Virginia Woolf here gives us possibly the best ever description of her own writing method, especially fitting for this novel and The Waves – “Beautiful and bright it should be on the surface, feathery and evanescent, one colour melting into another like the colours on a butterfly’s wing; but beneath the fabric must be clamped together with bolts of iron. It was to be a thing you could ruffle with your breath; and a thing you could not dislodge with a team of houses.”
Perhaps the first thing to say about To the Lighthouse is what an utterly brilliant depiction it is of a seaside holiday home, especially as experienced through the eyes of a child. It brought vividly to life so many of my own memories of sleeping in a room where the sound of the waves came in through the window at night and sand crunches underfoot everywhere. Every moment in To the Lighthouse is a defining moment, a moment in which identity is forged, memory is made, knowledge is gathered; every moment creates a ghost of itself which will survive the ravages of time. The seaside holiday home is among the most treasured historical sites for the archaeologist in us all, our Mycenae, our Troy, a place from which we can trace the rudiments of identity.
On the surface To the Lighthouse is about two trips to a lighthouse, one aborted, the other realised. In between the first world war happens and we pass from the Victorian age to the Edwardian. Lily Briscoe, a painter, is the novel’s principle touchstone. It’s she who the novel will liberate. Just as The Waves is a wholly original restructuring of the form of biography, To the Lighthouse is a wholly original restructuring of the form of autobiography. Though Virginia is absent in any literal sense from To the Lighthouse she pervades it. Mr and Mrs Ramsey are clearly portraits of her parents – and what fantastic living portraits they are. Lily Briscoe isn’t their daughter in the novel but essentially, through Lily, what we’re reading about is Virginia Woolf’s journey from stifled Victorian young girl to creative Edwardian woman. It’s probably the best book ever about women’s liberation.
A lot has been written about the significance of the Lighthouse. Basically, its light, seen from afar at night, is a magical presence; seen close up in the light of day it is a prosaic thing without wonder. In that sense it’s like Gatsby’s green light. But whereas Fitzgerald chose to depict this light as essentially illusory, albeit with a high inspirational charge, Woolf perhaps sees that light as a representation of those heightened moments of sensibility, or “moments of being” as she called them, when, for a fleeting moment, we carry a candle into the dark and catch sight of a vision informed by understanding, wholeness, an enduring significance.
As a footnote I have to comment on how comically inept the synopsis of this novel is. Lily spends the entire novel trying to work out the truth of who Mr and Mrs Ramsey are. The author of the synopsis has no such difficulty – they’re both nailed down with a two worded epithet – “tragic yet absurd” and “serene and maternal”. We’re then told “As time winds its way through their lives, the Ramsays face, alone and simultaneously, the greatest of human challenges and its greatest triumph–the human capacity for change.” Mrs Ramsey though is only alive for one day in this novel so I’m not sure how she faces any challenge of change and Mr Ramsey barely changes at all. Lily, the novel’s most important character, doesn’t even get a mention.
On one level you could reduce this novel to the sour grapes of a man who’s getting old and losing his privileged place in the world. Not that this belittles its aspiration or wisdom because how the self changes with age, how the declining façade impacts the core, is a fascinating and rich subject. Kundera suggests the self doesn’t significantly change from within but rather is bullied out of its natural gait by the way people see us, by the images they impose on us. Even we ourselves are constrained to represent our lives with isolated images because memory, he tells us, is incapable of retaining anything but snapshots of time, isolated frames which no effort of will can restore to a detailed and continuous home movie. We are confined to the snapshots memory selects to preserve. And ultimately, in death, we become how people remember us. We become a series of snapshots, an image.
At the time of writing this novel Kundera was pretty much guaranteed immortality. He’s earned his place among the immortals of literature. Understandable then that he should ponder what form this immortality will take. In one episode he has Goethe and Hemingway discuss their posthumous lives. Hemingway is unhappy that his books have become eclipsed by the innumerable biographies of his life. There’s also a fabulous section about Goethe’s relationship with a young girl called Bettina. To Goethe Bettina appears nothing but an episode. Little does he know that this largely inconsequential girl will become one of the editors of his posthumous life.
