Virginia Woolf took me by surprise. There is a quality to her writing that has deeply affected me, now six months removed from the first time I read her in a class built around her and her cohort, the Bloomsbury Group of Bloomsbury, London of the early 20th century. Among the authors we read that fall semester were Lytton Strachey, EM Forster, Virginia’s husband Leonard, and of course Virginia herself. I enjoyed, to some extent, everything we read in that class (Forster’s Howards End notwithstanding) but the immediate reading of two novels, Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse really stood out. I was transfixed by the prose, its aesthetics, its flow through a process of thought that seemed to me so natural. The way sentences ducked and dodged their way forward; the comma so intrinsic to that style, inserted where so often a period might be yet somehow making perfect sense on the page. As I finished Mrs. Dalloway, I wasn’t sure exactly what had just happened. But I had the notion that this might be the most dynamic writer in the English language.
To the Lighthouse became my favorite and is a special kind of book. It manages to be at once a story of the differences in gendered experience and patriarchy, the soul and its yearning for greatness, and a rumination on time and the meaning of creation. Arranged in three parts, the first takes place in barely an evening, the third basically an afternoon, but the middle section is what really pulled me in. Taking up ten years, it is the shortest in text, just a few pages long, condensing a family’s relation to itself as to the summer house they once frequented in simpler times. The house has become decrepit, but is brought back to life to its once grand standing–the same sort of renaissance the Ramsay family is trying at for themselves. We find, in uncharacteristically curt, bracketed statements, that in those ten years that have gone by, Mrs Ramsay has passed, so have a couple of the children. The collective nostalgia of those who remain leads them to eventually undertake a journey by boat to the titular lighthouse across the bay, a trip that they had put off in the beginning due to weather. Or, more truthfully, due to Mr Ramsay’s own desire for control over his family, if not over himself. As they sail, he sits on the floor of the boat, buried in a book, relating to his surroundings in little more than passing gestures. A final kudos to his son James for steering is all we get from the man who is as preoccupied as ever with academia, with that feeling in his own mind that he could never be a truly great thinker and that his is a life of failure.
I related in no small part to the construction of the novel, its three parts standing for the three acts of life presented over a period of time that is secondary to the way it is told. The passing of ten years is a strange block of time to look back on so briefly. My last ten years–my 20s basically–was wrought with mental illness and a yearn for something more for my words and music. Mr Ramsay’s own declaration that his intellect could never be all he wanted it to be runs concurrently within myself, and that belief has often tripped me up over the past decade as I’ve strived to arrive at the proverbial letter Z of the alphabet: a metaphor for reaching some state of final clarity within a life lived; to make a perfect work of art for everyone to see and judge rightly. In my reading, Mr Ramsay somehow reflected my own ambition. My feeling of being small within a wider context. I could see the anguish he was in, even while disliking his character and its machismo.
In essence, however, the character Lily Briscoe, a Ramsay family friend, is the soul of To the Lighthouse. And ultimately the piece of the story that gives it its great depth. She is at first denigrated, told by one Mr Tansley, the proverbial antithesis, that, “women can’t paint, women can’t write.” Such an idea obsesses her and leaves her to prove the man wrong, which she does quite beautifully in the end. Her circular story of what it means to create in spite of something drove me to a point of reflection. I’ve been doing a version of that for over a decade. As she paints the remaining Ramsays on that final journey to the lighthouse and the closure it may come to bear, we as readers are resolved to see that she can indeed paint. And Virginia Woolf can really write. It is all a perfect reminder to the Mr Tansleys of the world, but also a showing of a strength of conviction. Lily Briscoe cares to show Tansley that he is unfounded, but she does so in a way that transcends his very being, creating a work of art that is of the Ramsays’ boat, the bay, the sail, but also a part of her own soul. Maybe the painting is good but what matters more is that it exists at all. Its existence is its own retort. Its completion, its own obsession.
Woolf in her way masterfully takes us somewhere that I had never been: Somewhere between the notion of linearity and the immediacy of particular moments, and the grand statement of a perception that to have agency over oneself is to own a particular outcome. I could see in Lily Briscoe a touchstone of an artistic nature, compelled by an internal devotion to prove something within herself and do it in a way that is in tune with that act of creation. To come to a conclusion amidst a context that is surely trying to beat you down. The linear presentation of a collection of moments can then condense into a vision that can be put down on canvas. Or, in my case, paper or tape. To see something as a complete piece of work is enough to drive forward a bit longer, even if you–like Virginia Woolf herself actually–are more in tune with the process than whatever reaction the finished product might incur. With everything I’ve ever finished, whether it be prose or music, there comes the feeling that it is either in a vacuum or not quite right. But it is still a portion of my mind recorded, to exist in perpetuity. And this is important. With every installation of such a body of work, to me there will always be an element of despair. Yet that connection with the idea that it simply is can often be enough.
In this way To the Lighthouse, like any truly great work of literature, is alive. The relationship between time on the page and time in the story seems the thread that ties together the question of how literature can both move as an extended piece of writing and exist in a space that defines itself. The Ramsays house being brought back from the decrepit state it was in after ten years of inattention claims that time, in life, moves strangely, quickly, beyond our understanding. Ten years is a long time. Enough to change the art that is created. My last ten years have felt like a hundred years, a lifetime, yet still just moments to recall. A complete picture is bound to omit something, though that something will inevitably come back around sooner or later. Moments in an evolution are as acts in a story told and they are often what we are left with. In reading To the Lighthouse, wondering where a Virginia Woolf could be these days, the continued existence of her work takes us to a hundred years ago and a hundred years from now, living the present as a function of the past, and looking to the future as just a sailboat’s ride away. It all works to take one totally by surprise and to desire more. In a life built mostly around chaos, the simple feeling of a path forged and documented can be enough to carry on. Even if it seems but a vision.