viernes, 29 de enero de 2010

To the Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse (Harcourt, no publication date)
by Virginia Woolf
England, 1927

While longtime Woolf fanatics like Emily and Frances will have to weigh in on whether my reaction is at all typical, I'm beginning to suspect that there's an ever widening gap developing between my enthusiasm for Woolf's narrative gifts and my enthusiasm for her characters.  To the Lighthouse, for example, has a full cast of marvelously-drawn, psychologically-distinct personalities--none of whom I'd care to hang out with in real life.  Perhaps that's the point.  Given that so much of the novel dwells on the small successes and the myriad failures of marriage and "family life" as seen from the perspectives of one particular family and their friends a decade apart in time, there's no need for Woolf to people it with "appealing" characters to highlight the gap between our aspirations and our disillusions or to demonstrate how men and women can feel boxed in by adhering to traditional social roles.  Then again,  perhaps success is Woolf's failure.  She's so adept at revealing the organic ebb and flow of multiple characters' thought processes that their inevitable human flaws--the pettiness, the extreme emotional neediness, the class bias, the pride--seem magnified under the x-ray vision of her prose.  Ah, the prose!  For whatever my issues with not being able to relate to Woolf's characters on some more primal level, I remain firmly under the spell of her dizzying style.  I love both the poetic phrases that pop up out of nowhere ("The pulp had gone out of their friendship," on page 21, and "A question like Nancy's--What does one send to the Lighthouse?--opened doors in one's mind that went banging and swinging to and fro," on page 146, are two favorite images from this time out) and how the characters confront their own mortality with a very particular sort of cynicism (Mr. Ramsay: "The very stone one kicks with one's boot will outlast Shakespeare" [35].).  Although I've yet to figure out exactly what Woolf intended to communicate by disparagingly dwelling on the description of one female character's "Chinese eyes," used almost like a Homeric epithet several times in the novel (see pages 17, 26, 91, 104, and 156 in the Harcourt edition), I do admire how Lily Briscoe's painting functions on so many different symbolic levels within the confines of the work: as an attempt to capture a moment, an attempt to capture a personality, an artist's attempt to "contain" reality, a search for clarity in a painting in a text devoted to much the same thing, etc.  Most of all, I'm continually mesmerized by Woolf's jump cut editing approach to storytelling and the novel way in which the technique (the first part's chapter XV in its entirety: "'Yes,' said Prue, in her considering way, answering her mother's question, 'I think Nancy did go with them'" [79]) allows her to seem to suspend time while dexterously juggling simultaneous narrative threads ("Time Passes," the second of To the Lighthouse's three parts, is another testament to the success of the author's manipulation of same).  Having probably first fallen in love with the jump cut style in the later works of Roberto Bolaño, a modern master of that brand of authorial sleight of hand, I have to say that it's quite a trip to see Woolf's experiments with it some 75 years earlier.  Pretty damn cool.  (


Thanks to Emily of Evening All Afternoon for hosting discussion of today's Woolf in Winter read!  Also, see you all on or around February 12th with a post on Woolf's Orlando (next discussion epicenter: Frances' Nonsuch Book).

20 comentarios:

  1. Funny story: in one of the college classes in which I read To the Lighthouse, one student took all the references to Lily's "Chinese eyes" and "puckered face" to mean she was mentally retarded. True fact. It is a weird little descriptive tic, isn't it? Elizabeth Dalloway is described as having Chinese eyes, as well.

    Anyway, great post, Richard! I'm glad you take on the different functions of Lily's painting, as that was another thing I would have loved to talk about if my post had not already reached monster movie proportions. I'd also love to write something about the "subject/object/nature of reality" thread that weaves through and interacts with the different artistic endeavors of the characters.

    Re: the characters, I'm not sure I exactly "relate" to anyone in either book (except maybe Lily), but I find that as I re-read To the Lighthouse I am more and more more sympathetic to them despite their faults. Especially Mr. Ramsay - oh, how I hated him on my first read! But now I see his charm as well. And how he does try not to act like such an ass, despite failing most of the time. You are not alone, though, as you'll see when you start clicking around. We have quite a few people who found it difficult to sympathize with/relate to the characters. It's intriguing to think that a truly sympathetic character at Woolf's level of magnification would be simply impossible.

