To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf | Review

51uTxSbMjDL                                                                                                       Author: Virginia Woolf

Illustrator: Liz Demeter

Publisher: Mariner

Published: 1927, 1955 (renewed), 1981 (foreword)

Genres: Modernism

Pages: 209

 

“She was trying to get these tiresome stockings finished to send to Sorley’s little boy tomorrow, said Mrs. Ramsay. There wasn’t the slightest possible chance that they could go to to the Lighthouse tomorrow, Mr. Ramsay snapped out irascibly. How did he know? she asked. The wind often changed.” – Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse 

Reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse left me aimless and uncertain of what the novel was intending. The first fifty pages were a slow climb but the intimate knowledge her characters have and think they have about one another and themselves kept my interest. Each character is dynamic and belongs to a hive mind, making the narrator seemingly uninvolved because of the seamless thoughts and actions that are capable of narrating themselves. Knowing that the novel’s purpose is something of a transitory timepiece made the experience more fulfilling in the end as well. Woolf’s goal of writing realist fiction instead of realism shows; her novel stands to reason that any novel does not need the conventions of plot or ordered chronology that have provided a basis and a rhythm for writers to be a complete novel; it only needs Time. To the Lighthouse uses the past of its characters to define their present and, to an extent, their futures. Mr. Ramsay for example does not know what to make of his academic endeavors in relation to the great writers of before, namely Shakespeare and his relevance over time. Much of the novel is it at the dismay of Mr. Ramsay who keeps the family from visiting the lighthouse. Mrs. Ramsay is the family’s saving grace and the center of their universe, quite literally in time and space. The dinner scene is the momentous occasion for readers to witness a “discrepancy” that allows Mrs. Ramsay to “[see] things truly…” (Woolf 83).

Whether it is Mr. Ramsay’s stubbornness to understand the void of fame or Mrs. Ramsay’s surreal beauty with unassuming simplicity and attentive reasoning, Woolf is mentally and emotively aware of the social interactions and expectations of human affairs. Her essays “Modern Fiction” and “The Mark on the Wall” are personal examples of how she avoids realism (the subjective) and approaches realist fiction (the objective). Charles Dickens understood that a book is a profitable commodity and his books were entertaining, but he had the eye and detail of a journalist to show readers the wallow of poor living in blacking factories and workhouses. Woolf similarly aims for the objective but does not let the subjective be solely entertainment or a third person omniscient narration. Her book is not a commodity in the traditional sense for readers. Its aims are not subjective means to an objective ends. To the Lighthouse only emphasizes the subjective means commercially taken to reach objective ends that defines reality for people. This definition of reality in Woolf’s view is perfunctory and not true, and is more rather a definition of realism. Reality for her is speculative and not something anyone, even a narrator, would ever or could ever fully know backwards and forwards. Modern fiction has no solitary or right “method” but, as Woolf argues, “every method is right, that expresses what we wish to express… that brings us closer to… what we prepared to call life itself [and] suggest how much of life is excluded or ignored [convincing us] that there are not only other aspects of life, but more important ones into the bargain” (“Modern Fiction” par. 6). Without harboring on the irony of having to rely on subjective means here, that is our reality, and as writers and readers too. Woolf does not shy away from but does not completely enjoy this subjective process to understand the objective world.

In “The Mark on the Wall,” the subjective is unknown but is filled with possibilities, which the history of the mark on the wall and Woolf’s inferences highlights. The objective is known but is finite closure, an end to speculation, an end to reality’s definition. The true definition of reality is not all-knowing but all-flowing for Woolf, which makes the conventions of realism in art, literature, and fiction unreliable representations of the objective world. She then relies on appearance over representation to expunge the historical and temporal distractions that become our false definition of reality; the same way abstract art only relies on the three factors of significant form: lines, color, and form. Woolf does not want us to see a book as a square fold of leaves. She wants us to see past the boundaries of a page, a word, a taut canvas. This struggle and strain of the subjective world in order to reach the objective world is in the same vein as Lily, a guest at the Ramsay summer house, and her painting of Mrs. Ramsay and her service and support as a mother, wife, and friend. The vanity of it all is also prevalent as Time, the true narrator of the novel as suggested in the foreword by Eudora Welty, is the intangible secret of life kept from us. Time is an important theme in relation to reality since no one can foretell where or when one will be or what one will become. Realism tells us we cannot tell ourselves this. Much like a game is not a game anymore, it has to be about winning, it has to be the objective reason for playing: winning. It is the meaning of winning that counts, not the completion of the act itself. That is, without speculation or imagination in fiction, without the subjective process, the objective world or life becomes an intangible vanity game rather than a multiplicative mantra with meaning.

