I read and enjoyed Mrs Dalloway many years ago, and started To the Lighthouse, but I couldn’t get anywhere with it—I was too much in thrall to plot, to nineteenth-century narrative, the primitive satisfactions of the story. Here was a boy resenting his father for spoiling his excitement over going to the lighthouse the next day, and his mother trying to comfort him, and a lot of (to me tedious) parsing of how one character felt about another, and I gave up on it. Now (having grown up and read Proust) I’ve finally gotten back to it and finished it, and am very glad I did; it’s the modernist classic it’s cracked up to be, full of formal innovation and brilliant language and an acute vision of how people see the world and each other. I’ll be reading it again. I can’t help but wonder what Nabokov would have said about it; as far as I know he only read Orlando (not one of my favorites), and he called that a “first-class example of poshlost’.” I’d like to think he would have seen what a fine novel it is—after all, he shared Woolf’s hatred of novels that preach and of tyrants and dictators (and of the modernist writers who fell for them and their lurid isms), and like her he despised patriotism in the “my country right or wrong” sense but loved the landscape and customs of his native land—but I fear he, a patriarch himself, would have felt too threatened by her pitiless dissection of the egotism and unwitting repressiveness of the traditional patriarch, and her linkage of that figure with violence and war.
I’m making it sound like a tract, but it’s all done with imagery, with exactly the kind of close vision and use of verbal repetition that Nabokov himself deployed so well. Take one small example, the use of “purple.” Early on in the book, Mrs. Ramsay (we never learn her given name) is reading “The Fisherman and His Wife” to her son (the Russian version is Pushkin’s Сказка о рыбаке и рыбке), a fable of the insatiability of human greed in which the wife keeps sending the fisherman back to ask the flounder (Grass’s Butt) for more and more and every time he goes back the sea is less placid: “And when he came to the sea the water was quite purple and dark blue, and grey and thick, and no longer so green and yellow…” A few pages later, Lily Briscoe (the central character of the novel) is trying to paint the house from outside and another character asks “What did she wish to indicate by the triangular purple shape, ‘just there’?” “It was Mrs. Ramsay reading to James, she said. She knew his objection—that no one could tell it for a human shape. But she had made no attempt at likeness, she said.” Then, much later, in the amazing central section of the novel, “Time Passes,” in which World War I is presented from the vantage point of the abandoned summer house on Skye (“But slumber and sleep though it might there came later in the summer ominous sounds like the measured blows of hammers dulled on felt, which, with their repeated shocks still further loosened the shawl and cracked the teacups…”), there is a paragraph starting “At that season those who had gone down to pace the beach and ask of the sea and sky what message they reported or what vision they affirmed…” that includes this sentence: “There was the silent apparition of an ashen-coloured ship for instance, come, gone; there was a purplish stain upon the bland surface of the sea as if something had boiled and bled, invisibly, beneath.” And in the final section, James, who had been a child read to by his mother at the start and is now a resentful teenager out on a boat with his domineering father, is trying to analyze his feelings for the man he both hates and identifies with:
Turning back among the many leaves which the past had folded in him, peering into the heart of that forest where light and shade so chequer each other that all shape is distorted, and one blunders, now with the sun in one’s eyes, now with a dark shadow, he sought an image to cool and detach and round off his feeling in a concrete shape. Suppose then that as a child sitting helpless in a perambulator, or on some one’s knee, he had seen a waggon crush ignorantly and innocently, someone’s foot? Suppose he had seen the foot first, in the grass, smooth, and whole; then the wheel; and the same foot, purple, crushed. But the wheel was innocent. So now, when his father came striding down the passage knocking them up early in the morning to go to the Lighthouse down it came over his foot, over Cam’s foot, over anybody’s foot. One sat and watched it.
A great image, and if one has a good verbal memory, that “purple” brings with it the associations of the fable, the painting, and the distant war. That’s what I call writing.
I should add that there are times when the prose seems a little stiff, a little formal, a little Victorian, but of course Woolf herself was Victorian, however much she (like all her modernist cohort) rejected the Victorian era and all its trappings; she was born in 1882, just a few years before Pound, and unlike Pound she did not have the salutary jolt of Ford Madox Ford falling to the floor and rolling around in mirth at “leaveth me no rest” and “no man parrieth” and “dost wish me ill” and all the other fripperies Pound had absorbed from his early reading. She found Joyce… vulgar. But no one’s perfect, we’re all stuck with who we are and what we’ve absorbed, and she was one of the greats.