    Thanks for another thoughtful, rollicking post!

    PS - LOVE that tiny section where Prue says that Nancy went with them!

  2. I'm one of those people Emily mentioned who didn't particularly care for any of the characters in this book! I completely agree with you on how amazingly caught up in the prose you can get, to the extent that it doesn't even matter that the characters aren't your favorite. That is cool - and the comparison to Bolano is apt (I picked up The Skating Rink today and was struck again by the tactic).

  3. She's so adept at revealing the organic ebb and flow of multiple characters' thought processes that their inevitable human flaws--the pettiness, the extreme emotional neediness, the class bias, the pride--seem magnified under the x-ray vision of her prose.

    Ah, but that's what I love! (The prose, too, of course.)

    I am not so sure about Lily's Chinese eyes, but her puckered face puts me in mind of all the talk of William Bankes being shriveled and dried up because he is single and has no children.

    Great discussion of Woolf's skill at dealing with time. That's the sort of thing that keeps striking me--skillful treatment of just about everything she touches, from the stylistic to the structural to the psychological.

  4. Glad that you enjoyed it so much Richard. Another great post from you. I wonder if Woolf and Bolano have ever been compared before?

  5. Fanatics, huh? Me thinks you are baiting me again, Richard.

    Great post as always. Do you think that the transparency of the failings of her characters draw them closer to the reader? Not given an idealized view of any makes me much more receptive to all. Even the ones as you suggest that I would not be hanging out with in real life. Mrs. Ramsay and I would not be friends but I love her all the same for the things worth celebrating in her. Or am I just going soft over this one? Entirely possible.

  6. I like this line in your post particularly well: "allows her to seem to suspend time while dexterously juggling simultaneous narrative threads"...her writing does just that! And, if nothing else, I will appreciate her prose for that.

    Thank you for visiting my blog today.

  7. *Emily: Thanks for the kind words about the post and for sharing how your sympathies for the characters have grown on you in the course of additional readings. Just so you know, I'm feeling fonder of Lily already! I had either missed or just totally overlooked the reference to Elizabeth Dalloway having "Chinese eyes," so I'll have to pay more attention to Orlando I guess. So much that could be talked about in these novels for sure. Cheers!

    *Sarah: I revealed quite a bit more about why I don't seem to be connecting with Woolf's characters over on Frances' blog earlier today (the Book Temptress has been disarming me with leading questions, oh no!), but I'm quickly realizing that I'm not at all alone on that count. Glad to see you soldiering on with Bolaño--in the interests of full disclosure, I feel compelled to tell you that I used a Christmas gift card to pick up his Llamadas telefónicas short story collection just a couple of days ago myself. Continued happy reading to you!

  8. *Nicole: The skillful treatment of just about everything Woolf touches certainly makes the "Chinese eyes" description stand out in a negative way to me (it is used in a disparaging way the first time around at least), but what you say about Bankes also being depicted as washed up and shriveled because he has no kids makes your explanation about Lily entirely reasonable. And I agree with you that there is a lot to like in this novel. Thanks for dropping by!

    *Simon: Thanks so much! Regarding the Bolaño and Woolf comparison, I'm quite certain that they have been compared before because Emily made some sort of reference to the unlikely pair during Claire's 2666 readalong last year. I'll try to dig up the quote at some point because I can't remember whether Emily made the comparison in a comment or a post or even what Emily was comparing this many months down the line!

  9. Okay that's hilarious that you apparently got this Bolaño/Woolf comparison from me, because I just left a comment on Frances's blog being like "Whoa, I would never have thought to compare those two, but I totally agree!" Which is kind of embarrassing if it turns out I compared them months ago and COMPLETELY forgot. Oh well. :-D

  10. *Frances: Ha! I was actually thinking more along the lines of "fans" than "fanatics" here, but you obviously know me too well since I'm not beyonding baiting my readers from time to time. LOL. After thinking about your transparency of the failings question for a while tonight, I guess I'm inclined to agree with you in a general way while still feeling that I'm not really "connecting" with Woolf's characters viscerally for the reason(s) I mentioned over at your blog. Borges is another writer I admire who, for totally different reasons, sometimes leaves me cold with his creations as well, which is also odd in that I have quite a bit of affection for what I know of Borges the man (though not his politics). That we're even having this conversation at all feels a little ticky-tack of me since I so much enjoy everything else Woolf has brought to the table so far. In any event, thanks for helping me try to figure out this disconnect of mine!

