To the lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

I’ve noticed a distinct reluctance to spend substantial amounts of time reviewing books in recent years – my Man Booker list of books ‘to be reviewed’ is longer than the list of books I’ve read and reviewed (and a lot of the reviews I have posted are lacklustre, or short, spoken snippets of commentary). At a recent event, a conversation between Karl Ove Knausgaard and Don Bartlett chaired by Philip Langeskov, Karl Ove explains his wife’s comments, that he doesn’t know a thing until he’s written about it. I think the motivation for this review is similar.

To the lighthouse is mercifully short, but by the end, I didn’t really want to finish – I could feel myself racing toward the finish, just as Mr Ramsay is doing with his own book as the boat approaches the lighthouse, and even though I was aware that I was mirroring him, slipping a finger behind the page to enable swift turning, I couldn’t help myself. I often think perception of time shifts the further through a book I am – but in this case, I’m absolutely sure that my reading was swifter and more fluid once section I had finished. This first section is almost impenetrable, and caused much re-reading and confusion. It’s a window into the hearts and minds of a varied cast, and stylistically reads like a stream of consciousness* – replete with contradictions, workings-out, second guessing… the infernal racket of multiple minds is maddening and dulling, leading me (by design?) to the indifference that has overtaken one of the characters at the beginning of section III.

This first section, with its long, flip-flopping sentences and frequent shifts in point of view has no doubt troubled many people – the rhythm can eventually be discerned, but the prose still has the ability to wrong-foot you at any time. But the pay-off, because there had to be one, comes in the form of an exquisite lullaby in section II – as night descends, the story is lifted from the consuming present of the mind, and as consciousness departs, we’re carried along into a stranger world – one that we can’t comprehend in the moment, one that involves visions, dreams and the decaying of people and places. It’s a beautiful and lyrical passage (and even more pleasurable for me, it shows in a master-stroke everything wrong with The Children’s Book by AS Byatt).

In the third section, we return – to both the setting and some of the cast of the first (time and conflict have taken their toll on the party) – but instead of a clamour, there’s an ill-feeling peace. Mr Ramsay squeezes the hand of a guest and says ‘You’ll find us much changed’ – but her thoughts go to the dead, those who have not changed, who are merely absent. It’s a section of reconciliations – some things finish, but the conclusion is not what any of the characters expect.

Even though the book is rooted in, and for a short spell, out of time – anchored by the specificity of the moment, still it manages to speak volumes about timeless or persistent themes. My understanding of recent history is woefully inadequate, so I’m sure some of the potency of this book is lost on me, but it packs a might punch nonetheless.

  • Beauty and vanity – Mrs Ramsay is lauded, not just for her beauty, but because she ‘doesn’t wear it’. Her interest in others strives to be her most commended attribute, and yet her guests (in the main) are intoxicated by her beauty above all else.
  • The turmoil of artistic endeavour – illustrating two extremes, that of being practically unable to create because of the weight of doubt, the unattainable idea of perfection; and on the other hand anxiety about the reception of work, its longevity, its greatness, and how this public perception can prevent further creation, or alter the achievement.
  • The complexities of human relations, especially deciding whether we like or dislike – many of Woolf’s characters have internal struggles between like and dislike of each other, and there’s a compelling argument for these feelings not being determined at all by another’s behaviour or appearances, but solely in our responses to them. This is particularly potent both as Mrs Ramsay questions whether she even likes her husband, and later, when Lily Briscoe’s contempt for the dead (because they are unchangeable and fixed) transforms her opinion of one of the deceased – showing that as we change, our relations with others changes, too.
  • Gender politics – Woolf’s portrayal of gender is intriguing. Characters are diverse in approach and behaviour, and yet their internal life suggests an incredible amount of conditioning, not least through social pressure. Could we say that Lily Briscoe triumphs over the perceived limitations of her gender? Only if we also note that she does so with a heavy heart and a degree of self-loathing.

I read this book in a bid to ‘Read myself fitter’ following a fantastic event at Bookseller Crow with Andy Miller. Andy’s guide to dangerous reading was pertinent in a number of ways – at page thirteen, when irritation started to threaten my resolve to actually read the book, and now: it’s fitting that, even after writing this review to try and discover what I think, I’m none the wiser. I don’t know if I liked it, or disliked it (neither word feels useful) – I don’t know how I’d describe it. But as Andy says, whether you like it or not doesn’t really matter.

UPDATE: 8 July 2014

I haven’t really stopped thinking about this book for the last five weeks, and I’m glad, if slightly nervous, that my book group have now taken it on. One of the over-riding impressions it has left on me is something to do with futility. In the first section, so much seems to be happening: people are considered, responded to, their actions interpreted myriad ways; wishes and decisions are made by many. But in almost the same breath, these thoughts are underminded, re-shaped, reconfigured and contradicted. It all goes to suggest that we are changeable creatures, and that our experience of life is in flux. In the final section, internal lives are once again exposed, but the tone is different – it’s a tone of anticipation, dread even – one that assumes nothing ever changes. But change does happen – unlooked for, unexpected and significant for all that. It suggests to me that time is the only thing on a sure footing.

* Having just listened to an expert analysis of Mrs Dalloway on the radio programme ‘In Our Time’, I’m at pains to point out that the style is not stream of consciousness, because the speaker is largely difficult to pinpoint, and the prose moves fluidly between first and third person. There’s something in this inability to lock on to the story-teller…

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