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.


  1. marie-lucie says

    To the Lighthouse was one of the required texts when I took English literature many years ago. I found it hard going, missed many details and did not understand what the book as a whole was about (fortunately it was not on the exam), but after reading your comments I think I will try to locate it and read it with more understanding. I do remember the purple triangle which plays such an important part in suggesting how the artist transmutes reality.

  2. Isn’t it strange that, so many years after she was writing, it is still not easy to interpret her? Sometimes I think that A Room of One’s Own is the key to understanding her.

  3. Orlando is my favorite, but I suppose I should give TTL another try, now that you and Le Guin have recommended it.

  4. Isn’t it strange that, so many years after she was writing, it is still not easy to interpret her?
    Not at all, if you understand the aims of the modernists — best described by Hugh Kenner in The Pound Era in the chapter “Words set Free,” in which he takes a word from Shakesperean exegesis — chimney-sweeps — and shows how critics explained it, and readers reacted to it, until its real archaic referent was discovered, obliterating all the professional explanations and lay reactions. Or did it? No, says, Kenner. He says the modernists tried to spark the same reactions in readers, except without the centuries-old missing referent; they saw the power of words, sans plot and all the rest, and tried to exploit them. In that light, it’s no wonder neither Woolf nor Beckett nor et al. have been fully “explained,” no matter how much time has passed.
    Good critics, like LH in this post, give us glimpses into the author’s aims, through strict attention to their words, their repetitions, their themes — never resorting to reduction, no matter how tempting it might be to squeeze the work into the box of an appealing idea, a box with a key that would interpret more than was ever meant to be made neat and clear.

  5. Sorry, there should be no “nor” between “Beckett” and “et al.,” and, in the next paragraph, there’s a missing “be” between “it might” and “to squeeze.”

  6. I fixed the other stuff, but I left the “nor” because I like “nor et al.” so much. Mea culpa.

  7. Ah, well, with the LH stamp of approval I retract my proposed emendation and take pride in the original inditement. Not being as familiar as Hat with ancient tongues, or any other than my own — ancient tongues and their integration into English — I double guess myself, translating the phrase into english (“nor and the others” — ugh); but of course that’s not how it works, et al is now a part of English, and if a sophisticated reader unhampered with my anxieties approves, well, I’d be fool not just to pretend those anxieties don’t exist!

  8. Cf. Flaubert’s use of “blue” in M.B.

  9. Jimsal: Good critics, like LH in this post, give us glimpses into the author’s aims, through strict attention to their words, their repetitions, their themes — never resorting to reduction, no matter how tempting it might be
    Yes. Well said. It’s a great post, Language. You even preempted my usual sour comment about Woolf & Joyce, though I believe she called him a vulgar little man, which I find much worse than a mere “vulgar” would have been. To me, it’s a shibboleth in the meanest spirit of her time and class (upper-middle).

  10. Trond Engen says

    Fwiw from a foreign speaker, at the beginning I expected Jamessal’s request for amendation to be about removing et, leaving nor al.

  11. Cf. Flaubert’s use of “blue” in M.B.
    Pink, too — though William Gass somehow returns the subject to blue, since the linked passage is in a book call On Being Blue. I read M.B. a few years ago and missed the importance of blue, though that’s not saying much, since I found it boring as all hell, even as I admired it, and so of course didn’t read it well.

  12. We can all chuckle at a certain kind of literary criticism: What if the book dedication was more than a metaphor and Mrs. Ramsay’s given name was Helen? What if Mr. Ramsay (Roderick in some drafts)’s counterpart in real-life, the founding agnostic, took that fairy-tale for the history of religion after Harnack? Still it doesn’t hurt to have some idea “what it’s about” from Quentin Bell or Leonard Woolf or Lord Annan.

  13. Fwiw from a foreign speaker, at the beginning I expected Jamessal’s request for amendation to be about removing et, leaving nor al.
    I considered that when requesting my original emendation, but then I realized I’d be asking people, who might have no Latin whatsoever, to be parsing a Latin phrase — whereas, “Woolf nor Beckett et al.,” is both clear enough in English and translates decently (“Woolf nor Beckett and the others”).

