In Virginia Woolf’s story “The Mark on the Wall,” a woman sits in her chair, speculating about a spot on the opposite wall that she can’t identify. It’s a nail, a bump, maybe a leaf—but she prefers thought to action, so instead of getting up to look, she lets her mind wander—for several pages—from the mark on the wall to all sorts of subjects. Eventually she says, “someone is standing over me and saying:‘I’m going out to buy a newspaper.’
‘Though it’s no good buying newspapers . . . Nothing ever happens. Curse this war; God damn this war! . . . All the same, I don’t see why we should have a snail on our wall.’”
And the story ends, “Ah, the mark on the wall. It was a snail.” Nothing happens except perception and the mind’s response to perception, but the story turns out to be about war, the first world war. It’s a bit tedious to read, because we get the idea too quickly, but it’s a story I for one am glad to have, yet not eager to imitate. That kind of writing leads us down a narrower and narrower path and finally disappears into the forest of the mind. I get nervous when it becomes clear as I read a story that it’s going to end with somebody alone in a room realizing something; even here, Virginia Woolf introduces another character at the end, someone who speaks and acts. We do have inner lives, and trying to represent them in fiction is fine, but there’s just so much of it one can write or read before the inner life starts to feel like a trap.
Mattison’s description reminded me also of stories by Katherine Mansfield, dear Miss Brill. How small to large and back again can cause a story to oscillate and reverberate.