Virginia Woolf and the Materiality of Theory: Sex, Animal, Life, may take many forms: from the visual transmutation of language—as Jane Goldman shows in The Feminist Aesthetics of Virginia Woolf: Modernism, Post-Impressionism, and the Politics of the Visual, or Liliane Louvel in the texts she has devoted to Woolf’s ‘queering’ of writing through intermediality—, to the exploration of the experience of not knowing, most famously in ‘On Not Knowing Greek’. That process of cultural and cognitive alteration or queering may thus take the form of a linguistic experience in the flesh, as offered by the experience of cultural displacement which Woolf went through every time she left Britain or plunged into languages unknown to her, as Claire Davison’s recent exploration of Woolf’s translational maieutic shows (see her Translation as Collaboration: Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield and S. S. Koteliansky).

3All these experiences of alteration or queering entailed a radical displacement which shook the cultural foundations on which/against which Woolf wrote. Reading Woolf from abroad, from the distance of a foreign language further complexifies the process. It also reveals the alchemy at work from within language and its inherited materiality.

Reading as translation

4My intention in the present article is precisely to return, from abroad, from the French language (albeit in English…), to the way Woolf inhabits her own linguistic habitus, as both intimately indigenous and oddly distant. My intention is to offer reflections on what my own experience of translating Woolf into French has revealed to me about the process of distancing to which she often resorts, to all the better inhabit her own language. The word ‘distancing’ seems here more accurate than the Brechtian ‘distanciation’, although her approach to linguistic inhabitation has a lot in common with Brecht’s belief in the criticity of aesthetic distancing. I do not have the time here to engage with Judith Allen’s reading of Woolf with Brecht in Virginia Woolf and the Politics of Language (see more specifically chapter 3: ‘The Rhetoric of Performance in A Room of One’s Own’), but Allen’s analysis offers enlightening insights into the way Woolf puts language out of its cultural hinges through ‘estrangement effects’ which pertain to an overarching engagement with reading as praxis, precisely by making language, narrative, plot and novelistic topoi strangely distant, as if they were inherently unheimlich.

5To compound that ‘estrangement effect’, I will add that what translating Woolf revealed to me was unveiled from the ‘margins’ of her corpus, or at least from what is considered even today in France to be the margins of her corpus: Flush which I translated and annotated for the Pléiade edition of Woolf’s Œuvres romanesques and her essays, a selection of which I have translated and annotated for Gallimard’s Folio classique series. The differences existing between the various Woolfian habitus, from one academic context to another, would call for a whole volume. Suffice it to say that the outlandishness of Woolf in France still inheres in what is perceived as her ‘génie féminin’, also explored by Kristeva in the essay she devoted to Colette, a ‘génie feminin’, which leaves little room for the powerful woman of letters Woolf was and which has more to do with what might be defined, in Kristeva’s words on Colette, as a form of organic phenomenology:

Colette [Woolf?] a trouvé un langage pour nommer cette étrange osmose entre ses sensations, ses désirs et ses angoisses, ces ‘plaisirs qu’on nomme, à la légère, physiques’ et l’infini du monde — éclosions de fleurs, ondoiements de bêtes, apparitions sublimes, monstres contagieux. Ce langage transcende sa présence de femme dans le siècle — vagabonde ou entravée, libre, cruelle ou compatissante…
elle nous transmet un ‘alphabet nouveau’ qui écrit la chair du monde.
. . .
[L]e ‘soi-même” est aussi indissolublement lové sur l’écriture, elle-même l’alphabet du monde, ‘monogramme de l’Inexorable’. (Kristeva 13, 534)

6Her phenomenology is meant to be her genius, and I won’t go into the aesthetic ideology underlying the term ‘genius’. Her sensuousness is her intelligence. This explains, for instance, why Paul Ricœur’s ground-breaking political reading of her poetics of time in volume 2 of Temps et récit, remains largely misconstrued as yet another Bergsonian interpretation of Woolf’s modernist epistemology.