  14. Thank you for that, jamessal.
    Sweep versus sweeper: It occurs to me to wonder whether those in the London audience, puzzled by not knowing that in Stratford a chimney-sweeper can be a dandelion clock, would think it was a guy who cleans chimneys or the brush he cleans them with.
    The big flue maintenance firm around here is called Master Chimney Sweepers. The lurking peever inside me, with his tendency toward small uncontrollable rages, thinks that they ought to use the good old expression “chimney sweep” instead of this rationalized modern version. It’s like when people start a letter with “enclosed you will find” instead of “enclosed please find”. I note that I know nothing about why the company name was actually chosen: for all I know, “chimney sweeper” for the guy with the brushes has an ancient lineage.

  15. Still it doesn’t hurt to have some idea “what it’s about” from Quentin Bell or Leonard Woolf or Lord Annan.
    Of course. I have nothing against intellectual and literary biographies, and what they can add to criticism — good scholarship is good scholarship, and always something to be admired. Some biographers, however, wear the same silly glasses as some critics, and there’s nothing wrong with poking a little fun from time to time, especially since people still have trouble with modernist texts, and many silly-spectacled authors keep offering *the answers.*

  16. marie-lucie says

    I have read Madame Bovary at least twice (not recently) but can’t remember anything particularly significant about the colour blue.
    On the other hand, thank you Jamessal for mentioning chimney-sweeps. I had never heard of the meaning “grey head of dandelion seeds” and it is very nice to learn a word for it, even though it seems very localized. My backyard (I can’t really call it a lawn) will soon be full of those lovely, ephemeral chimney-sweeps.

  17. There’s quite a difference between a flue maintenance firm and a chimney sweep. The Schornsteinfegers in Germany and Norway (one comes to sweep our chimney every couple of years) are always dressed up like this. Nowadays about half of them are young women.

  18. Where’s Grumbly? I put that Butt in just for him!

  19. To me, it’s a shibboleth in the meanest spirit of her time and class (upper-middle).
    Yes, she was full of the usual shibboleths of, as you say, her time and class; her anti-Semitism was pretty repellent too (she had no use for her husband’s family and frequently made comments about how Jewishly Jews were behaving). But as a Pound fan I’ve had to become inured to much worse. (And at least Pound appreciated Joyce!)

  20. Where’s Grumbly? I put that Butt in just for him!
    Yes, I noticed that – Butts in the Grass was a favorite of mine when I was younger.
    I see that, more and more here, German and things German are being given their due attention without my intervention. Like Mary Poppins perhaps I should now be flying off to other tasks – taking the chimney-sweeps with me this time, to brighten up my day.

  21. I’d say that many British people were mildly anti-Semitic at least though the 1950s, when immigrants started moving to Britain from Commonwealth countries and most of the available racial prejudice was redirected towards them. Anti-Semites married to Jews are maybe a special case, but here I suspect the Stephen family were like the Mitfords and pretty much loathed anyone who wasn’t exactly like they were themselves.

  22. Ø, Marie Lucie: You’re of course most welcome. Considering how much you’ve taught me at the Hattery over the years, it’s especially gratifying to post something interesting to you both.

  23. marie-lucie says

    Oh, jamessal, you are always interesting! but most of the time I have nothing to add to what you say, often because it is over my head!

  24. Thank you, M.L. — you’ve brightened my week.

  25. Sweeper meaning one who sweeps chimneys goes back to the 16th century, saith the OED, whereas (chimney)-sweep does notappear until the early 19th. The etymology is said to be from chimney-sweepers calling out Sweep! Sweep! to drum up business.
    Blake wrote two poems called “The Chimney Sweeper”, one in Songs of Innocence (1789) and the other in Songs of Experience (1794). Here are the first verses of the respective poems:
    When my mother died I was very young,
    And my father sold me while yet my tongue
    Could scarcely cry ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!
    So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.
    A little black thing among the snow,
    Crying “‘weep! ‘weep!” in notes of woe!
    “Where are thy father and mother? Say!” —
    “They are both gone up to the church to pray.

  26. Does the US also have the British tradition that having a chimney sweep visit your wedding brings good luck ?

  27. Never heard of it.

  28. I believe that on any occasion in Germany, regardless of the state of your flues, seeing a chimney sweep is supposed to be lucky. Stu will have to confirm this, I may have misremembered.

  29. Yes, chimney sweeps bring good luck, and pigs do as well. Around New Year, you can buy them as little marzipan replicas to give to your loved ones.
    Don’t ask me what it all means. For all I know it goes back to the Niebelungen, or was concocted by a marzipan magnate in 1923 to boost sales.

