Matches struck unexpectedly in the dark…..

First of all – this post about Umberto Eco’s children’s book from the 1960s is worth a gander if you like beautifully drawn children’s literature (with a good moral message) but more importantly, the site for the post – Brain Pickings – has such great stuff every day, I could just live in the world of books and visuals that she curates!


I have not been sewing lately, I have not been watching movies either. It seems for the last two weeks all I have really been doing is reading, reading, reading. Mostly for school, but then again, I’ve got a stack of library books on positive psychology and the future of the book which I’m attempting to read snippets of for fun, and last night I was gifted Wayde Compton’s After Canaan for my birthday and I don’t know if I can wait until the end of semester to dive into it. Then again, there are stacks of books awaiting the end of my required readings, we seem to accumulate them like sand coming in under the doorway around here.

But all this reading is exciting, it’s not a drag even when it gets hard, because I’m learning that if I just push through – examining my prejudices to particular authors as I go – there might be something very rewarding on the other side. Case in point – Virginia Woolf – an author who I have always despised having once attempted (and failed) to read Mrs. Dalloway a number of years ago. Not only that, but I think that there is a certain amount of social teaching that weighs heavily on the feminist writers – and so I grew up with a sense that somehow I wasn’t supposed to like Woolf, or that she thought herself too good for other people, or something like that. And I can imagine that she would have been a difficult person, what with her hyper-intelligent mind and fits of madness – and perhaps that’s part of the reason we’re not supposed to like her either. In any event, I didn’t *get* Mrs. Dalloway or what all the fuss was about anyway because where was the story in all that reflection? So tedious! So slow! So inconsequential!

And so now, I am about to eat all those words and more – having finished To the Lighthouse on Saturday. My initial observations are thus:

  • Reading Woolf requires patience, and the lyric novel is more like a poem than any other form of prose. Approaching it like a poem helped an awful lot in pacing my own reading.
  • You don’t read Virginia Woolf for the story, the drama is all internal, which makes it no less gripping than if it were external.
  • More than any other writer I have encountered – the form and central metaphor of the novel are more important than the dialogue or characterizations. Not to say these things aren’t important – but Woolf’s novel is the whole into which we are drawn, bobbing up and down in the philosophical waves of the book.

Those of you seasoned readers of Woolf probably know all that, and a lot more, but please! Understand that Woolf is like Joyce or Proust – these are not writers whom one can tackle lightly – and I think require a certain gravity or patience that I didn’t have at twenty and am only developing just now. (I mean, I even read the introductions to books now, the prefaces! Imagine!)

To the Lighthouse is considered to be one of the greatest novels in the English language. A masterpiece of modernism, a groundbreaking work of fiction! And even now, eighty years after its arrival into the world, it strikes me as cutting edge and towers so grandly over so much of what has come since.

Which is not because the philosophical questions asked in the book are deeper than those asked elsewhere, or even different (because really, it’s all about the meaning of life and what isn’t?), but because Woolf’s writing merges us with the minds of shifting others and I can’t think of many other instances in literature where I have felt so drawn into the perspective of another. And not just a single perspective – but of many characters as Woolf moves from one to the next with a fluidity befitting a novel where the central metaphor is water. Each personality is separate, distinct from the others, yet laps up against the edges as one perspective is replaced by another allowing the story (which is one of time passing, the questions we ask ourselves, the social conventions that we hold) to be shared amongst the characters. That great humanity which has us as individuals in one instance, forming a part of the mass in another.

Water metaphors abound in To the Lighthouse and I have a notion that I would like to go through and highlight every instance of watery language in order to document just how thorough the drenching of one story can be.  It’s a magical thing to enter into – this use of metaphor so deeply embedded – even the structure of merging perspectives brings us to the sensation of floating, bobbing, being carried adrift on the wide-sea expanse. And for what ultimate effect? A contemplation of the vagaries of life – the traditions that pull us along even as our family lives are dispersed and are tossed apart, the individuals who weigh their own disappointments on their progeny is an attempt to anchor down life, the internal expanse which at times seems limitless and at others as small as a leaf.

This is apparently Woolf’s most autobiographical novel, and if so we get a great deal of insight into her own relationships – the mother-figure Mrs. Ramsay complex and uneasy in her motherhood and middle-aged beauty, the father and husband-figure Mr. Ramsay so needy for praise and attention, so sternly unable to give it to others, Woolf  herself depicted as a painter (Lily Briscoe) angered by the limitations of male society on women artists, questioning her own ability to move through and beyond, to complete her work. She wonders about the conventions of being married and having children – at one point Lily musing at why Mrs. Ramsay was so eager to see the younger women married off when she seemed so unhappily trapped in her own marriage; she notes that each of us is questioning, and adrift – hoping always to be noticed and taken ashore by another. Thus is the nature of the search in which we find ourselves – the lighthouse of the central design, watching over and occasionally illuminating a wall or a scene or a piece of clothing.

“What is the meaning of life? That was all — a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark…”

My writing about this work seems frail in the shadow of it – so hard to sum up the swells of emotion and insight I felt at the internal plights – angers, jealousies, discontents (and almost never joy – let’s just be honest about that) of each actor along the way. What to say except that I was wrong about Woolf and it makes me wonder if perhaps Joyce is next on the list of writers I might willingly encounter?

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