One of the best things I did in my holidays was to read To the Lighthouse (TTL) by Virginia Woolf. I started with the Naxos Audiobook (read by Juliet Stevenson) but then she was leaving out huge chunks and I was getting confused and so I switched over to both reading and listening. I also read what some of the bloggers participating in the Woolf in Winter reading challenge (hosted by Emily) had to say about it.
Here are some of my notes:
Interesting to read the Wikipedia entry on VW as a way of getting invaluable context for her writing. The wealth of written material on her for a start. And then the basics of family, works, Bloomsbury Group, relationships. The background makes it easy to make the connection between the great beauty of VW’s mother and the great beauty of Mrs Ramsay for example.
VW’s own depression gives these lines a particular resonance for me:
Nothing, it seemed, could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness which, creeping in at keyholes and crevices, stole around window blinds, came into bedrooms, swallowed up here a jug and basin, there a bowl of red and yellow dahlias, there the sharp edges and firm bulk of a chest of drawers. Not only was furniture confounded; there was scarcely anything left of body or mind by which one could say ‘This is he’ or ‘This is she.’ (p.117)
And consider this reflection:
“At that season those who had gone down to pace the beach and ask of the sea and sky what message they reported or what vision they affirmed had to consider among the usual tokens of divine bounty — the sunset on the sea, the pallor of dawn, the moon rising, fishing-boats against the moon, and children pelting each other with handfuls of grass — something out of harmony with this jocundity, this serenity. There was the silent apparition of an ashen-coloured ship for instance, come, gone; there was a purplish stain upon the bland surface of the sea as if something had boiled and bled, invisibly, beneath” – p.124
For me, this is part of the genius of her imagination. To see the beach and the sea infused with the blood of those fallen in the First World War (which she mentions matter-of-factly the paragraph before). It’s the kind of ‘madness’ if you like that trauma imposes on people’s perceptions.
I love the metaphor of the lighthouse as a beacon of hope, of love, structure, solidity, promise. VW uses the lighthouse as the centrepoint of her novel.
One of the things I liked about TTL is the way Woolf can take such simple events – a trip to a lighthouse, a dinner, Lily painting — and spin such perspectives and memories and stream of consciousness out of them. The art of the narrow focus, and the grand focus too. Large and small. She’s not driven by plot but by subjectivity.
There’s also the issue of her depression and the role that writing (and reading) played in alleviating it or perhaps making it worse. For me (and many others) there’s a fascination with writers (and other artists) who have committed suicide. Can we see it in her writing? What are the similarities with Plath? Could this happen to me or to others I care about? Is writing (or reading) somehow a dangerous activity, likely to lead to morbid introspection and ultimately suicide?
Thinking about my own reaction to TTL, I enjoyed it more because of Juliet Stevenson’s reading of it. She carried me along in the middle section when I was losing my way. And then I got fired up for it again. What the audiobook did was to impose some additional (and quite helpful) structure on the book. For example the last four tracks are called In the boat, Perspective, Approaching and Arriving.
There were several great moments in the book but one that stands out for me happens in Part Three between Mr Ramsay and Lily:
Mr Ramsay sighed to the full. He waited. Was she not going to say anything? Did she not see what he wanted from her? Then he said he had a particular reason for wanting to go to the lighthouse … […] He sighed profoundly. He sighed significantly. All Lily wished was that this enormous flood of grief, this insatiable hunger for sympathy, this demand that she should surrender herself up to him entirely, and even so he had sorrows enough to keep her supplied for ever, should leave her, should be diverted (she kept looking at the house, hoping for an interruption) before it swept her down in its flow. (p. 142)
There’s a wonderful contrast between Lily Briscoe (with her little Chinese eyes, desperately trying to paint) and the dominant and yet rawly vulnerable presence of Mr Ramsay with his demand for sympathy.
I’ll be back next time with some more Woolf.