7Needless to say, the first lesson to be drawn from translating Woolf against her French avatar, is that the act—another Brechtian concept—of translating is always already caught up in cultural determinisms. Translating lays the translator open to a trying experience—an épreuve—as Antoine Berman reminds us in L’épreuve de l’étranger, that is above all a historial and political experience and requires us to read and translate with / along / against the cultural constructions that ground translation; and Berman’s poetics of translation is itself deeply anchored in a political and historical conception of translation. When choosing to translate a selection of Woolf’s essays I chose to read and translate her, along and above all, against her French avatar in order to try and kill another angel in our cultural house, that of the mad and hence brilliant, hyper-sensitive and hence subversive Woolf that the French history of English literature has produced. I needed to outland Woolf from within my own literary culture, to produce a distancing which would hopefully contribute to reempowering her as a critical agent.

8What I had not expected—which showed how predetermined my own reading was—was to discover how creatively aporetic her own position towards culture could be. What I had not expected was to discover how much one needed to read her with Adorno and his aesthetics of aporia, just as Angeliki Spiropoulou has taught us to read her with Benjamin in Virginia Woolf, Modernity and History: Constellations with Walter Benjamin.

  • 1 See Derek Ryan’s article in the present volume.

9The fact that I approached the translation of her essays, so to speak, via Flush and thus from the point of view of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel, with that extraordinarily buoyant sense of wonder at the marvellous variety of things, had a tremendous impact. It fostered a faith in the hermeneutic power of unknowing, just as looking at the world from Flush’s point of view generates a new ethics of phenomenology.1 We know how paradoxically or even aporetically foundational unknowing is throughout her work, just as it fashions part of the modernist experience, as Philip Weinstein has shown. Through Flush I grasped how much Woolf’s experimentation was a work—a praxis—of unknowing, whilst remaining a complex work of empirical elaboration. Translating Flush’s physical perplexity compels the translator to remain as humbly close as possible to the failing sense of causality produced by Woolf’s experimental empiricism. This is the case for instance when he is drawn inside a dark, cool, fragrant cave, which we gradually understand, as we trot along with him, is in fact a Baroque church. Flush’s displacement across Europe, from London to France and Italy and back again allegorizes a form of counter journey of initiation, itself mirrored in the odd, disconnected semantics her text comes up with, in those moments when Flush experiences the outlandishness of his own physical sensations as he rides across Europe, sees the sun again at the Fontaine du Vaucluse or is forced to make sense of the canine democracy that reigns in Italy.

  • 2 Maxwell comments an entry of Woolf early journal; see Woolf, A Passionate Apprentice (324).

10Just as Flush is translated both spatially and culturally between two opposite cultural contexts, reading Woolf to translate her forces us to ‘move outside our comfort zones’ as Susan Stanford Friedman suggests in her conclusion to her manifesto promoting a new ‘transnational turn in narrative theory’ (24). Many critics have recently shown how this cultural displacement verges on a form of creative dislocation. The bracing confrontation between the same and the other, East and West, North and South produces, as Anne Maxwell suggests, moments of ‘intercultural identification’ (34) which imply both a sense of cultural dislocation and a sense of renewed relatedness. Many studies turning more specifically to Woolf’s relation to and experience of Greek culture and literature emphasize the paradoxical, almost aporetic, dialectics of belatedness and ‘historical experiencing’ (Maxwell 34) produced by her direct experience of Greek ruins, a contradictory sensation which she explores in her early journals : ‘Woolf values the image of shattered fragments as unmediated raw data to ground her sense of cultural entitlement to the ancient Greek past despite her bewailing the condition of belatedness’ (Klironomos 481).2 Symmetrically, as Anna Snaith has shown in Modernist Voyages, the heart of the Empire, i.e. London, was to ‘act as a nodal point, a literal and metaphorical network in which representations of Englishness and colonial identity were performed and revised’ (27). Thus cultural polarities were shaken if not conflated in these constant confrontations between the same and the other through which the entrenched sense of cultural identity was ‘outlanded’.

