Time Passes

lighthouseoupI’m reading To the Lighthouse for the first time. I know, I know. I also know that I should love it, because it is beautiful and moving and brilliant and original — and I sort of do, so far, except when I don’t. I am not a particularly good reader of Woolf’s fiction: it was only a few years ago that I finally read Mrs Dalloway, and I “succeeded” in that only when I stopped working so hard and let myself “fall under the spell of the language, which is beautiful and languorous but shot through with moments of startling clarity and, sometimes, brutality,” as I said at the time. The same is true of the language of To the Lighthouse, though at this point in my reading it’s that very languorous beauty that’s interfering, perhaps paradoxically, with my pleasure in the novel. It is making me impatient, faintly fretful, with its self-conscious artistry. The novel is not opaque, the way late Henry James novels are, but for all its meticulous attention to the mundane, such that everything everyday becomes somehow transcendent, it feels strangely detached from the reality it explores with such nuance.

These are just early impressions, and of a first reading, at that — and I’m also not finished the novel. So don’t think the worst of me! I will learn more as I read on, and more still as I reflect and reread. It’s a good thing, really, to read a novel that doesn’t fit easily into the grooves of my mind. It’s good for my mind, I mean. Already, To the Lighthouse has me thinking — not just about what I want from my reading and why, but about fiction and realism, about mothers and children, about husbands and wives, about lighthouses visited and not, literal as well as metaphorical.

The part I’ve liked least so far is Part II, “Time Passes.” But even though I found it excessively mannered, with its calculated parentheticals, it does wonderfully evoke both the long sweep of time and specific moments and details of change that seize our particular attention:

The house was left; the house was deserted. It was left like a shell on a sand-hill to fill with dry salt grains now that life had left it. The long night seemed to have set in; the trifling airs, nibbling, the clammy breaths, fumbling, seemed to have triumphed. The saucepan had rusted and the mat decayed. Toads had nosed their way in. Idly, aimlessly, the swaying shawl swung to and fro. A thistle thrust itself between the tiles in the larder. The swallows nested in the drawing-room; the floor was strewn with straw; the plaster fell in shovelfuls; rafters were laid bare; rats carried off this and that to gnaw behind the wainscots.

Oxford“Time passes.” It’s such a neutral-sounding phrase, almost like a stage direction, one that requires all the director’s ingenuity to show us its truth without taking us through the whole chronology. It’s an obvious truth, one we’re all perfectly well aware of, but we feel it deeply only during what George Eliot calls “one of those rare moments of experience when we feel the truth of a commonplace,”

which is as different from what we call knowing it, as the vision of waters upon the earth is different from the delirious vision of the water which cannot be had to cool the burning tongue.

The immediate context of that quotation is Mr Casaubon’s confrontation with the reality of death in the great 42nd chapter of Middlemarch, but that isn’t all that different, when you think about it, from our confrontation with the reality that time passes. You can’t stop it. It’s inexorable! It stops, for each of us, only with death, which is thus rightly pervasive in the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse.

Funny little things can really bring home the reality that time passes. I don’t mean just obvious chronological markers like birthdays. They do remind us, but they don’t surprise us: they just keep coming round again on their predictable dates. I’m thinking more about things like my embroidered series of Henry VIII and his wives. And if that seems like an unlikely connection, that’s exactly my point: when it occurred to me that it might be nice to do some work on these cross-stitched portraits again, I didn’t expect to end up contemplating either the relentless passage of time or my own mortality, but that’s what happened.

newstitches9You see, I’ve been working on these off and on since 1993. I was newly married then and still not quite accustomed to the amount of golf my husband likes to watch on TV every weekend. Since it was hard to get away from the TV in our small apartment, and it didn’t seem very friendly (or very practical) to absent myself from home altogether, I decided to take up some hobbies that would keep my hands busy and give me a sense of accomplishment while I watched golf with him. A long-time reader of Tudor fiction, I was also working on a dissertation about Victorian historical writing, including Agnes Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of England— one way or another, Henry VIII and his wives had been in my life a long time. My thesis also included a chapter on the symbolic significance of needlework in Victorian historiography! So I was pretty excited when I chanced on a pattern in New Stitches magazine for Katherine Howard (wife #5, beheaded, in case you can’t keep them all straight). and even more excited when I realized it was part of a series and I could order the back issues, which I did. Over the next few years I completed four of the queens (Katherine Howard, Anne of Cleves, Katherine of Aragon, and Anne Boleyn). Just two wives were left, plus Henry himself.

After we had children, though, I found it almost impossible to work on these patterns, which are quite fussy and require both close attention and a minimum of interruptions if you’re not going to lose your place. Also, embroidering on white fabric means keeping your work area, your hands, and anything that might touch the work very clean: you can’t just put your hoop down any old place and grab it up again when you’re back. Even when it started to seem possible in theory to go back to these patterns in the evenings, I discovered that multi-tasking at the necessary level had become much harder: keeping track of the pattern and of the plot in a gripping HBO drama, for instance, was too much for me. The long and short of it is that poor Katherine Parr has been malingering in the drawer, barely half-finished, for years now.

IMG_0910What inspired me to take her out? Mostly that I’ve been experimenting with audio books for a while and though I do enjoy coloring as I listen, I thought I might get more satisfaction out of doing something with more tangible results, and especially out of finishing this series. I hoped that my current audio book (Eloisa James’s Three Weeks with Lady X) would entertain me without overtaxing my poor brain while I followed the design. And in fact it seems just right as a combination of activities — except that I couldn’t help noticing that since the last time I worked with the pattern, it has somehow shrunk so that it’s much harder to see! (Well, OK, actually my eyes have gotten weaker.) Also, the needles: were they always so hard to thread? So those were two blunt reminders that time had passed. And they got me thinking about how much harder this kind of finicky work is going to get as I keep aging, which got me thinking that I’d better not wait another decade before starting (or finishing) Henry and Jane Seymour, because even if I am very lucky and stay healthy and safe from accident or catastrophe — even then, who knows how much more time I’ve got to work on them?

Suddenly, I feel the truth of a commonplace indeed: time passes.

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Update: Lest y’all doubt my Woolf credentials, here’s a link to one of the bravest (for me) pieces I’ve written for OLM – a literary essay in appreciation of one of the great literary essayists. Or you could check out the entries in the ‘Woolf, Virginia’ category. I think she’s a genius. It just occasionally occurs to me that she’s not my genius.

15 Comments to Time Passes

  1. August 1, 2016 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    What a lovely post – I think I love reading your posts in part because we have very different tastes and temperaments as readers – Woolf and Lighthouse are among my all-time favorites and I devoured Ferrante but with the Victorians I often have the appreciate-more-than-enjoy or at least “enjoy less than I think I should” reaction. I love reading your responses because they make me think about my own . .. I think a lot has to do with my wanting things to be always heightened, as they are in Woolf, which can read as self-conscious, as you say, and can leave me without the patience for the less compressed way time passes in a Victorian – where there are set ups and scenes rather than, as in Woolf, a moment of Being, as she called it, followed by, “where did that time go”

  2. D.R.R's Gravatar D.R.R
    August 2, 2016 at 3:36 am | Permalink

    I don’t know where to begin. Except for the works of Jane Austen or (in a different form) Emily Dickinson , there isn’t a work of non fiction in any language by any woman author that rings more true to life and moves and delights each rereading as satisfactorily and fully as “To The Lighthouse”. Through its feelingly and beautifully written images, themes, structures, intra and interpersonal dramatizations, and felicitous choices of words, it aptly embodies how one’s sense of the loss of a deeply valued person can be transformed into a self validating celebration both of that person and the artistic endeavor. This is what Woolf did with the feelings she had for her mother especially, but also for her father and sister. Have you read the chapter in Auerbach’s Mimesis devoted to it? If not I highly recommend it as a way to help you appreciate it. For me it ranks with The Castle(Kafka), The Eye of the Storm (White), A Farewell to Arms, The Fall (Camus), Joseph and his Brothers (Mann), David Copperfield, and other works I can never reread too often and, had I not read them, that would have left my life impoverished by their absence. It moves me in a way similar to how Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet, as choreographed by Anthony Tudor, did, and as the recording by Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra continues to do . Suffering transformed by artistic form into restorative beauty. Or as in an (although this happens only infrequently) adequate performance of King Lear. Or looking at Winged Victory in the Louvre, or the David at the Accademia. It does what the finest art always does; first, by willing suspension of disbelief, temporarily enable one to set aside their own human pain (which we all suffer as part of the human condition) and, second, offer an aesthetically complete and satisfying experience which is both true to our life experience and transfigures it. Which reminds me as well of Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht. I am in awe of such works and value them only secondarily to those people I love and who befriend me.

    • Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
      August 2, 2016 at 8:05 am | Permalink

      I think you left out the words “to me” in your second sentence, and perhaps tacitly throughout. I don’t dispute that all of this is true for you, and for many other readers. But the endless interest of literature is that we don’t all respond the same way to the same books. For me, it’s Middlemarch, for instance, that I admire that intensely. I did say how beautiful I already find To the Lighthouse, and I might well come to appreciate it even more. Still, without arguing against it as an example of “the finest art,” I do maintain that it is just one kind of fine art, and there’s always room to probe what it does and doesn’t do, what its kind of excellence is and what limits that particular artistic investment might entail.

  3. August 2, 2016 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    I certainly agree that we don’t (probably *can’t*) all respond the same way to the same books, and I have not come here to chide you, but I am moved to say that the “Time Passes” section of To The Lighthouse struck me as a virtuoso performance. The main trick, the real magic show Woolf presents is the use of the summer house, empty but for the occasional visit of the old housekeeper, falling gradually into frightful disrepair. The family deaths, the Great War, the sliding of Europe into disarray and destruction, are all echoed by the failing condition of the vacation home. The gutters and drains are blocked and the water gets into the house. The plaster falls. There are rats in the attic and moths in the closets among the old summer fashions still hanging there. The garden is a ruin and floorboards are sprung, etc. It’s magnificent work from Woolf, with darkness and wind and rain all personified as curious visitors to the building. It’s also one of the saddest things I’ve ever read. Another clever bit of structuring Woolf does with this section is bookending it with sleep and waking. So I at least was moved and impressed.

    Yes, there are all kinds of fine art. That’s a valuable idea to keep in mind!

    • D.R.R's Gravatar D.R.R
      August 2, 2016 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for your appreciation of “Time Passes”. I feel a similar sadness to yours in both my favorite Woolf novels, “To the Lighthouse” and “Mrs Dalloway”, but the (different) affirmations with which each ends, at least for me, form them into an esthetic experience that finally is healing for me.

  4. August 3, 2016 at 1:22 am | Permalink

    I meant to say that there was no reason to chide you, not that I could but chose not to. I could name some novels that I’m sure are works of art and are beloved by many but just don’t move me the way I wish they did. The condition sometimes confuses me, so it’s actually helpful to read about other readers having a similar experience.

    And then, you know, I just wanted to gush about “Time Passes.”

    • Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
      August 3, 2016 at 8:40 am | Permalink

      I expect we have both also found that the initial distance we feel in these situations, perhaps even the sense of being a bit stupid in the moment, for just not “getting it” — especially when the novel is, as you say, a great and beloved work of art — is a great provocation to learn more and read better. i could list many books that I have come to admire and sometimes even love after an initial stumble. But as I always stress when I teach Middlemarch (which, after all, I have introduced to many, many people who don’t love it, at first or sometimes ever!), there’s no obligation to like or love even the greatest books. If there is any obligation at all, it’s to try to understand the terms of their greatness.

      Anyway, I’m loving this comment thread because I am learning so much from it, so carry on!

  5. August 6, 2016 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    I share your opinion of Virginia Woolf in general, though I have not read To The Lighthouse. I did see a stage adaptation of it over in Berkeley many years ago. It was a strange thing, I remember basically liking it. The “Time Passes” section was done very well, too.

    There’s a wonderful “Time Passes” set piece in The Tale of Genji that I really wish I had marked as I read it. Genji is a very long book, there’s no way I’ll ever find that passage again. It’s a description of a largely abandoned house aging over several years, the plants in the garden growing over the walls, as the woman who lives there grows older, waiting for Genji who nearly never returns. It’s a wonderful piece of prose, though in translation from the Japanese.

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