Review of To The Lighthouse
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/27/06
I recently finished reading Sanctuary, the third book I’ve read by William Faulkner, and was astounded by how bad a book it is, especially since it was written by an ‘immortal’. Could it get any worse? Yes, unfortunately. I just finished reading my third book by Virginia Woolf. The first was her self-indulgent and puerile essay A Room Of One’s Own, the next was her Collected Short Stories, which was really her Collected Mind Farts, and have now finished her novel To The Lighthouse. Of course, calling it a novel is a stretch. At least Faulkner’s Sanctuary, atrocious as it was, was a very bad novel. To The Lighthouse is a literary hoax, at best, and at worst, a rambling piece of vomitus.
The book is divided into three sections. Part One- the longest- is The Window. Part Two is Time Passes, and Part Three is The Lighthouse. The book is considered stream of consciousness writing but a) the very concept of SOC writing is an affectation, as humans think and react punctually, and b) as with Faulkner the SOC is in claim only, as, unlike Joyce, there is plenty of punctuation and very little drift from character to character. In short, the book is a series of run-on sentences and interior monologues, but in no way is it SOC, for if it were why did Woolf carefully construct the inner and external dialogues- which is antithetical to stream of consciousness.
The Window opens just before the Great War with the Ramsey clan on their summer island home. James Ramsey, six, longs to cross over to the lighthouse across the bay. His father promises to take him, but the promise is not kept. The Ramseys have houseguests- Charles Tansley, a sycophantic devotee of Mrs. Ramsey’s philosophic posturings, and Lily Briscoe, a young painter who’s doing a portrait of Mrs. Ramsey, who longs to play matchmaker for her as she has others. Also there are the about to be engaged Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle. Some others attend, words are spoken, and resentments vaguely form. All in all it is a dilettante’s dream party. There is some minor would-be intrigue after the mild party, then off to bed. That’s the whole of Part One.
Time Passes, by far the shortest section, and in filmic terms is an interlude, with snippets detailing the passage of time- oooh! The war starts. Mrs. Ramsey dies. James’s oldest brother dies in the war, and his sister dies of childbirth complications. The summer home falls into disrepair. Ten years later maids help restore the house for the family as Lily Briscoe is set to visit.
The final section of the book, The Lighthouse, is more like Part One, with slightly shifting perspectives. Out of the blue Mr. Ramsey declares he, James, and James’ sister Cam will finally go to the lighthouse. After delays, they go, and Lily watches from the front lawn of their home. The trio make it to the lighthouse, and Lily finishes her painting, which she self-importantly terms her vision.
The cliché that ends the book is perfectly in tune with those throughout the book, and it is larded with them. The characters are as banal as they come, their situations dull, and the resolution not resolved. Now, were there some great descriptions, or philosophic depth Woolf may have pulled it off, but there is not an original thought in the book. Some argue that it perfectly portrays the dullness of those folk’s lives, but one need not write a boring poem on boredom to make a point. Having recently read Betty Smith’s great A Tree Grows In Brooklyn the point is hammered home, as nothing earth-shaking occurs in that novel, but it is an absolute masterpiece in that everything it utters serves the novel’s purpose- be it the description of a store, the tang of a scent, or the look in a character’s mien. The everyday in that novel is vivid, intellectual, and breathing, while To The Lighthouse is a hermetic and aridly lifeless affair. The characters are unrelatable to most and even those who do know such people long to distance themselves from those types.
The book is a logorrhetic’s delight- a run of words utterly devoid of deeper meaning. Even Joyce, in the regurged puke of Finnegans Wake at least had music and humor. This is a wholly joyless exercise; and that’s what it is- an exercise, not a finished product. It was not even ‘experimental’ in its day, though, as Joyce, several other Modernists, and even Tristram Shandy came before it. I would say that it was style over substance but that’s giving it too much credit.
The digressions are bland, droning, monotonous soliloquies. If one wants to read a master of such discussions I suggest reading Milan Kundera, or, eventually, when published, my wife’s novels to see how one makes philosophy relevant to art. The lighthouse can represent many things- including the obviously sexual to Lily, but, so what? I’m sure your average illiterate bum desires things too. Does that mean you write a book about it? Calling a piece of writing stream of consciousness or prattling on about it being experimental does not excuse a dull narrative, unfocused characterizations, and an abundance of flat-out clichés. Bad writing is inexcusable from a literary perspective, and it’s time that the work of this ultimate poseur was buried right next to its hoaxstress. And I say hoax because I don’t believe the book is a failure, for that implies serious and true literary intent, and I see no evidence of such in this half-hearted and pathetic little work. That some fools believe this a great work only manifests how out of touch many writers are with the real world, and real art.
To a degree, the publication, and reverence accorded such crap, due to the attempt to build a cult of the in-the-know sages, have directly led to the bad writing published today- from the manifestly flawed works of a Nobel Laureate like Toni Morrison to the crap du jour of an Elizabeth Wurtzel or Dave Eggers. It is why there are fey works written as puzzles for critics, cardboard paint-by-numbers genre works for the masses, and nothing resembling great literature being published today.
Yet, the ultimate mark of the book’s failure is that by its end the reader knows not a single genuine nor deep thing about its characters, and worse- there’s no desire to learn more about them. This book is an example of a failed wannabe arts movement which produced only a slew of half-hearted exercises in self-indulgence and triteness. Here are some examples of the bad writing:
‘It was in that moment’s flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to tears...’
‘….the measured blows of hammers on felt.’
‘That loneliness which for both of them was the truth about things.’
Yet, the truth about this thing is that there’s no truth nor art to it. Nor is there anything else that one could ascribe to the individual persona that was Virginia Woolf. Who?
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