11Relentlessly, in all her essays devoted to travelling, Woolf captures an experience of dislocation that forces language out of its hinges. No doubt, that process by which the very syntax of experience becomes unhinged had an influence on my choice of essays to be translated. ‘Impressions at Bayreuth’, one of Woolf’s early essays, published in August 1909 in the Times, is for instance exemplary of the sense of defamiliarisation that structures Woolf’s experience of otherness produced by her voyaging out. Although the anonymous essay is signed ‘From a correspondent. Bayreuth, Aug. 17’, the choice of the preposition ‘at’ rather than ‘from’ or ‘of’ is anything but incidental. Woolf does not intend to address the readers ‘from’ Bayreuth, to write home and report on her experience of Lohengrin, which she heard on the 19th or of Parsifal, which she attended on the 12th. As a matter of fact, she fails to report anything specific about the festival itself. Her experience remains marginal, profoundly outlandish. She keeps her journalistic distances and looks at the bizarre crowd of opera-goers from afar, and focuses on the bizarreness of her own impressions ‘at’ Bayreuth. Her description is oddly inconsequential: irrelevant to the festival and its grandiose aesthetic of totality inherent in Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk. The minute prepositional shift encapsulates a process of ‘estrangement’ which does not merely reflect the puzzlement of the budding essayist she was then. It captures the queering of a cultural vision, hitherto indexed as cultural distinction and narrativity. Woolf’s impressions fail to cohere. They fail to report on a collective experience. As she will also later fail to do, in ‘The Sun and the Fish’, or ‘The Searchlight’ in which she uses private, empirical experience to undo the hegemonic logic of culture and to return to the critical inconsequence of a private eye, confronted with an outlandish reality.

12Again and again, Woolf strives towards a form of cultural translation that is also a translation of the mind. This is often the case in the tiny fictions she sets in railway carriages, whether it be in ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ or ‘To Spain’. Journeying, translating oneself away from home is also a way of repeating the experience by which the self alters itself, becomes unmoored and unknowing. Recent criticism has stressed the power of experience and desire in Woolf’s poetics of the foreign and of unknown languages. Both Emily Dalgarno and Anne-Marie Smith Di Biasio have, for instance, underlined how plunging into the linguistic unknown allows her to cut across her own language to return to the raw presence of language as body and physical experience (see Dalgarno 2006, 152). In ‘On Not Knowing Greek’ or ‘The Perfect Language’, her encounter with Greek is described as a physical encounter in which the body processes the words even before the mind, in a sort of primitive empiricism: ‘Of course, no translation, as Mr Paton would probably be the first to agree, is going to reproduce the bloom and scent, the natural poise and sequence, all that we feel before we understand the meaning, of the original words’ (Woolf 1987, 115). Paradoxically, home and abroad, the mother tongue and the foreign tongue may eventually prove reversible, when Woolf experiences a nostalgia for a tongue—the Greek language—which comes back to her across the centuries, as her own unheimlich language (see Rowena Fowler’s analysis of Woolf’s early journals, [Fowler 239]).

Speaking in tongues

  • 3 One could very usefully read that essay with Jacques Derrida’s De l’hospitalité, in which he also t (...)

13Leaving one’s country behind produces ‘strange irreticences’, through which, as Woolf intuits at the beginning of her essay ‘To Spain’, one gradually sheds one’s husk-like body and becomes disembodied, fluttering to a ‘new society’ oddly peopled with ‘women wear[ing] shawls’ and ‘yellow mongrel dogs’ (Woolf 1988, 361), the same dogs which Flush also learns to mix with. ‘To Spain’ takes the reader through a process of cultural unravelling. The typographical as well as the linguistic syntax falls apart as the traveller’s cultural bearings fall away. The trivia of everyday conversation strikes the ear as ‘detached sentences, spoken a little brokenly’ (361), yet oppressive in their rehearsed banality. Gradually, the self escapes and breaks free from the neatly timed cultural order of England, to be disjointed, bemused by new habits, new ways which remain alien and unreadable. Eventually, time itself dissolves and the ‘I’ drifts back across time, carried along by sounds and cries that are immemorial and must remain wordless: ‘But how say this . . . to the Spanish peasant woman who bids one enter her room, with its lilies and its washing, and smiles and looks out of the window as if she too had looked for a thousand years?’ (364). Away from home, beyond language, only the law of silent hospitality prevails3, as the present is unhinged and the writer abandons herself to one of her Uchronian little fictions that leaves her and the reader gently suspended between dream and reality, past and present, on the outlandish borders of experience.

