Rereading charts a map of one’s own biography. If we cannot bathe in the same river twice, we can at least read the same words. But then again, those words mean something else now. And in that difference, I chart change, its losses and gains.
The books of my youth, my college years, my life as a young adult just out in the working world. They gave me pleasure. They informed my life. They influenced my words and my thoughts. An English major sprung on the world, grabbing at the books not read in college, the great novels of the last three hundred years, I picked up thorny texts from across the world. And now each summer I return to them, choosing one to revisit–this year, the ever haunting To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf.
I still remember distinctly my first Woolf experience, reading Mrs. Dalloway for a course on the Edwardian novel. A wonderful novel, followed the next year by The Waves, the densest two-hundred pages I can recall working my way through (I confess to having skipped Hegel and Kant, so apologies to all the philosophy majors out there). But To the Lighthouse has stayed with me the longest and called me to reread it.
Viriginia Woolf has a special place in the pantheon of writers. There is something almost spiritual in her words, not religiously so, just mesmerizingly accurate in depicting the interiority of our lives. She sees right to the center of things. Mrs. Dalloway going to get flowers and moving forwards and backwards through her life, the interweaving voices of the six voices in The Waves, the six-year-old James Ramsey’s anger at his father for dashing his hopes of going to the lighthouse.
The first time I read To the Lighthouse, I was newly married, and after an unsuccessful camping trip during which tornadoes touched down in the next county, we had returned early to pleasant weather in Washington, DC (odd, given the typical heat and humidity). We drove down to the park at the Bel Haven Marina in Alexandria and set out lawn chairs by the banks of the Potomac. Sitting by water is perfect for the novel with its house on the Isle of Skye, overlooking the Atlantic. I remember at the time loving Woolf for exploring the particular, the domestic, to push through to the universal. The anger of James, the self-absorption of Mr. Ramsey, the selflessness of Mrs. Ramsey, and the artistic consciousness of Lily Briscoe. Like any English major, I wrestled with how to become an artist, mostly failing to find an answer.
Now, reading again, I am moved even more by Woolf’s genius at harnessing daily life into words. And she does it with a unique style–her sentences flow like waves that you must catch and surf to their conclusions. The dinner party with the Boeuf en Daube is a masterpiece in and of itself. Woolf moves in and out of the minds of all gathered at the table. Mrs. Ramsey, wondering, “But what have I done with my life?” (85), allows herself to get lost in memories from twenty years ago while Mr. Ramsey fears encroaching irrelevance until newly engaged Minta flatters him. Meanwhile his friend Mr. Bankes thinks, “Why, one asked oneself, does one take all these pains for the human race to go on? Is it so very desirable? Are we attractive as a species?” (91). The novel ponders life, love, the meaning of existence, of art, and the enfolding of memory within time. As Mrs. Ramsey leaves the dinner table, “she waited a moment longer in a scene which was vanishing even as she looked, and then, as she . . . left the room, it changed, it shaped itself differently; it had become, she knew, giving one last look at it over her shoulder, already the past.”
That last line from Chapter XVII captures the power of the novel for me this time through, that sense of the present hurtling backward into the past. Or as Mrs. Ramsey thinks mid-way through dinner, “Life . . . shot down even from this dining-room table in cascades” (95). This novel, with its musings on life and time, has so much more to say to me after I have struggled in the cascades as much as I now have than I had back then on the banks of the Potomac. And the middle section, “Time Passes,” the devastation wrought by time and history–WWI occurs in the middle, people die, the house decays–has even greater power now. Woolf announces in unsparing narrative the death of key characters, and we wince, but we know what she means when we look at our own histories and pile up the names of the disasters, big and small, and the dead.
Woolf does grant us some respite. The children eventually will reach the lighthouse, years later, with their father, and Lily Briscoe will finish her painting in the last paragraph of the novel. She may not create a masterpiece, but at least she has done the work: “Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision” (211). In our weariness, with our haunted memories, may we too have our vision even as time pools around our feet.
(Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. Orlando: Harcourt, 2005.)