Virginia Woolf is not only a realist writer, but a proteiform writer, one whose writing presents not a means to an end, but many ends to many means. Lily is one of the guests at the Ramsay house who paints a picture explaining the liminal process between the subjective and the objective world. Woolf also shows the discrepancy in the act of painting and the painting itself. To the Lighthouse delineates discrepancies of time by using mental detours to propagate a path of a choice, not convention. There are “other aspects of life” left unsaid and they are just as important as the ones said, which is why significant form works, not because it is monotonous but because it is multiplicative, like in parodies; it gives us a new association not yet explored and not yet completely explored (“Modern Fiction” par. 6). Lily cannot decide what to make of her painting but knows she wants it to be an exact whole but also an amalgamation of abstract pieces. John Milton does the same in Book I of Paradise Lost, where he compares Satan’s size and spear to human things knowing that Satan and his spear are unfathomably too large or too small to comprehend with the human mind (1.284-287, 1.292-294). The struggle in Woolf’s writing is between the finite (objective) and infinite (subjective). To know or attain the objectivity in the world is not desirable if what is known has only a singular meaning; knowledge can in this moment feel disappointing or even unenlightening. To think or to speculate in subjectivity gives many associations and opportunities but not necessarily a complete meaning. Time is relative to whoever experiences it, just as it is relative to whoever reads Woolf’s timepiece.

Final Rating:

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The October Country by Ray Bradbury | Review

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Author: Ray Bradbury

Illustrator: Joseph Mugnaini

Publisher: Del Rey Books | Ballantine Books

Published: 1955 (originally), 1996

Genres: Horror, Fantasy

Pages: 336

“It’s poor judgement,” said Grandpa, “to call anything by a name. We don’t know what a hobgoblin or a vampire or a troll is. Could be lots of things. You can’t heave them into categories with labels and say they’ll act one way or another. That’d be silly. They’re people. People who do things. Yes, that’s the way to put it: people who do things.” – Ray Bradbury, The October Country, “The Man Upstairs”

Short story collections embody a certain theme that almost sound the same as the ringing of a bell. Each story told has its own retelling of that same theme to the point of feeling redundant rather than revisited. Ray Bradbury’s The October Country eerily transcends any recycled sense of thematic bottom-feeding. His stories are so different from the next, you cannot help but wonder where the theme starts and ends until you realize it just is. The vulnerability and strength of the human condition are at the core of these stories but each are expressed from the unlikeliest of perspectives. For example, in the stories “Homecoming” and “Jack-in-the-Box,” the outsider becomes the insider and the insider becomes an outsider respectively. The sensationalism over death and how sensationalism is its own death can be seen in “The Crowd.” What is strangely satisfying about these stories is not just their ability to be told on Halloween (the illustrations by Joseph Mugnaini will attest to that) but their representation of simple, ethical truths under the guise of the dark denizens from the October country.

The October Country is not a hard read and its progression picks up speed when you least expect it. An endearing moment I kept recalling and enjoyed the most is found in Bradbury’s foreword May My Voices Die Before Me, where he talks about finding his voice or himself. He shares his love of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Edgar Allan Poe, and other inspiring writers but noticed their voices could not be his own; they could only be his loves. The October Country is genre-breaking and erodes the conventions of traditional tales of horror and science fiction by giving it more than a sense of brash realism. Here Bradbury emphasizes the emotive silence and subtlety of thought until it bifurcates from a personal peak and reaches an undeniable and ubiquitous inevitability (death, loneliness, insecurity, et cetera).

I appreciate the honesty behind the fiction when some stories’ endings are arguably vague. The fantastical possibilities are presented to you as feasible and believable possibilities in a short, but natural transition of time and place. As Bradbury said in his foreword about his other short story collection The Martian Chronicles, “[It] is five percent science fiction and ninety-five percent fantasy…” (x). No fantasy is worthy of being categorized as fluff when it stands for those hidden feelings lost in thought. The first and last stories of The October Country, The Dwarf and The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone, felt familiar to me, being a writer who is always figuring out what being a writer can and will mean. No one has to be a writer to relate to Bradbury’s stories however. With an emotional intelligence on sentimental, attentive, and precarious levels, The October Country holds eminent potential for relatability.

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It’s Lit!

David Shields’ The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead

 

Author photo of David Shields, 2012.

© 2016 davidshields.com, all rights reserved

I was first introduced to David Shields by my Creative Writing professor Laurie Uttich. He recently attended the Master Artists-in-Residence, a program provided by the Atlantic Center for the Arts. I did not have the pleasure of going, but had Mr. Shields as a guest-speaker during one Spring semester lecture and I have to say, he is relaxed when it comes to speaking. He tackles topics of controversy, such as social stigmas in Jeff, One Lonely Guy and untold traumas in That Thing You Do With Your Mouth, treating them with direct language while offering simple resolutions. Shields’ works are comprised of what he calls a literary collage, a collection of personal selections in the form of emails, exchanges between people and friends and the like, coupled with background knowledge on the subjects he discovers more about.