14Later on, in ‘Evening Over Sussex: Reflections in a Motor Car’, published posthumously in The Death of the Moth, but probably written in 1927, Woolf would push back the boundaries of such empirical displacement one step further, by imagining a dialogue with a number of selves gradually proliferating under the impetus provided by the car ride. Consciousness gradually splits up, is literally ‘all over the place’ and only coalesces with the first stirrings of hunger, as the body asserts itself over mind. As the I becomes fragmented and multiple, the syntax becomes increasingly disjointed; the word order falters and the stylistic register becomes uneven:

‘. . . Now I, who preside over the company, am going to arrange in order the trophies we have all brought in . . . Also there was disappearance and the death of the individual . . . What we have made then today,’ I said, ‘is this: that beauty; death of the individual; and the future . . .’ (Woolf 2011, 455)

15For such an exacting stylist as Woolf was, such moments of grammatical unravelling are deliberate departures from her usual attentive syntax; or rather, such moments of linguistic dislocation are precisely meant to remain attentive to the unravelling of the self and to its tentative explorations of experience and multiplicity. Accepting the a-grammaticality of the essay and strange awkwardness of a syntax at odds with itself implies the translator must not beautify what is ungainly in the text. It implies that the target language speak against its own logic and remain oddly, maybe unpleasantly uncouth.

16This dislocation is also to be experienced as a radical ‘speaking in tongues’, symptomatic of the plurality of modern consciousness. Woolf’s speaking in tongues often takes the ambiguous form of a cultural linguistic posturing. With Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt—the French translator of Kafka, Peter Handke, Nietzsche and Benjamin—, Woolf seems to intuit the palimpsestuous nature of the speaking and writing self: ‘Je suis celui qui ne se nomme qu’au travers du langage des autres’ (20). For Woolf, the language of the other paradoxically proves to be her mother tongue as it has been invested by English culture and its literary memory. To paraphrase Goldschmidt, she named herself through a language which she could make her own by exposing its regulating power, as well as its productiveness. In so doing, she inhabited her own language as if she had to appropriate it through mimicry, as any foreigner would do who is eager to pass for a native speaker. Translating her ‘Jane Austen’ or ‘Professions for Women’ made me experience to what extent her language was a borrowed language, or a language that had been handed down to her, and to which she returned as from a distance, while inhabiting it from within, like a performer, an interpreter, or an actress. In her ground-breaking article ‘Passing as Modernism’, Pamela Caughie brings to light how ‘passing in the modernist period was more than a literary theme, and as a social practice, far more complicated than its common definition would suggest’, ‘passing came to signify the dynamics of identity and identification in the modernist period—the social, cultural, technological, and psychological processes by which a subject comes to understand his or her identity in relation to others’ (Caughie 2005, 387).

17We know how irritated Woolf could be at times by her own ladylike, genteel prose. A few days before the publication of Flush, she complained in her Diary (2nd October 1933): ‘Flush will be out on Thursday & I shall be very much depressed, I think, by the kind of praise. They’ll say its “charming” delicate, ladylike’ (Woolf 1983, 181). Translating Woolf revealed to me how in fact that ladylike manner was also for her the very medium of her cultural criticity. Her use of understatement, her Austenesque mimicry, her mock restraint, are both a mask and a self-reflexive strategy. Melba Cuddy Keane has commented on the way her essayism must be ‘distinguished from the new professional article that was beginning to emerge’ (80). On the contrary, Woolf’s mimicry allows her to position herself in the wake of a long tradition, dating back to Donne’s art of disquisition. But her genteel mimicry is also a contradictory strategy, through which she seems to eschew the language of authority. That genteel style is ambiguous. While it legitimizes her as a woman of letters and allows her to assume the language of cultural authority, its mannerism functions as ironical distancing. As Cuddy Keane argues, Woolf’s play with the language of the essay places her outside ‘the discourse of academic English’ (80) and allows her to expose its constraining function.

  • 4 See also Marie Laniel’s contribution in the present volume.

