Thursday, May 12, 2005

To The Lighthouse

Currently reading: "The History of Love" - by Nicole Krauss
"Letters to a Young Novelist" - by Mario Vargas Llosa
"The Sandman Companion" - by Hy Bender
Next up: TBA (but most likely a classic author again, as I like to alternate between contemporary and classic)

Yesterday, on the subway to work, I finally finished Virginia Woolf's "To the Lighthouse." It took me longer to read than such a short book probably should have, but it's such dense writing that, in a way, I'm surprised it didn't take me longer. This has been said before by people much smarter than I, but I'll say it again: Virginia Woolf was a genius. As I closed the book, I said to myself I want to write. Like. That.

Synopsis (from the Webster Encyclopedia of Literature):

"The novel is one of Woolf's most successful and accessible experiments in
the stream-of-consciousness style. The three sections of the book take place
between 1910 and 1920 and revolve around various members of the Ramsay family
during visits to their summer residence on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. A
central motif of the novel is the conflict between the feminine and masculine
principles at work in the universe.

With her emotional, poetic frame of mind, Mrs. Ramsay represents the
female principle, while Mr. Ramsay, a self-centered philosopher, expresses the
male principle in his rational point of view. Both are flawed by their limited
perspectives. A painter and friend of the family, Lily Briscoe, is Woolf's
vision of the androgynous artist who personifies the ideal blending of male and
female qualities. Her successful completion of a painting that she has been
working on since the beginning of the novel is symbolic of this

It's funny, but until I read that, I had trouble rationalizing the need for Lily Briscoe - but now it makes perfect sense...I did notice the comparison between male and female principles in Mr. & Mrs. Ramsay, and Woolf captured them so well. I loved that she captured the weaknesses in both positions - that neither one of them was completely right or completely wrong. Because while Mrs. Ramsay did much good, was extremely nurturing, and saw the value in talking about something for its own sake and not to make oneself look superior; she also did good deeds for the acclaim it would bring her, and was vain about her own beauty. Meanwhile, Mr. Ramsay was a great thinker, but he also sucked the energy out of a room when he got depressed, was never affectionate with his children, and thought his wife stupid. Strangely (or maybe not so strangely) enough, I felt a lot of love between the two. There's one passage that particularly struck a chord with me:

"He wanted something - wanted the thing she always found it
so difficult to give him; wanted her to tell him that she loved him. And
that, no, she could not do. He found talking so much easier than she
did. He could say things - she never could. So naturally it was
always he that said the things, and then for some reason he would mind this
suddenly, and would reproach her. A heartless woman he called her; she
never told him that she loved him. But it was not so - it was not
so. It was only that she could never say what she felt. Was there no
crumb on his coat? Nothing she could do for him? Getting up, she stood at
the window with the reddish-brown stocking in her hands, partly to turn away
from him, partly because she remembered how beautiful it often is - the sea at
night. But sheknew that he had turned his head as she turned; he was
watching her. She knew that he was thinking, You are more beautiful than
ever. And she felt herself very beautiful. Will you not tell me just
for once that you love me? He was thinking that, for he was roused, what
with Minta and his book, and its being the end of the day and their having
quarrelled about going to the Lighthouse. But she could not do it; she
could not say it. Then, knowing that he was watching her, instead of
saying anything she turned, holding her stocking, and looked at him. And
as she looked at him she began to smile, for though she had not said a word, he
knew, of course he knew, that she loved him. He could not deny it.
And smiling she looked out of the window and said (thinking to herself, Nothing
on earth can equal this happiness) - 'Yes, you were right. It's going to be wet
tomorrow. You won't be able to go.' And she looked at him
smiling. For she had triumphed again. She had not said it: yet he

That's one of the most gorgeous and truthful passages dealing with marriage that I've ever read. There are so many passages in this book that I've marked in my copy and love. I will post them here.

The only part of this book that I didn't particularly enjoy was the middle section, "Time Passes." While I understand why it was important to the novel it was, quite simply, boring. Lots of description of the house falling apart, of the elderly caretakers...time passes, but very slowly. ;)
The rest of the book, though, was brilliant! I related to so much of it - more than I probably would've liked to. Mrs. Ramsay's "good deeds", Mr. Ramsay's ambition...But I particularly identified with Cam and James' (two of the Ramsay children) relationship with their father, with James' objection to "tyranny", and Cam's indecision. They each seemed to personify the fluctuating views I have of my own father... :) What I love so much about Virginia Woolf's writing is that she manages to capture all the intricacies of a single moment and make it grand, epic. A person sitting down to dinner becomes a major, interesting event. Yet, as epic as these moments become, they are also extremely familiar. I was surprised that within this fictional family of English people at the turn of the century, I found so many versions of myself.
I'm going to stop here, because I can't write about this novel more intelligently than it itself was written. The book should speak for itself in this case. Within the next day or so, I'll post my favorite passages, so you can sample the brilliance for yourself! :)
Also coming soon: "What I Hate About Current Literary Criticism"


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