There are two poles to contend with, to negotiate, when reviewing. Especially with regard to new books, the pressure is to venture an opinion, the fear, I suppose, is "getting it wrong" (one misreads something or, perhaps worse, one believes something to be "good"; critical opinion all says "bad"); with established books, the fear is banality (simply reiterating what is already well-established) and, especially with books that have become "classics", daring to venture an opinion against the body of received academic lore. Saying anything about, for instance, Shakespeare would seem pointless or foolhardy. Notwithstanding that, and aware that I might fall flat on my face, I'd like to write some very provisional notes about To The Lighthouse.

I know precious little about Virginia Woolf. I have read one biography (Julia Briggs' Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life which I thought was excellent) and, now, two of her novels (I read Orlando many years back). I cannot even begin to pretend any great understanding of her work, but I do want to respond to To The Lighthouse, which I've just read, which moved me greatly. The novel seemed to confirm a personal maxim of mine, no doubt gleaned from the writings of Gabriel Josipovici, especially his The Lessons of Modernism, that we have not fully learnt all we could from Modernism, and that the questions Modernism asked, and the challenges that Modernism posed, remain with us today. Almost 80 years since it was written (it was published by the Woolf's own Hogarth Press in 1927) and To The Lighthouse still makes most modern fiction look tired, nescient and pointless. Almost 80 years since it was written and it still retains something vital and fresh.

How has the novel retained its freshness and vitality? Its form is as important as its content; its content is self-aware of the form through which it is being expressed. It is tender and intelligent; domestic and philosophical; it is aware of its artifice. In its central section, Time Passes, an obvious reference to Proust (Woolf was obsessed by Proust and noted in her journal his "tremendous sensibility & curiosity & intelligence"), the hinge between The Window (dominated by the thoughts and character of Mrs Ramsay and through whose perspective we see many of the other characters and see into her -- and their -- mind) and The Lighthouse (Lily Briscoe to the fore), the reader is moved, at pace, through time (ten years, the sympathetic fallacy of the declining house, and a war). The narratorial perspective shifts. For this section, we are outside looking in. And we learn, almost casually (shockingly, in parentheses) of Mrs Ramsay's death.

There is a compelling rhythm to the writing in The Window. We move back to a similar style in The Lighthouse. This reinforces the centrality of Time Passes and gives the novel's shape such strength. I'm uncomfortably using the term "stream of consciousness" (note, anyway, that the novel is all narrated in the third person) because is seems to me to have been degraded now to mean little more than a style marked by sentimental, mawkish interiority (what I often think of, in film, as the dreary expedient of the voiceover). Here the interior monologue is exquisitely handled: inquisitive, fickle, capricious, grounded. At the centre is war and death: Andrew Ramsay dies at the front, Prue Ramsay dies in an "illness connected with childbirth" and, as noted, Mrs Ramsay dies "rather suddenly".

Lily Briscoe doesn't go on the boat-trip with the family at the end of the novel (Mr Ramsay is now quite old, but his youngest child, Cam, is still only fifteen; his son, James, is sixteen). She stays in the garden, she remembers back to earlier times, and she paints. Indeed, she struggles to finish a portrait of Mrs Ramsay. Art has to contend, contain, contest death. Its contours are shaped by death. Charles Tansley who, earlier, cruelly and stupidly claimed that women could neither paint nor write, is also remembered. And dismissed. Lily has been struggling to get the perspective right for years. “It is finished,” Lily says. Carmichael the poet looks on.

Readers Comments

  1. One of my favorite little bits of formal daring in TTL comes right at the end. Woolf writes "Mr Ramsay had nearly finished his book" or something similarly simple. "Hey," I always think, "so have I!" But I think to have the experience of reading for Mr. Ramsay and for us end simultaneously with Lily's "vision" (whatever we take that to mean, however seriously we take it), elevates reading and the reader in deeply moving ways.

    A lovely post!

  2. Yes I love 'To the Lighthouse' too, it saved me from a teenager domain of _too_ much Lord of the Rings, which is what, more lately written!

    I second your "still makes most modern fiction look tired, nescient and pointless. "

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