    Bellezza: It was quite a pleasure to visit your blog, so thank you for returning the favor! I'll be looking forward to your Orlando review if you're continuing on in the readalong. Cheers!

  11. *Emily: I didn't exactly steal the comparison idea from you because I couldn't even remember what you had compared (!), but you did beat me to the punch with a Woolf/Bolaño comparison long before I had ever read Ms. Woolf. Also, I saw your comment about this on Frances' blog before I saw your comment here, which prompted two consecutive chuckles from me on different blogs. Cool. Anyway, to refresh your memory, you can go back to my June 4th, 2009, 2666 post where you laud "the playfulness around the omniscient-narrator voice" in both Bolaño's "The Part About the Critics" and Woolf's Jacob's Room in the comments thread. You also add, brace yourself now: "Woolf & Bolaño are not two writers I would have thought to compare"! How prescient of you--gotta love these readalongs, no?!?

  12. Emily and Richard - You guys are cracking me up. Now we are going back for dates of first reference? Got a time for that post too, Richard?

  13. Frances, how funny you should ask! I do have a time for that post!! Though I of course see nothing at all "funny" about making it easier for other readers to find Emily's Nostradamus-like Woolf/Bolaño comment, which she apparently promptly forgot about in a metafictional haze!!! :D

  14. I've read this book so long ago that I don't remember much, but I remember is that I loved it. Even though nothing happens in the book.
    I remember "Orlando" better, so I'll wait for your next post on Woolf.

  15. I disliked the characters simply because they were so realistic. I think we are all that annoying in our thoughts. I am glad I can't read minds.

  16. *Stefania: I think you're the first person who said nothing happens in this book who actually liked it! What an interesting reaction. Would be interested in hearing your postcolonial lit take on Woolf one of these days!

    *Rebecca: I like that you disliked the characters because they were too realistic! Another interesting reaction, ha ha! I'll be over to check out your post sometime tomorrow (running behind again).

  17. Haha. And I was thinking about Bolaño (and Proust) while reading Mrs D and TTL! Anyway, finally going round to all the posts. What a co-host eh? Super late!

    So agree with you about the jump cut style, mesmerizing. How you felt about TTL was how I felt about Mrs D: loved the prose, felt a little cold towards the characters. But TTL.. oh wow, loooved it, but then you already read my gushing, how embarrassing.

    I skimmed the comments here but will read them properly now..

  18. Okay, done reading the comments. You are so funny; going back to Emily's post and extracting that passage, lol!

    Well, re: Lily. I have Chinese eyes, if you must know! But maybe not a puckered face haha. I read an article by Margaret Atwood that really helped me get a grip on this book. We already know that Lily is Woolf and Mrs Ramsay her mother, but what really struck me was how she compared Lily's painting of Mrs Ramsay to the novel To the Lighthouse itself, being Woolf's own painting of her mother. How could I have missed that?

    Lily's Chinese eyes and puckered face must correlate to something about Woolf herself that made her less appealing, probably physically, or maybe inwardly?

  19. You bring up so many (more) interesting points to ponder. I think I am overloading on all the stuff to pull out of this novel - but I'm loving it.
    I have to admit most of the posts I've read about Bolano discouraged me greatly in ever wanting to attempt but all this discussion of parallels and comparisons to VW tempt me to reconsider. so many books!

  20. *Claire and Care: Very belated thanks to both of you for your two comments--I seem to have forgotten to reply for some time now, oops! Claire, what you say about the eyes comment having something to do with Woolf's unhappiness with her own self-image makes sense...except it's still disrepectful the way the character uses it, and only an insider would know Woolf was applying the description to herself in a way. Don't worry, though--I'm rather fond of "Chinese eyes" myself, and I'm long over Woolf's strange use of the term! Care, thanks so much for the visit! Bolaño does have a rep that seems to turn some people off from even wnating to try him, but I can't understand that since he's one of my favorite writers! In fact, all of the Woolf in Winter readalong hosts except one bonded with me over Bolaño in a previous readalong...and the one exception became a fan of Bolaño on her own. Cheers!