“No episode is a priori condemned to remain an episode forever, for every event, no matter how trivial, conceals within itself the possibility of sooner or later becoming the cause of other events and thus changing into a story or an adventure. Episodes are like land mines. The majority of them never explode, but the most unremarkable of them may someday turn into a story that will prove fateful to you.” This quote is perhaps the underlying mantra of this novel. It’s a novel of philosophical episodes which playfully mocks the conventions of the novel. “Dramatic tension is the real curse of the novel, because it transforms everything, even the most beautiful pages, even the most surprising scenes and observations merely into steps leading to the final resolution, in which the meaning of everything that preceded is concentrated.” Towards the end of Immortality Milan Kundera is sitting by the same swimming pool which opens the novel with two of his characters. He is surprised these two characters know each other.
Perhaps one test of a masterpiece is that it should improve on a second reading. I really enjoyed this but I didn’t quite love it as much as I did when I first read it. Some elements seemed dated, like his obsessive whining about noise pollution. Guitars and motorbikes especially cited as enemies of civilised life. We now face much worse forms of pollution and his singling out of urban noise levels made him appear a grumpy old man at times. Also some of his views on sex were those of an ageing womaniser who still can’t help seeing women almost exclusively through his libido. As his starting point Kundera shows us an elderly woman performing an alluring gesture she had used as a young girl. He finds the gesture “charming” but for him it’s only the gesture that has charm and elegance “while the body and face no longer had any charm. It was the charm of a gesture drowning in the charmlessness of the body.” This of course is the viewpoint of a sexually predatory male. Elderly women for most of us are of course no less capable of performing charming gestures than anyone else. Some of the most beautiful and haunting gestures I have seen have been performed by elderly people. Ironically Kundera’s posthumous life might be influenced in part by these kind of observations of his. He too, like Hemingway, might be complaining to Goethe in an afterlife that he has been misrepresented by biographies.
I once tried to keep a journal. What I found was that more often than not I was embellishing and embroidering. I wasn’t being particularly honest. It was like I was correcting my experiences rather than recounting them.
Often I had the sense KM was doing much the same in both her journal and letters. There aren’t that many entries when you feel she’s not wearing a mask of some kind and reading her words is a bit like playing hide and seek with her. She’s a chameleon, has a different mask for each of her correspondents. Some of these individuals, like Virginia Woolf, inspire her; others seem to bring out a sentimental fakery in her. You can’t help wishing she and Woolf had exchanged a whole volume of letters. There are beautiful inspired passages and there are rather boring passages too. I first read this when I was very young and ravenous to know more about her. As much as anything it showed me how much I’ve changed in the intervening years: my former wild hearted adulation has hardened into sober respect. The last fifty pages or so when she knows she is going to die are heartbreaking. I remain convinced she would have rivalled Virginia Woolf had she lived another ten years.
I’ve now completed the set, read all DeLillo’s books. This is his first novel and though impressive as a first novel doesn’t really have much to recommend it in my eyes. It’s narrated by an obnoxious filmmaker who heads West to find his creative soul, sort of like a literary road movie. We get lots of snapshots of American life; we also get quite a lot of overwriting and a fair smattering of pretentiousness.
A fascinating feature of his books is that they often begin on a more inspired plane than they end. DeLillo loves writing; but he loves writing sentences rather than stories. He’s like Nabokov in the delight he takes in crafting individual sentences. I don’t think any living writer is better at individual sentence writing. I can think of at least four of his novels that begin with stunningly beautiful prose but eventually peter out as if he runs out of that magic elixir, inspiration. At the point where he tries to forge into shape what he’s previously written. DeLillo doesn’t do plots. You could say plot is the discipline at the heart of any novel. It’s probably frustrating at times, like the rules of any game. And it seems to curb DeLillo’s flow. The alternative to plotting a novel is to theme it. Which is what he does but has a tendency to become a bit too esoteric and ambitious, to lose focus. Zero K was probably better unified in terms of theme than some of his earlier novels but the inspired writing was missing. The Names has the inspired writing but the theme becomes ever more oblique and elusive.