He enjoys working with the taboo, taking the unspoken and private matters and making them public and establishing a point of interest. During the lecture he shared a quote from Immanuel Kant, borrowed by Isaiah Berlin (I forget whom he attributed it to), and it was, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” David Shields’ goal as a writer is to find trauma’s answer; what is the root of it all and how do we treat it? Most of his books are their own answers dealing with their own traumas, but what better realization to have than the one that affects us all: mortality.

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With every life comes the inevitability of death, and in accepting as much, no one harbors on death, but instead embarks on life. David Shields charts life with his experimental autobiography and biography by giving his account of his enduring ninety-seven-year-old father’s life along with that of his own. The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead explores what it means to be mortal and where it leads. Through his remarkable fact-checking, Shields is able to connect both his and his father’s lives to meticulous accuracy and accordance to scientific research on aging. The moments of memoir in his book should also be noted for their journalistic approach. Considering his father is not always forthcoming with his feelings or personal history, he manages to ease his father’s stories out of him with his father’s rich but short-lived dialogue. Most of the dialogue is enough to serve as supplement for immersion into his father’s life and the quotations, in great numbers, he picks and pulls from history is much appreciated insight.

Shields’ book is divided into four sections of life: Infancy and Childhood, Adolescence, Adulthood and Middle Age, and Old Age and Death. To start, Infancy and Childhood offers early development statistics, proving a rapid beginning of life. For example, “Babies are born with brains 25 percent of adult size… by age Ⅰ, the brain is 75 percent of adult size.” His father’s knowledge is then matched by the scientific fact from his teachings in the Midrash where a baby enters the world with clenched fists to show inheritance and where on the day the baby leaves this world his or her hands are open showing nothing has been received (6-7). Shields recounts his father’s near-death collision with the Long Island Rail Road. Being saved that day brought life to Shields and in turn made it possible for him to experience the birth of his own child.

Facts establish Shields’ expository on the subject of aging and dying between his experience and his father’s, showing an uncanny resemblance to each other through these short pieces of memoir. Dialogue in the large format of famous quotations are also rendered applicable to the direct dialogue of Shields’ friends and family. A quote from a friend’s daughter about being a frog becomes a call to observe that in each person is this “animal,” this body to claim. Shields is careful to provide his own understanding as well: “We are all thrillingly different animals… The body—in its movement from swaddling to casket—can tell us everything we can possibly know about everything” (23-26). From Adolescence, there is the newfound attention and curiosity of one’s self one wants to explore and, with great surprise, discover. Shields’ definition of self is through the body which “has no meanings. We bring meanings to it” (74). The human condition is blatantly described as the body, out-in-front and unashamedly aware of its mortality, and in turn, its immortal inclinations.

Further in Adulthood and Middle Age, the watershed moment of aging, one does not have to like the first sign of becoming an elder. One can however embrace a better feeling of it by being rapt with the body one’s given rather than reprimand the limitations setting in. Instead of settling at the age of 56, Shields’ father with the love of baseball pitches to his son and his friends with an unnerving strength (97). On the other hand, sometimes limitations are made. The alcoholism F. Scott Fitzgerald suffered for example, may have been further provoked by his low white blood cell count: “Beginning at 40, your white blood cells, which fight cancer and infectious diseases, have a lowered capacity… F. Scott Fitzgerald, who died at 44, wrote in his notebook, ‘Drunk at 20, wrecked at 30, dead at 40’[1] (96). Midlife crises do not have to be tragedies, they can be triumphs. According to Shields, the body is a temporary vessel in that the “survival instinct and the reproductive instinct are opposed” (125). Survival is due in large part to reproduction and without it, survival is at half-mast (127-128). Shields’ father in his 80s challenges this reproduction-equals-survival mentality with his own attempt at love: “‘Lady, it’s high time to get on with the rest of your life, whether it’s with me or anybody else’… I told her that I needed and wanted the love and warmth of a good and fulfilled relationship…” (133-134). His father believes life does not stop for reproduction or after it; life keeps moving forward. What keeps Shields’ inner animal or sense of body going is one of his many “hoop dreams” where he finds his “animal joy” or love of life most from playing basketball (135).

Lastly in Old Age and Death, much of what was gained gradually in youth has now reached its same peak, only this time at the decrepit level. For instance, the “brain of a 90-year-old is the same size as that of a 3-year-old” and sadly, Shields’ father is not able to combat this faculty (143). All is not lost in old age for the reason that most accomplishments vicarious and small are worth the effort of living. His father’s love of sports gave him direction in his life (216). Aging was not so much the concern as was the business of living (186). The repetitious pattern of fact-checking, dialogue and memoir compliments the order of life Shields presents in his novel. In this way, he exhibits life as it is lived and how close it can resemble the life of others. All that is left to do is live life.

You can watch David Shields talk about his book here. He also has a Tumblr and Twitter.


[1] A low white blood cell count may suggest the development of cirrhosis, a possible affliction for Fitzgerald: http://umm.edu/health/medical/reports/articles/cirrhosis