Digression costs me often. Today it has cost me in a way that is going to go public.
I was supposed to continue the list of my 10 favourite books, in this entry. But no sooner than I had set myself to it, did I realize I had picked the wrong book for number 4. These numbers by the way are just that, numbers. They are not ratings. My take on this book should have come at the very end to conclude my list with my top read. But since I hadn’t done much sorting out beforehand, I ended up with this. And now that I have, I am also publishing it. I will be continuing with the main body after the conclusion. Strange, I know. But it is liberating, I tell you. Now I can not only change fonts, alignment and line spacing as per my will, but squeeze the Conclusion right in the middle of the Main Body, and nobody can tell me I can’t.
Here it is, then.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Decidedly the best book I have ever read. I first came across this book as a chapter in a course book. I read it once, twice, thrice… it didn’t make sense. It was an extract – one page. Something about kids growing up and a pessimistic mother not wanting them to. Eventually I decided to stop looking for a head and a tail, and understand the passage for what it was.
A few months later, I had to spend four days observing third, fourth and fifth grade children, with the object of reporting their inclinations and activities back to the principal. That was my first experience with kids, and I grew immensely fond of them. Upon my return, I recorded the events of those four days in my diary. It was then that I realized how my thoughts were weighed down by the very pessimism of that mother from the course book. “Why must they grow up and lose it all?” I kept wondering. And then, just like the mother in the course book, I brandished my sword at life, “nonsense, they will be perfectly happy.”
By the time I finished the book, I knew there wasn’t, and wouldn’t ever be, another like it.
I decided, therefore, that the book was worth a read.
It took me a number of attempts spanned across two years, to read To the Lighthouse. But by the time I finished it, I knew there wasn’t, and wouldn’t ever be, another like it. Virginia Woolf is brilliant. She’s a genius. In the said book, she has defied all rules of conventional storytelling and given it a new definition. And not just storytelling, she has given ‘story’ a new definition.
A story isn’t just the tale of a lifetime, or even that of a part thereof. It is an account of something that happened. And that something happens every moment, of every day in our lives. It is there in every action, every interaction, and as Woolf shouts out from her book, every thought. It is not hard to sew these three – actions, interactions and thoughts – into one narrative and call it a story. But it is hard to make each stand as a story in its own right, independent of the existence of others. That is where Woolf’s brilliance shines in all of its glory. She does not follow the ritualistic rising action>climax>falling action to tell the story of her characters. In To the Lighthouse, at least, there is no climax. It’s just an account of events from the time the journey to the lighthouse is planned to when it is actually undertaken.
Virginia Woolf is brilliant. She’s a genius. In the said book, she has defied all rules of conventional storytelling and given it a new definition. And not just storytelling, she has given ‘story’ a new definition.
And it all happens in the minds of the characters. This is not to say that it is a dream, or a thought in itself. The journey to the lighthouse is actually planned, and actually undertaken. But the events that I speak of, unfold not in a material fashion in the form of anticipation for the journey or the events that surround it, but how the characters feel the anticipation and perceive the events. It all happens like anything happens in your head. Quietly. Privately. Cut off from the rest of the world even as the rest of the world is what it’s all about. It’s called the stream of consciousness, as I learned later.
Stream of consciousness is not the same as interior monologue. Where interior monologue is the inner talking, stream of consciousness is the inner feeling. We are not all, for instance, capable of talking alike. Each one of us has a different quality of expression. But we are capable of feeling alike, and the quality of feeling is uniform in us all. It is this feeling that Woolf depicts with classic literary elegance. She uses her words to translate the feelings of those who are incapable of doing it themselves.
But perhaps Woolf’s most outstanding achievement is her success in weaving extraordinary strength in an otherwise ordinary narrative. She does it masterfully. And in doing so reminds us what we’ve always known yet never acknowledged – that every second of every minute of every single day of our lives, is a story worth telling. It is much like what Paulo Coelho says in The Alchemist: A grain of sand is a moment of creation, and the universe has taken millions of years to create it.
It is impossible to handpick a single dialogue from To the Lighthouse, as my favourite. But pick, I shall. It is this: There were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one. This, that, and the other; herself and Charles Tansley and the breaking wave; Mrs Ramsay bringing them together; Mrs Ramsay saying, “Life, stand still there.”