Could you tell us the name of a book that you love, and why? To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf. I’m just as crazy for Mrs. Dalloway, and I’ve always thought of the two novels as a set, as companion pieces, either because of stylistic similarities plenty of people have remarked on—Dalloway was published in 1925, Lighthouse in 1927, in a kind of soaring into her own following the more tentative flights of Jacob’s Room—or, just as likely, because the editions I bought in the late 1980’s as a callow undergraduate are nearly identical: small, dense, ingot-like Harcourt Brace Jovanovich paperbacks with cover drawings by John Alcorn of Clarissa Dalloway and Lily Briscoe and a squat, sturdy typeface whose thick-stemmed capitals look as though their ink might still be wet. Over a period of years my copy of To the Lighthouse suffered spinal wear and finally disgorged a chunk of pages. I considered a replacement, but Harcourt had updated to a frail, reedy typeface I didn’t think flattered Virginia’s prose. I hunted down and hoarded used copies of my favorite editions. These days, thanks to the good folks at Feetan, China’s largest English-language digital book publisher, I can carry (legally, I think) the collected works on my phone, and simply by touching the pale green icon from which Virginia’s face curiously gazes at the blue Facebook icon next door, I can fill my screen with that astonishing, crystalline English, which seems to have been burbling and flickering all this time like an eternal spring beneath the overgrowth, and which contains all the clatter and clamor of human life distilled to essences.
Why do I love To the Lighthouse? The reasons everyone else does, probably. The lucidity and precision of the prose, which flows easily and purely with unflagging impetus and suppleness and grace across space and time, from one consciousness to another, from the particular to the universal, the quotidian to the cosmic, in the space of a paragraph or a sentence; the way she threads the point of view lightly and deftly through her characters and allows them to emerge not only as products of their own thoughts and feelings but as aggregates of each other’s perceptions and misperceptions; the intensity of the focus, which cuts through the fog of qualia to light on the salient object or idea or feeling; the formal challenge she sets for herself, confining the first and last sections of the novel to small pockets of elapsed time (an afternoon and evening; an early morning) while managing to send so many people and places and things flowing through with such marvelous economy; her ability to animate or update a character with one or two well-placed strokes (“He was unkempt. He dropped things on his coat. He had the tiresomeness of an old man with nothing in the world to do”); her dazzling choreography, the way she handles all those people wandering all over the house, up and down the terrace, up and down from the beach, kids everywhere, not to mention a novelist’s nightmare, a forty page dinner for sixteen, all without any clunky hydraulics. And of course the hungry, incandescent mind that struggles, as Lily Briscoe does at her easel, to connect things that resist connection or resist disclosing the nature of their connection, the relentless seeking intelligence that looks and looks harder, teases apart, fits together, reconfigures, realigns, adjusts, plays, working with the weird pieces at the center of the puzzle.
Where were you when you first read, or saw, or heard of this book?
I wish I could say there were some blazing instance of communion I had with this novel, but I can’t remember one. I’m sure I owned To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway in college—I can tell from the price stamps (both books were $5.95, new) that I bought them in the Kenyon College bookstore circa 1984—but I don’t remember reading them, and if I did I probably lost interest. Isn’t there a huge disjuncture between the amount of emotional maturity and life experience necessary to connect with great novels and the amount a college student is likely to have? There was in my case. I was fortunate enough to spend a long, idyllic junior year studying in England, where my classmates and I were asked to do little more than read one nineteenth-century English novel after another, have lunchtime pints with our tutor, and roam the countryside. I fell in love with England and its novels; my mind came alive; I grew up a little. I must have read Lighthouse and Dalloway for the first time shortly afterwards, because I remember dimly apprehending that these novels were radically different, in terms of style and structure and point of view, from the Victorian novels I’d been reading. I knew this had something to do with something called Modernism, but Ulysses had scared me to death—if that was Modernism I didn’t want any part of it. Woolf’s was a kinder, gentler Modernism. There was something about her voice that wanted to bring me into its fold, to carry me along. We were going to take our time. We were going to linger, particularly on the subtleties of relationships. She was going to show me the world, which I felt I’d never paid attention to properly, certainly not with the kind of intensity and patience necessary to locate the divine in the mundane, to be, as Lily Briscoe thinks, “on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, It’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy.” I still feel obtuse and disengaged, which is why I read Woolf, and why I carry her on my phone. In idle moments, sitting and waiting, if I absolutely can’t be bothered to attend to my physical surroundings, I try to resist plunging into the phatic chorus and touch my finger to her cheek.