18For her translator, her fidelity to that language that is both hers and not hers, necessarily implies we rethink one of the central dialectics of translation: that of faithfulness and betrayal. Many translators have reflected on such productive dialectics. In the essay they devote to their translation of Sophocles, Robert Davreu—who was also one of the greatest translators of English poetry and English fiction into French—and the playwright Wajdi Mouawad argue against modernization which demeans the original even as it pretends to democratize its reception: ‘C’est d’une manière générale, réduire la portée des grandes œuvres que de vouloir, à toute force et de façon le plus souvent artificielle, ainsi les moderniser’ (28). The same holds for Woolf’s essayistic language; modernizing her mimicry or smoothing out her stylistic quaintness would not be an option. Modernizing her ladylike manner would have obfuscated what her conflicted English disclosed of her critical cultural stance and what it still tells us today about cultural power relations. Critics such as Juliet Dusinberre, Steve Ellis, Marie Laniel4 or Anne Besnault-Levita have all shown the complexity of her relation to her literary heritage. Pamela Caughie has, for her part, insisted on the way ‘the shifting and blurring of literary genres, periods, and styles, disrupts meaning brought about by fixed polarities, by defined standards, by rigid categories’ (Caughie 1989, 47). For Emily Dalgarno also, ventriloquism plays a strategic role in Woolf’s exploration of cultural and gender power relations. Woolf comes to dismiss it as unethical only when the pressure of war becomes too great for language to accommodate anything but ‘the mourning cry’ which alone ‘is seen to breach the barriers of kinship and nation’ (Dalgarno 2012, 68). Translating Woolf’s ‘double discourse’, her speaking in tongues, her linguistic posturing implies the translator try to remain faithful to that process of inner distancing through which she both claims a place of her own in the literary tradition, and exposes women’s linguistic relegation. Her genteel ventriloquism functions both as a disclaimer and a claim. Trying to acculturise that cultural tension in the target language would thus compound the political injury that Woolf’s strategic double discourse subtly exposes.

19In many ways, her ‘speaking in tongues’ opens a common ground for a critique of cultural distinction. Her polyvocality allows her to open a distance within language and to create aporetic effects which conjure unheimlich impressions of familiarity and strangeness. The English language speaks through her as if from a great distance, even as it embodies itself in the forked tongue of a politics of irony. It is one of the felicitous effects of translation to open onto a phenomenology of language which dis-indigenizes the powerful sense of recognition produced by Woolf’s mimicry. ‘Outlanding Woolf” through translation thus allows us to experience her capacity to estrange language, beyond sameness and linguistic kinship, a process best encapsulated in one of Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt’s aporetic visions: ‘J’ai beau répéter ma phrase, elle n’en restera pas moins cette phrase. Seule la traduction peut vérifier son contenu’ (21).

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———, ‘Passing as Modernism’, Modernism/Modernity 12.3 (2005): 385–406.

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———, ‘“Oh to be Silent! Oh to be a Painter”: “The Sisters’ Arts”, Virginia et Vanessa’, Virginia Woolf. Le pur et l’impur, eds. Catherine Bernard and Christine Reynier, Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2002, 149–165.

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———, A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897-1909, ed. Mitchell A. Leaska, New York: Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich, 1990.

———, ‘Evening Over Sussex: Reflections in a Motor Car’, The Essays of Virginia Woolf. Vol. 6, 1933-1941, ed. Stuart N. Clarke, London: The Hogarth Press, 2011, 453–456.

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———, Des heures à lire. Essais choisis de Virginia Woolf, trans. and ed. Catherine Bernard, Paris: Gallimard, coll. Folio classique, forthcoming in 2015.

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1 See Derek Ryan’s article in the present volume.

2 Maxwell comments an entry of Woolf early journal; see Woolf, A Passionate Apprentice (324).

3 One could very usefully read that essay with Jacques Derrida’s De l’hospitalité, in which he also thinks the issue of hospitality through that of language especially when a common language is missing.

4 See also Marie Laniel’s contribution in the present volume.

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Catherine Bernard, « Translating Woolf’s Essays: Reflections on an Experience of Polyvocal Writing », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 48 | 2015, mis en ligne le 11 mai 2015, consulté le 25 juin 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.2232

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Catherine Bernard

Catherine Bernard is Professor of English literature and art history at the University Paris Diderot-Paris 7. She has published extensively on the work of Virginia Woolf and more widely on Modernism. She also works on modernist visual arts, especially the Bloomsbury Group: the Omega Workshops, the aesthetics of Fry and Clive Bell. She has co-edited several volumes of articles on Woolf, among which Virginia Woolf. Le pur et l’impur (Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2002), co-edited with Christine Reynier and Woolf as Reader/Woolf as Critic, or, the Art of Reading in the Present (Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2011). She has also published a critical essay on Mrs Dalloway (Gallimard, 2006) and has edited and translated Flush for the Pléiade edition of Woolf’s fiction (Gallimard, 2012). She has recently translated and edited a selection of Woolf’s essays to be published by Gallimard (Folio classique) in 2015.

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Licence Creative Commons
Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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