To be honest I can’t think of much to say about Americana except if you fancy reading him make sure you avoid this one. It was a bit like listening to an early demo recorded in a garage by a band you love.
Whatever happened to editors? I once read a biography of Max Perkins, editor to Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, among others. The deal back then seemed to be that a manuscript arriving at the offices was 70% done. Perkins then gave his 10% and the final 20% was a collaboration of author and editor. Nowadays it often seems editors do little more than hunt out typos. If Foer had had a Max Perkins – essentially to curb his excesses, something Perkins did very well with Tom Wolfe – this could have been a truly fabulous book. Instead I found it a novel of dazzling vignettes but flawed sustained artistry. Essentially there are two storylines going on here – the breakup of a marriage and the call of the motherland in crisis. So we get a personal identity crisis and a religious/national identity crisis. I was never convinced these two narratives organically coalesced. The fictitious war in the Middle East and subsequent investigations into religious/national identity always felt like a separate block of marble. It’s called upon to give more breadth to all the deft litigation of the microcosmic family world of the first part of the book but for me felt stuck on with adhesive tape. The fictitious war can easily be seen as a somewhat forced attempt to give largesse to what’s essentially a family melodrama.
It was difficult not to read this novel in part as a dramatization of the end of his marriage with Nicole Krauss. And as such I’d say Foer has grown up quite a lot. Jacob is a television screenwriter, a sort of Hamlet without the poetry, mired in mediocrity and ennui; Julia, his wife, is an architect who has never built any of her designs. “Dad can be such a pussy,” says Sam, the oldest son. “But Mum can be such a dick.” The children are virtually always wiser (and funnier) than the adults in this novel. Foer has always been good at doing children and the children here are the stars of the show. The problem I had with him before was that the worlds he created for his children were themselves a bit childish, sentimentalised, favouring charm over depth. Jacob, the lead male character, shares many characteristics of Foer the novelist, not least of all a tendency to shirk or ironicise deep feeling. At one point in the novel Jacob accuses himself of “turning half his marriage into stupid puns and ironic observations”. That, for me, is a pretty good critique of Foer’s first two novels – brilliant in part but always marred by a juvenile stand-up comedian within who can’t shut up. This novel though provides the children with a very grown up world without much sentimentality.
The first half of this novel is given over to the breakup of the marriage, the aftermath of the moment you realise that you love your children more than you love your spouse, and provides a wealth of brilliant insights into the mounting resentment of an estranged couple, the fall into self-righteous pettiness which often heralds a period in which the children become wiser than the adults. The children are wiser and far more worthy of respect than the adults throughout this novel. The first two hundred pages are fabulous – Foer’s best achievement to date. Then the war arrives. It arrives awkwardly. At first appearing more like something happening in Other Life, the virtual world where the oldest son spends much of his time. The question it throws up isn’t very interesting to me. E.M Forster answered it in one sentence. Granted there are added nuances asking an American Jew to sacrifice his home life to help prevent the annihilation of the state of Israel. But it’s still one of those worst case scenario what if questions, like Sophie’s choice. Extreme case scenarios rarely lead to interesting debates.
The war and the ultimatum it provokes seems like the wish fulfilment of Jacob’s father’s fantasy world. He’s a right wing blogger who belligerently identifies himself first and foremost as Jewish. He would disagree with Forster. He’s also the weakest character in the novel, the closest to caricature, and so when he takes over the novel’s central discourse you fear the worst.
The last fifty pages are devoted to Jacob, the second weakest character in the novel, and felt very sketchy. When the children left the novel, the novel slowly fizzled out. 3.5 stars.