Did this book influence your own writing, thinking, sense of the world, or work?
Oh, Lordy. I wanted to write like Virginia Woolf so badly. I floated my characters out and recorded their every thought and feeling and sensation and association, the slightest quiver of a dendrite, as they stood paralyzed by the profundity of their observations, perhaps occasionally moving a limb, or tripping over a semicolon, and the minutes passed slowly as hours, and the light shifted, and a bird darted overhead, and similes proliferated like pollen, and every so often a metaphor cratered in. It wasn’t pretty. Actually it was pretty, I thought. My first teacher at Iowa, Deborah Eisenberg, who I hoped would appreciate my aspirations—she even looked a little like Virginia—sat me down for our conference, placed my story on the desk in front of us, touched the tip of her pen to my first sentence, studied it for a moment, and then informed me, delicately but firmly, sounding bewildered but above all concerned, that we really could not discuss my story, which was entirely composed of sentences like the first one, until I made an effort to arrange words in such a way as to communicate something around which we could arrange words. I thought this would be the beginning of our conference, but it was the end. I left shell-shocked—surely Virginia would have recognized my genius—but it wasn’t long before I felt desperately grateful to Deborah. Nowadays I try, in my writing, for some semblance of the depth and precision and sensitivity I find in To the Lighthouse (hey, nothing wrong with trying) but Woolf naturally descends to a running depth in consciousness I tend to forget even exists, and that I can’t access outside her language, without her soul. I take encouragement from Lily Briscoe, the young painter in Lighthouse who labors on a single painting, at the easel and away from it, throughout the novel, over a period of ten years, struggling to “have her vision” as Virginia struggled to have her own: “One must keep on looking without for a second relaxing the intensity of the emotion, the determination not to be put off, not to be bamboozled.” And this: “It was a miserable machine, an inefficient machine, she thought, the human apparatus for painting or for feeling; it always broke down at the critical moment; heroically, one must force it on.”
I could lift a paragraph at random from To the Lighthouse and it would intrigue, engage, mystify and inspire. One of the amazing things about this novel, for me, is that the entire world, or everything about the world that I’m interested in, is contained within it: the joys and burdens of interpersonal relationships, human love and conflict, marriage, childhood, the nature of self, consciousness, time, memory, death, tyranny, the importance of art, the visible and the invisible, our simultaneous and often irreconcilable cravings for community and solitude. On the last of which, this, which enshrines the depth and allure of the inner life so beautifully and suggests, as a kind of converse, our unavoidable obscurity to one another. Mrs. Ramsay, who’s been ministering to her husband and children and guests for 85 pages, finally gets a moment to herself.
“No, she thought, putting together some of the pictures he had cut out—a refrigerator, a mowing machine, a gentleman in evening dress—children never forget. For this reason, it was so important what one said, and what one did, and it was a relief when they went to bed. For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of—to think; well, not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others. Although she continued to knit, and sat upright, it was thus that she felt herself; and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures. When life sank down for a moment, the range of experience seemed limitless. And to everybody there was always this sense of unlimited resources, she supposed; one after another, she, Lily, Augustus Carmichael, must feel, our apparitions, the things you know us by, are simply childish. Beneath it is all dark, it is all spreading, it is unfathomably deep; but now and again we rise to the surface and that is what you see us by.”
Who did you send this book to, why?
I sent a copy of To the Lighthouse to Kit Haggard, a student at Sarah Lawrence who attended the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio in 2008. She just returned from a junior year in England. When I messaged her to ask whether she’d read the novel, she replied right away that she hadn’t, though she had read Mrs. Dalloway. She also told me she’d just sat down on a bus to Massachusetts next to a guy who was carrying a copy of To the Lighthouse. This made me think of a passage I discovered recently in Woolf’s Moments of Being:
“From [writing the parts into a whole] I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we—I mean all human beings—are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”
Bio: Stephen Lovely is a fiction writer who lives in Iowa City, Iowa. His first novel, Irreplaceable, was published by Hyperion/Voice in 2009. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Director of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio.