First, let me credit Coursera’s The Fiction of Relationship six-week programme with Brown University for making me read books and authors that I would never ever read. This course had a really heavy workload and thus I am stopping at Module One. (Module two has another 6 books to go.) To read one book a week was stressful especially when the books are no easy read, and to include an analytical or creative essay at the end of the week as well…. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the peer assessments and the course, for it opened my eyes to how other readers interpret the story that was totally different from mine, and it refreshed my memory of how much I enjoyed studying literature for O’levels with my favourite teacher Miss Michelle Lim at Nanyang, my batch being the first to be offered English Literature at O’levels at the school.
In my opinion, some books cannot be read and must be taught. I could say the same for authors like Shakespeare, or Franz Kafka. Virginia Woolf’s To The Light House happens to be such a book. Each time I open the book, I drift off to dreamland.
This book is written in a stream-of-consciousness style that puts many readers off. It’s either you embrace this kind of writing (like how my lecturer Prof Arnold Weinstein gushed about the loveliness if her prose) or you simply loath it. In real life, we are often living in a stream-of-consciousness narrative with ourselves, which we are aware or unaware of, drifting to the memory of what just happened at lunch while listening to a friend chatting on the phone, and your mind goes off to the past, then comes back to the present in short flashes of narratives. It’s easy to understand when these narratives are happening to you, quite difficult when you are trying to follow the narratives in another person’s mind. This is how the book is written. He could be thinking of his relationship with the wife while she is describing the loveliness of the flowers. And the topic switched from wife to flower and back and forth and the reader gets confused at what exactly he is referring to.
Perhaps if the book is written in the usual manner, I would have enjoyed it more. For the story resonates with me. A fifty-year-old woman Mrs Ramsay, with eight children entertains a group of friends in a summer-house. Mrs Ramsay is unaware of her own fading beauty, for she is more concern for her guests, her children and her husband, Mr Ramsay, a needy, self-centered professor who relishes in her reassurance and praise. And so Woolf goes into Mr and Mrs Ramsay’s minds and examines their marital relationship, which is so familiar to me that Mr and Mrs Ramsay could be any of my relatives or friends, each barely tolerating each other in their matrimony, but having married thus long, have the affections for each other.
This book, published in the 1920s, has women in the role as being ignorant, and concern only of mundane domestic issues while the men have more important role and work in society. Yet in Asian societies, these issues, which could be out of touch in the West now, still remains vital as Asian women juggle work and domestic affairs, the men barely paying scant attention. Mrs Ramsay, in particular, has the unappreciated role of nurturing relationships by organizing dinner and trying to get the family and friends together to bond. How many women in my life play exactly that role, tirelessly organizing get-together during festive occasions, just so relationships can be bridged and continued?
But back to the book. There is no plot. It’s doesn’t really matter what happens in the end, for the drone of going on and on in the minds of the protagonists (and there are a few) is really the subject matter here. You don’t see any relationship building or collapsing, for what matters in what they think of each other now. Sort of like what is happening at this moment while I write this piece and live my life. There is ending, no plot, just my thoughts running.
To give you a sample of her writing:
But what have I done with my life, thought Mrs. Ramsay, taking her place at the head of the table, and looking at all the plates making white circles on it. ‘William, sit by me,’ she said. ‘Lily,’ she said, wearily, ‘over there.’ … At the far end, was her husband sitting down all in a heap, frowning. What at? She did not know. She did not mind. She could not understand how she had ever felt any emotion or affection for him.
Nothing seemed to have merged. They all sat separate. And the whole of the effort of merging and flowing, and creating rested on her. Again, she felt, as a fact, without hostility, the sterility of men, for if she did not do it nobody would do it, and so, giving herself the little shake that one gives a watch that has stopped, the old familiar pulse began beating, as the watch begins ticking – one, two, three, one, two, three. And so on and so on, she repeated, listening to it, sheltering and fostering the still feeble pulse as one might guard, a weak flame with a newspaper.
I am glad I can finally say, I read Virginia Woolf!