Category: Fiction/Modernist – Paperback: 272 pages – Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics – Source: Public Library
First Published: 1927
I’m not even going to pretend this is a review like those I normally write, the universe really doesn’t need my attempts to summarise the unquantifiable when so many papers are floating around the ether on such subjects as ‘Children and Their Role in Woolf’s To The Lighthouse‘ and ‘Undermining The Patriarchy: To The Lighthouse and Feminine Subversion‘. Instead I wanted to take a little time to share some thoughts on the reading experience of finishing a book I’ve wrestled with for years, after all, it feels rather a milestone for me as a reader and it’s always worth examining why a book has presented a problem or made such an impact.
For those who have never attempted it or only managed the first ten pages (and oh, yes I do know how that feels), To The Lighthouse is Woolf’s most modernist novel told almost entirely in stream-of-consciousness with little dialogue, minimal plot and almost no action. It’s told in three parts. The first, set in about 1910, shows the thoughts and feelings of a whole family (and their houseguests) on one day of a holiday on the Isle of Skye. The balance of the family is showcased by focusing on the way they all react to the prospect of going to the lighthouse or weather interfering with the plan. The second part is a really remarkably cinematic summary of the ten years that passes between the end of this holiday and the return of the family to the island in about 1920. You are literally reading about grass growing and bunnies boppitying about in the overgrown garden but it is brilliantly done. The third part involves grown up children visiting the lighthouse with their (rather a git) father and one of their houseguests from 1910 returning to finish a painting she started while on the original holiday.
Here’s why it has taken me five attempts and over a decade to finally ‘get’ To The Lighthouse and finish it:
It is greedy.
It is in fact the greediest book I know outside of Ulysses. It doesn’t want a reader, it demands an observer. Told all in stream-of-consciousness it is so present, giving you so little creative space to move in and so little plot structure to examine and build on top of, that it obliterates the part of you that is used to being a welcomed, clue-spotting, participatory guest at a more conventional author’s table when you read. It effaces you.
And that’s a very scary, unusual act of faith to demand of a reader, to ask them to give themselves up to the author’s intentions and to inhabit their world entirely with no compass of plot to guide them. Few books ask such a sacrifice and even fewer readers enjoy the experience of giving up the active role of ‘reader’ and accepting passive audience status.
Though I found my way through it on my fifth attempt it was only because I gave myself up to the peculiar rhythm of it entirely. That’s not a skill that comes naturally to a mind as determinedly curious as mine.
Perhaps I might not even have been able to find that rhythm if it hadn’t been for the fact it was 02:00, I had insomnia and I finally let go enough to just let Woolf carry me where she would. After weeks of trying to read a handful of pages every day and struggling desperately it just suddenly felt right to turn back to Page 1, take a deep breath and begin again. With no distractions and by changing my motivation from ‘I want to tackle this’ to ‘I want to learn from this’ I somehow found myself connecting with the book in ways I never had before. Every page is stubbornly, mundanely, extraordinarily exhilarating. By dawn I had finished it.
On reflection I am very grateful I finally quietened my monkey-mind and found my way through.
It’s not that the characters are scintillating or the journey to the lighthouse is an amazing quest, it’s simply that To The Lighthouse is wholly, selfishly itself in a way that very, very few books are. It makes no concessions. It is quietly, deeply fierce in the way every page offers no exit to the reader beyond their failure to grasp the whole. If you quit To The Lighthouse (as I did over and over) it is because you didn’t ‘get’ the technique, there’s no other excuses. To add insult to that failure: there’s nothing you can really say about it, nothing to respond to, a sheer icy wall of prose, until you climb the whole of it and look back down. No wonder it’s so frustrating and bewildering to all of us who have set it aside twenty pages in!
Having finished it I can say that To The Lighthouse is not a book I love… but I do love what it taught me about myself as a reader.
The act of faith it demands and repays, the sheer artistic confidence of the thing, all craft and little detail. I never thought I could enjoy such a book, such a reading experience, such a lesson in technique. And yet I did and it’s one of the most memorable reading experiences this year to truly find the ability to still my curious mind and just absorb this book instead of questioning every moment of it.
I still feel slightly astonished and am now rethinking what I thought I knew about myself as a reader.
Having loved Self’s Umbrella, Proust’s Swann’s Way and now this in the last twelve months I really can’t say I hate stream-of-consciousness or modernist style any more. This style I had written off as ‘not for me’ and pretentious and difficult turns out to be hard but not impossible and to serve an interesting purpose, to force the reader to let go. So what other books and authors that I’d previously dismissed might I now enjoy or need to re-assess?
Suddenly I have a whole new section of the library to explore…
Further Reading: Margaret Atwood has a different angle on it but is another convert who came to the book later in life
Buy the book: Book Depository