Thursday, April 02, 2009

To The Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf

I picked up Virginia Woolf's “Into The Lighthouse” upon recommendation from a friend, and I have to say, at first I was astounded at her poor taste. Starting the book was an exercise in patience; I remember progressing from one description of an idle homely evening to another of the same idle homely evening, thinking, dear God, when will something happen? It was quite some surprise when I realised I was hooked.

I had, in fact, been missing the point. What is interesting in the novel is not so much what happens, as how the characters think and change from moment to moment; what they focus on, how they see other people and how they react to that perspective - at the same time how they are perceived by other characters; that other people will focus on the same thing and take a different perspective – or quite a similar one. That, occasionally, one will know what the other is thinking. It's dazzling and I've never seen characters presented so well as seperate, distinct, nuanced identities.

At the same time, the way the prose dances around, its camera moving erratically from inside someone's thoughts to their eyes to an object to another perceiver to inside their thoughts, their eyes looking back at the first person - it flows and blends so much that it becomes confusing whose perspective we are now being given.

The writing is both a point of fascination and frustration in this story – it is often abstract and a tad vague to perfectly suit the mood and vision of a character; yet often this abstraction of both grammar and content completely obscures the meaning. I found myself frequently rereading passages to attempt to understand what was going on – at other times I just plowed through and let the words make their vague impressions in my mind.

Woolf uses a technique of bracketing off sections (usually small) of the text to give the impression of many things happening simultaneously, and sometimes the most shocking new information is delivered in an aside this way, as though an unimportant detail. This was used to strongest effect in the middle section, where large blocks of description are punctuated by tiny bracketed narrative-bombs, such that I found myself covering the text with my hand to keep from jumping to the bracketed bits as I saw them approaching. [It makes me wonder about the visual aspect of written narrative – whether authors consider the effect, and how it could be manipulated.]

I found many characters to like, and all characters to empathise with at one point or another, but there are two standouts for me. Firstly Lily, the painter - for her integrity, her courage, her sarcasm, but especially her abstract artistic visions of truth. I felt like she was my vessel, my avatar within the novel, and her vision was my own. Secondly Mrs Ramsay, for her ability to see what people desire and to manipulate that in order to create small moments of beauty – art out of life (what a fascinating concept). I didn't so much identify with her as admire her deeply.

Both these characters had their moments of seeing things beyond and behind reality, a sense of solid things falling away and becoming mere shapes, symbols. Perhaps it was merely because I was engaged in practicing the same vision to give life to the text, but I knew and recognised that sense as being part of me, a state I find myself in, a way I see the world that feels so much a part of me that I found myself bound so strongly and unreservedly to a being (unfortunately fictional) that sees the same way.

Into The Lighthouse is an entirely character-driven piece told exceptionally well. I have missed these aspects of art, and I can easily see now why my friend recommended it – as do I.

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