Re-reading To the Lighthouse

Around Christmas and the New Year, everyone in my house got that nasty flu that had been going around. When I recovered, I found I’d slipped into a moderately deep depression. This also had to do with the slow progress on my writing and the perennial doubts that accompany that work, exacerbated by fatigue and lowered defenses from being sick.

Then, for reasons I do not understand, my unconscious lobbed the opening line of To the Lighthouse at me: “Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow.” (The full line is “‘Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,’ said Mrs. Ramsay.” ‘But you’ll have to be up with the lark,’ she added.”)

I have no idea why this bobbed to the surface just when it did. It had been years since I’d read the book—probably thirty or more, though I might be forgetting something. But Virginia Woolf, and especially The Waves, have been a touchstone for me ever since I first read her in my early twenties. I suppose my unconscious mind, to rescue me from the despair I was feeling, came up with something that has given me immense joy and said, in a weirdly compelling way, “You should read this!”

The fact is, in recent years I’ve found myself less drawn to fiction, less able to stay focused while reading it, less engaged by it. It’s been painful to realize this, given that I’ve had such a love for it over the years, and in fact defined myself and my career through fiction, but also interesting to find myself as compelled and engaged by good nonfiction as I once was by novels. (The exception is when I teach fiction, which is to say, when I have a community of readers with whom to delve deeply into the work, appreciating and trying to understand how it works its magic.)

So it was with no great hopes or expectations that I opened To the Lighthouse that day. Like as not, I supposed, I’d put it back on the shelf after reading a few sentences. But that’s not what happened. Instead, Woolf’s language landed on my inner ear like a salve. I began to drink the novel, surprised at how good it made me feel to be in the presence of that voice again, that astonishing capacity for seeing and telling. There’s something akin to being held, the way an infant is held and rocked to sleep, in giving oneself over to the authority of a compelling narrator, and apparently I needed that comfort just then. I re-read the book in about two sittings, and when I was done I wasn’t depressed any more.

And I was delighted to be reminded of how this book, too, flouts narrative convention. I’ve spent more time with The Waves, studying it in a seminar and then teaching it two or three times as well, and so I’m more aware of Woolf’s narrative experiments in that book. It was fun to re-discover how here, too, she inverts the conventional relationship between the trivial and the “important,” giving immense attention to tiny details, and then tossing off major plot developments in a single line.

On finishing the book I felt that deep satisfaction that comes from being truly seen. Not that I identify with her characters, necessarily, but, for whatever reason, I resonate to her vision of our inner life.

[I have deliberately avoided providing links for the novels, though of course it’s trivially easy to find websites that purport to explain them, because I feel so strongly that the best way to encounter a writer like Woolf is directly, without preconceptions. Read the books first. Then read what others have said about them. Don’t let someone else’s interpretation, which even if it is not a misinterpretation will necessarily be an oversimplification and hence a distortion, come between you and the book.]

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