Friday, March 31, 2006

Book Report - "To the Lighthouse" by Virginia Woolf

It’s a phenomenon that a place so unliterary as Hollywood is often responsible for renewed interest in a writer’s work or personal story.

Virginia Woolf got a giant boost a couple of years ago with a major film production called “The Hours.” Nicole Kidman received an Academy Award for her portrayal of today’s subject/author.

The edition of Woolf’s "To the Lighthouse"read to produce this book report has a 1927 copyright and was published by Harcourt, Brace and Company; a brown-paged and rickety offering in gray cloth cover.

the scribe, a screenwriter himself, took it up because of the awareness of Woolf gained from “The Hours” and surrounding media.

It is difficult to say what the book is truly about. Like many good novels it’s about many things, but no single thing you follow, anticipating development, comfortable with the pace of revelation. You hardly know what’s being revealed.

The story does not move many places or ever truly “get going” in the dramatic sense; that’s not considered a flaw at highwayscribery, rather a virtue. Woolf’s long ruminations and interior examinations are where the energy is, inside the characters who act little, but think much.

The language is exacting, taxing, and sometimes the author’s sentences finish somewhere else than they’re supposed to. It’s hard to imagine that such a baroque and delving prose would stand a snowball’s chance in hell of getting published today.

It was written, you see, before the vast commercialization of that same revolutionary film-making--as-storytelling process and the homogenizing effect it had on most people’s treatment of literature.

A family called the Ramsays have a coastal house somewhere in Britannia before the First World War. They are genteel; he a famous philosopher, she a hothouse flower of heightened sensibility.

Three-quarters of the book take place in a 24-hour expanse as Woolf takes us through the minds of nearly a dozen people; people thinking about their relationship to a larger world, to themselves, to the people gathered at the Ramsays.

Although not wealthy, the Ramsays can afford to keep some illustrious guests at the summer home and their brood numbers five or six. And so the author’s mind-mining finds plenty of fertile ground for topics worldly and domestic alike:

“...children never forget. For this reason, it was so important what one said, and what one did, and it was a relief when they went to bed. For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of – to think; well, not even to think.”

So what?

If you’re a parent it rings true. It tells you something you knew innately, but had never crystallized into a solid idea. Good literature does that. Pulls us in by making us relate and instructs, turns pleasure into profit, while you’re laying beneath the warm glow of a golden late-night lamp.

But the scribe’s writing like Woolf here (that happens).

Mrs. Ramsay is the star of this gentile warm-season gathering, the looking glass through whom we experience the day-turned-evening event, the one who judges the motives and shortcomings of the guests, although we are treated to the points-of-view from other characters, too.

A fading beauty, but a beauty both spiritual and cosmetic nonetheless, Mrs. Ramsay’s particular gift is the arrangement of sublime moments and her conflict is that she enjoys them so much more than those she deigns to design them for:

“Everything seemed possible. Everything seemed right. Just now (but this cannot last, she thought, dissociating herself from the moment while they were all talking about boots) just now she had reached a security; she hovered like a hawk suspended; like a flag floating in an element of joy which filled every nerve of her body fully and sweetly, not noisily, solemnly rather...”

Looking for a little post-reading help, the scribe read an article by Louise DeSalvo on Woolf’s relationship with writer Rita Sackville-West, during which she wrote “To the Lighthouse.”

It’s from a book entitled “Significant Others, Creativity & Intimate Passion,” edited by Whitney Chadwick and Isabelle de Courtivron, and published by Thames and Hudson in 1993. Some of the other couplings it assays are Clare and Andre Malraux, Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett, Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin.

According to DeSalvo, the younger lover and writer saw that Woolf needed social interaction, and made sure she got it, because “Virginia based her fiction primarily upon observation, not upon her imagination.”

So Mrs. Ramsay may very well be Woolf’s mother, a woman affected by withdrawal and depression.

While together, they generated the finest work of their lives, Woolf informing Sackville-West’s writing with a greater literary quality, Rita giving Virginia an openness and the tools to reach a wider, best-selling audience.

“To the Lighthouse” was one in a troika of novels (“The Waves” and “The Years) that “examined her childhood in the Stephen Family, a childhood riddled with violence, sexual abuse, and emotional neglect,” according to DeSalvo.

The Mr. Ramsay of “To the Lighthouse,” corresponds to Woolf’s characterization of life with her father as, “living in a cage with a lion.” His “self-absorbed” grief is on display and much-detailed in the novel.