  30. A lot of people cling to these traditions and like to take part in them, so there’s really no point in my being acidulous about it all. I like to believe that wise old men say so little because they know that if they opened their mouths, the accumulated peeves of a lifetime would pour forth in a bilious tide.

  31. I remember the “lucky sweep” meme from the Mary Poppins movie (“A sweep is as lucky as lucky can be”), and it may have been present in the book as well; I don’t remember. But other than it is alien to me.
    As Kafka said, “Now the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence. And though admittedly such a thing has never happened, still it is conceivable that someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence certainly never.”

  32. Here are some sweeplets, here are some piglets.

  33. the “lucky sweep” meme from the Mary Poppins movie (“A sweep is as lucky as lucky can be”)
    and “Good luck will rub off when I shikes ‘ands wif’ you”

  34. Sweeper meaning one who sweeps chimneys goes back to the 16th century, saith the OED, whereas (chimney)-sweep does notappear until the early 19th.
    Shit, I’m sorry — it’s sweeper, not sweep. That was just a typo, linking to the page in The Pound Era with the poem. I’ve been all over the place the past few days; I didn’t realize anyone had repeated my mistake.

  35. One can read Das Schweigen der Sirenen as a glum commentary on heterosexual love and expectations. At least that’s how I read it, and off the bat I can’t think of a different way.
    A different reading would have to turn the sirens into some kind of symbol – for Rolls Royces, say, so well-engineered that you can’t hear the motor running. Or perhaps refrigerators.

  36. As a writer, the main thing I notice about To The Lighthouse is how universal it is that no critical comment can touch it.

  37. Not sure what you mean by that; could you elaborate?

  38. jamessal, thank you for the chimney-sweeps, that is beautiful –
    “language, which permeates our minds and obeys not the laws of things but its own laws”
    which is something of what Woolf was getting at I think. The Lighthouse is my favourite Woolf, though at times so sad I can scarcely bear it..

  39. The Water Babies, of course, is the other children’s book famous for featuring sweeps I remember as a child being upset that the young hero, who had, after all, suffered enough by being shoved up narrow chimneys to clean them, had to drown first before he could be redeemed.

  40. Thanks, I’d forgotten The Water Babies. Reading it inculcated in me a dread of soot and of never being able to get clean, but as I was a young teenager that was probably a good thing.

  41. Thanks, Doug K. Here’s another nice couple paragraphs from that book I’ve posted here before, from somewhere in the 80’s (fuck the formatting, I’m too tired);

    If we no longer think, with Swift and Johnson, that languages ought to be stabilized, we still feel that their proper condition is stability. The admission of ain’t to a large American dictionary provoked newspaper hysteria in 1961-62. That in Canto 53 the same emperor appears indifferently as Tcheou Kong and Chao Kong causes many readers uneasiness outweighing the instruction the Canto affords, and a scholarly convention in citing the word ideogramic is to tag it [sic], meaning “not so in my dictionary.” Words, since the 18th century, have seemed fixed upon a rigid and authorized grid, each little violation of which incites the Great Anarch.
    Behind such feelings lies the notion of a stable shared world in which all men’s senses participate and the features of which have been labeled by agreement, though different agreements obtain in Italy and in Sweden. Gatto, say the Italians for some reason, and katt the Swedes; it would be simpler if they said the same thing, but anyhow cats are cats. The linguistic contracts, being arbitrary, are fragile, and only the code book, Webster’s or Larousse’s, wards off unspeakable disorder. An alternative notion, that names should be left in place because they are somehow right, is traceable in theory to Plato’s Cratylus but in practice to costive notions of correctness. Both positions were still seriously defended in the early 19th century. Both linger in the average literate psyche. Both were rendered obsolescent by the slow discovery of language, a complex coherent organism that is no more the sum of its constituent words than a rhinoceros is the sum of its constituent cells, an organism that can maintain its identity as it grows and evolves in time; that can remember, that can anticipate, that can mutate. Latin is not a dead language; everyone in Paris speaks it, everyone in Rome, everyone in Madrid. The poetic of our time grows from this discovery.

  42. Gatto, say the Italians for some reason, and katt the Swedes
    Gâteau aux pommes say the Australians, “English cat”.

  43. (Not being as tired as jamessal, I fixed the wording and added itals to the Kenner quote.)

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