And what about the fantasy side of the novel? The bloodbath jarred for me. A bit too pantomime, a bit too slapstick. Too early to know much of what’s about to happen but it would appear we have two warring forces – the good guys known as Horologists and the bad guys known as the Anchorites.
Mitchell’s last book was historical fiction set in a place and time that would have demanded a lot of painstaking scholarly research. With this novel it appears he only has to use his own memories and his imagination and he does seem to be enjoying himself, as if this book is a kind of adventure playground for his talents. First impressions are that this doesn’t so far have the exciting dazzle of Jacob de Zoet or Cloud Atlas.
Part Two: Myrhh is mine, its bitter perfume. “What is born must one day die. So says the contract of life, yes? I am here to tell you, however, that in rare instances this iron clause may be…rewritten.” So says the wonderfully captivating Immaculee Constantin, the same Miss Constantin who was at the centre of Holly’s “weird shit”.
Hugo’s a great creation as a character because no matter how unlikeable he should be we can’t help warming to him. We warm to him partly because of his virtuoso ability to charge up a constant current of vitality through language and partly because he succeeds in convincing us that, whatever he does, the real parasite of the story is the self-satisfied Chetwynd-Pitt. Also, whenever we’re on the point of disliking him he does something surprisingly tender or willingly makes an ass of himself – helping the tramp and losing the skiing race (great scene that) for example. I also really loved the passage where Mitchell makes everything vanish in the ski resort until we’re left looking at “the skinny girl in the mint-green ski suit”. Real virtuoso writing that.
Hugo highlights the telling distinction between liking and enjoying a character. It always baffles me when people criticise a novel because they don’t like the characters, as if they only want to read about people they’d have tea and scones with. It’s impossible, for example, to like Osmond and Madame Merle in The Portrait of the Lady but it’s a piece of cake to enjoy them. Though I think if the author wants you to like a character you don’t then you start having real problems with the book. I had that problem with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Sometimes an author can be too heavy handed in trying to manipulate your emotions through the lead character.
Once again though I had problems with the fantasy stuff. There’s a sense that it’s too overshadowing, too all powerful and thus belittles the human concerns of the characters. All the complex and compelling dualities of Hugo are wiped clean at the end of this part when he signs the pact with the Anchorites. As if in one stroke his human life is reduced to little more than an irrelevant dream.
Okay, Ed is being attacked for his reluctance to submit to domesticity and the attacks grow steadily more decisive. (Worth remembering there’s always ego involved in journalism unlike, say, aid working which has a more genuinely humanitarian and altruistic foundation.) Brendan’s attack is ego-based and irritating and easy to ignore, Holly’s attack has more kudos but seems to him unfair, his daughter’s attack is searing rudimentary emotional blackmail and so hard to ignore, Eilish’s attack in the form of the invitation, is very subtle, it’s mystical but probably the most effective of all in that it reaches deep down into Ed’s psyche. It’s like Ed is being broken up here into his various components: manhood, ego, heart, soul. The fortune teller was a nice touch – bringing in the mystical in its most crass form and paving the way for the truly mystical in the form of Eilish. One of the ghost bridges between the real and the fantasy.