Not an unsympathetic man, Mr. Ramsay is falling just short of being a great philosopher and the resulting worries keep him from strengthening the fading connection he has with his wife. She must repress the need to quote the price of a roofing job to stay out of his fuzzy head where he is very busy. Those around him cannot help but be charmed by his magnetism and intelligence, but his overbearing nature (sometimes he’s just being a father), leads mostly to resentment.

So, “To the Lighthouse” is a work pegged to her childhood and perhaps Virginia is Lily, a minor character and more minor painter. Here she alternates between artistic courage and terror, enriching before a blank canvas.

“For what could be more formidable than that space? Here she was again, she thought, stepping back to look at it, drawn out of gossip, out of living, out of community with people into the presence of this formidable ancient enemy of hers – this other things, this truth, this reality, which suddenly laid hands on her, emerged stark at the back of appearances and commanded attention.”

If you want to read a map of your precious individual self, you might want to try Virginia. If you don’t, maybe you shouldn’t.

Or maybe you should read it no matter what, because it’s reading. Listen to how Woolf weaves her own enjoyment of books into the fabric of the character Mrs. Ramsay:

“And she waited a little, knitting, wondering, and slowly those words they had said at dinner, ‘the China rose is all abloom and buzzing with the honey bee,’ began washing from side to side of her mind rhythmically, and as they washed, words, like little shaded lights, one red, one blue, one yellow, lit up in the dark of her mind, and seemed leaving their perches up there to fly across and across, or to cry out and be echoed: so she turned and felt on the table beside her for a book.”

On this particular outing the family situation seems vulnerable, threatened by a crumbling roof and cracks in the emotional edifice, but it’s difficult to tell if the looming threat is extraordinary or just the stuff we all live with. In any case, Mrs. Ramsay triumphs once more, creating a sublime moment that is gone more quickly than it took to manufacture. The guests enjoy a magic they’ve come to expect, but without guessing at the work behind it.

The story breaks suddenly as Mrs. Ramsay turns the lights out on her children for the evening and the reader is then vaulted into a second book entitled: “Time Passes.”

World War I comes. Some of those present on the summer weekend have been taken by it. Mrs. Ramsay has died, “suddenly” and the family has ceased returning to the beach house. Pages-long, majestic descriptions of the house’s decrepitude, of nature’s advances upon the property, of the lingering spirits that once warmed it unwind under Woolf’s careful, intricate hand.

Such stretches recall Italo Calvino who observed that literature represents a rare moment of order in a universe heading toward dissolution: “The literary work is one of those small points of privilege where things crystallize into a form which acquires such meaning.”

Finally the Ramsays return, robbed of their life force, a pale facsimile of the prior clan, stitched to one another by grief only. Again it is Lily, the old maid and mediocre turtle artist, who brings us to the point of the piece. Veiled and indirect throughout, Woolf now bids attention be paid in her first sentence:

“The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one. This, that, and the other; herself and Charles Tansley and the breaking wave; Mrs. Ramsay bringing them together; Mrs. Ramsay saying, “Life stand still here”; Mrs. Ramsay making of the moment something permanent (as in another sphere Lily herself tried to make of the moment something permanent) – this was of the nature of a revelation. In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing (she looked at the clouds going and the leaves shaking) was struck into stability. Life stand still here, Mrs. Ramsay said. “Mrs. Ramsay! Mrs. Ramsay!” she repeated. She owed it all to her.”

So mostly, “To the Lighthouse,” is a character sketch and Valentine to Mrs. Ramsay: perhaps Woolf’s mother, perhaps Rita Sackville-West, perhaps somebody else, an amalgamation, or nobody at all. Just somebody she thought we’d like to see.

For time travelers, the tale offers the privilege of vacationing with a homogeneous family of middle-class gentility at the beginning of the 20th Century. It’s no wonder Woolf could wander and wade through the psyches of those present. Isolated, far from the news of the moment, without any means of communicating to the outside world, everybody is obligated to be present and consider one another and the landscape of dunes, long lawns at dusk, and wind-rippled tide pools.

And then it’s modern literature and the modern world. The politics discussed at the table sound familiar and strangely up-to-date, the strivings and shortcomings of the characters are not far at all from our own: to be great, to be respected, to get to the lighthouse.


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