Judging by what I saw many reading on the 4 train, this summer, I have to say that this wasn’t just a season of lamppost-melting heat, but of erotic flames as well.
Holding their Kindles or paper books close to their bosom, double-chinned women in tight, short, floral dresses, sat immersed in their copy of E.J. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey,” a book touted as “mommy porn” that sold over 40 million copies worldwide.
Watching them, I thought of the book that I carried in my backpack. And I silently laughed at the sharpness of contrast it presented to the title that my fellow commuters held in their hands.
I was reading “To the Lighthouse,” by Virginia Woolf, a book from another era; a modern classic, first published in 1927.
Six-year-old James, the youngest of a brood of eight Ramsay children is sitting on the living-room floor and “cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores,” the Victorian-era equivalent of the Sears.
He’s looking forward with feverish excitement to a trip to the lighthouse, which stands across the bay from their summer house on the Isle of Skype, off the Scottish coast.
At their sprawling villa, the Ramsays are entertaining a few close family friends, a motley crew of a struggling painter, a brooding poet, an aspiring academic, and a widowed scientist.
His father, a noted philosopher, punctures his extraordinarily joyous mood by telling him, bitterly, that the weather won’t permit the outing.
The plan, is thus, scuttled. And an unspoken promise, made by his mother, is left unfulfilled, setting the mood for thwarted ambitions, imperfect marriages, unvented emotions, pent-up anxieties, and philosophical angst that dominate the rest of the novel.
With a quivering brush, Lily Briscoe struggles to paint a portrait of Mrs. Ramsay, shielding it from the mocking eyes of men. One of them, Charles Tansley, a young acolyte of Mr. Ramsay, who believes “women can’t paint, women can’t write,” can’t help but voice his prejudice against women openly.
Ironically, the very woman she adulates, Mrs. Ramsay, doesn’t think too highly of her artistic talent either. Instead, she humors her, taking her to be a “fool.”
“An unmarried woman,” she believes, “miss[es] the best of life.” So Lily doesn’t miss the matrimonial boat, she tries to hook her up with the widower William Bankes, on the flimsy ground that they both appreciate flowers. Lily is fiercely determined to remain single.
Mrs. Ramsay does, however, get the tomboyish Minta Doyle and handsome Paul Rayley to tie the knot.
Should the success of their marriage be gauged by a mere wedding ceremony, then, it certainly was, for the couple walked down the aisle. But were it to be measured by the yardstick of everlasting happiness, it flopped, for Paul took on a mistress, but didn’t take off his ring.
Theirs isn’t the only match that wasn’t made in heaven, so to speak. Mr. Ramsay, aloof, ill-tempered, and egotistical, and Mrs. Ramsay affable, affectionate, and tolerant, remained firmly wedded, without being in love. A woman of rare beauty, smoothed by streaks of unspoken melancholy, she hid herself behind the beautiful façade.
The first section of the novel, “The Window,” describes the happenings over the course of an afternoon, when nothing more eventful happens than one Ramsay kid nearly toppling an easel and another shooting a flock of birds.
An inordinate length of time passes in the minds of the characters, however, as they plumb the depths of their consciousness and pour forth their stream of reflections, reminiscences, regrets, and observations.
Time, as understood, as the ticking of the clock, hence, slows down, stretches itself out, in the manner of the melting watches in the Salvador Dali painting, “The Persistence of Memory.”
The chapter reaches its finale in a platter of “boeuf en Daube,” a gastronomic “masterpiece,” the cook, Mildred, has been laboring over for three days. This is perhaps, the only time in Woolf’s work when she’s made a reference to food.
An exquisite scent of olives and oil and juice rose from the great brown dish as Marthe, with a little flourish, took the cover off … And she must take great care, Mrs. Ramsay thought, diving into the soft mass, to choose a specially tender piece for William Bankes. And she peered into the dish, with its shiny walls and its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats and its bay leaves and its wine.
The dish is so delectable that Mrs. Ramsay can’t but tell her guests that it’s her grandmother’s recipe.
She disapproves of English cooking:
What passes for cookery in England is an abomination (they agreed). It is putting cabbages in water. It is roasting meat till it is like leather. It is cutting off the delicious skins of the vegetables.
In the second section, “Time Passes,” the passage of time accelerates such that it’s compressed into barely 20 pages and is filled with despair, decrepitude, and demise.
World War I is raging. Bombs are raining. The only occupants of the seaside home in the Hebrides are the chilly, wet winds and the long, dark shadows.
All of a sudden, the concluding chapter, “The Lighthouse,” opens on a bright morning as if it were the day after the sumptuous dinner. Only, a whole decade has elapsed since that evening.
The book has almost no dialogue. Single-sentence paragraphs abound. The pose is supremely dense. Which makes it rather an intellectual jawbreaker, though not without a velvet charm.