The first book that my book club chose for the year was Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. I had never read any of Woolf’s works prior to this year, so I was excited to dive into her writing.
My excitement was tempered after I started reading the first chapter. As I struggled to read through the pages, I told myself that this was a good thing. I should take my time reading each sentence, paragraph, chapter. But as I got to the second chapter, then the third chapter, I realized that I was wholly unprepared for Woolf’s writing style.
Her writing style is described as stream of conscious, and the narrative flowed between charters seamlessly. Almost too seamlessly, for me. I had difficulty determining which character’s POV was which, even keeping track of some of the characters. I would go back a page or two to try and pick up where the view switched. The further I read into the book, the easier it was to determine who was who, but I still had difficulties.
Despite being unable to easily track the characters, there were beautiful descriptions. Many of them I went back to reread not because I missed it the first time but to immerse myself in the description one more time. The first one that jumped out at me was on page 20:
“It was as if the water floated off and set sailing thoughts which had grown stagnant on dry land, and gave to their bodies even some sort of physical relief. First, the pulse of colour flooded the bay with blue, and the heart expanded with it and the body swam, only the next instant to be checked and chilled by the prickly blackness on the ruffled waves. Then, up behind the great black rock, almost every evening spurted irregularly, so that one had to watch for it and it was a delight when it came, a fountain of white water; and then, while one waited for that, one watched, on the pale semicircular beach, wave after wave shedding again and again smoothly, a film of mother of pearl.”
Another section that didn’t make me halt while reading but was mentioned at the book club meeting was this on page 33:
“He was safe, he was restored to his privacy. He stopped to light his pipe, looked at his wife and son in the window, and as one raises one’s eyes from a page in an express train and sees a farm, a tree, a cluster of cottages as an illustration, a confirmation of something on the printed page to which one returns, fortified, and satisfied, so without his distinguishing either his son or his wife, the sight of them fortified him and satisfied him and consecrated his effort to arrive at a perfectly clear understanding of the problem which now engage the energies of his splendid mind.”
There are many, many more beautifully worded passages, particularly in the second part, titled “Time Passes.” The sentences, as you can tell from the above passages are long and winding. This made it difficult at times to catch the meaning in the passage, and that might have been why I missed the accurate description of looking up from one’s reading, as seen in the latter of the passages.
I finished the book three weeks ago. I’m still not sure of everything that I read. The more I read about the book and think about the characterizations, the more I realize that this is a book that I will need to read one, maybe two more times before I fully understand what I have read. Some people might see that as a bad thing, reading a book over and over to fully absorb the text. But I don’t.
I mentioned at my book club that I might prefer reading Woolf’s short stories, as I bought one collection at Myopic Books a couple weekends ago. Maybe reading more of Woolf’s work and becoming more acclimated to her writing style will allow me to return to reading To the Lighthouse with more perspective.
On the back of the paperback copy that I borrowed from the library, the description ends with this: “There are very few exceptional and miraculous novels that have the power to change their readers forever. To the Lighthouse is one of them.” For me, that was not the case, but perhaps I’m not in the right place to be changed by this narrative. Maybe in a few years.