But this wedding? What’s that all about? I enjoyed the reverend’s speech. But isn’t there a lot of idle chit-chat? And another cluster of characters who will probably disappear once this part ends. I guess the wedding is like the divide between two territories, past/future, ego/heart – a threshold that symbolically might force Ed to choose which path to take. I think Holly, despite her prickly reactionary persona, is more spiritually evolved than Ed. Mitchell’s deep prevailing interest in Buddhism is well known and certainly one of the recurring tasks for characters in Mitchell’s fiction is overcoming ego. I get the sense that there’s a lot of ego involved in Ed’s attachment to his journalism. He likes the praise. I never really got the feeling it was much about caring for his fellow man. That seemed more like a rational construction he placed over his motives. Holly’s work, on the other hand, does seem to have empathy and compassion as its impetus. So for me, in Buddhist terms, Ed is the child here and Holly the adult. Except perhaps Mitchell has done a clever job in inverting them superficially so we tend to sympathise more with Ed’s perspective when we should be behind Holly. At the beginning of the next part Mitchell foreshadows criticism of his own book with the quote, directed at Crispin Hershey’s fictional novel, “the fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions.” As the Iraq section is, so far, the most concentrated attempt to address “the state of the world” I gave some thought to how well Mitchell is succeeding in incorporating into this novel a creative historical account of our times, which does seem to be one of his aims, albeit in his incorrigibly playful fashion. Certainly it was courageous of him to take us directly to the front line – though Holly seems to imply these moments of history are ultimately less important, on a personal level, than domestic life. A macro micro clash. Ed’s emotions over the disappearance of his daughter, much more engulfing and soul destroying than anything he experiences in Iraq, seem to bear Holly’s wisdom out. You could say Ed lives on sensation until sensation begins to turn round and bite him, first with the hotel blast and then the disappearance of his daughter.
I’m also surprised by how low key the fantasy is. It was pretty full on in the first part and my expectation was it would have a growing claim on the narrative. I’ve deliberately kept myself ignorant of the novel’s plot – not read any reviews or interviews – but so far the fantasy element could be described as a few telling but very subtle strokes of paint on a pretty large canvas, like a mythological animal painted bewitchingly into the background of a vast landscape. It’s there and it continues to mesmerise but it doesn’t really diminish the haunting realism of the painting.
Part Four: Crispin Hershey’s lonely Planet: I found many aspects of this part hard work. Aphra Booth was ridiculous, so much so that I felt a bit embarrassed on Mitchell’s behalf. Richard Cheeseman, pivotal in bringing about Crispin overcoming the bitter narcissist within, struck me more as caricature than character and as a result made Crispin’s transformation harder to swallow. This whole chapter contained too many office in-jokes for me. I think Amis did a much better job of sending up the competitive narcissism of writers. And my feeling was that Mitchell is beginning to overindulge his playfulness, which at times had the exhausting exuberance of the antics of a six week old puppy in this chapter. Just seems to me he disciplined his will to mischief much better in his other novels. At times here it’s turning into whimsy. Most of us began this novel believing everything in the text was intended and relevant. I don’t feel that anymore. More I get the sense of kitchen sink syndrome. Half way through this part. Crispin may or may not be modelled on Martin Amis but the literary rivalry is certainly Martin Amis material (The Information) and my take is that Amis did this so much wittier and better.
Mitchell’s done a good job of isolating Crispin in an orbit all of his own – the lonely planet: so detached from the core of his being that he refers to himself in the third person as if he’s his own fiction. But his detachment from all but negative energies makes him difficult to empathise with. I’m guessing there will be a reversal in his determination to see wrong everywhere and I’m hoping it’s soon. Each part of this novel so far has always grown more compelling as it moves towards its denouement so I’m hoping same is true of Crispin.
This part was also more self-contained than any other. Too self-contained perhaps. It cleared up all the mysteries it posed. It killed off its protagonist. What unanswered questions did it carry forward? I can’t think of many. It’s like we’re now back to the drawing board.
An example perhaps of how uncomfortably the fantasy is interacting with the realism was the utter decline of Hugo as a character. From fascinating complex vampiric rake he becomes a cartoon baddie. I still want to know what happened when he had to return to England and face the music. Also, I found the showdown between him and Crispin a bit daft. Hugo has all these supernatural powers yet his purpose for confronting Crispin is to ask a series of essentially banal question. Have to say this exchange didn’t exactly get my hopes up for the exposition of the fantasy world when it arrives.
I enjoyed this part most whenever Holly was involved. Then it was recognisably part of the novel I’ve been reading for the past ten days. The flipping of the coin was a great scene. Also enjoyed the mystery of the poetess and Holly’s prophetic riddle.
But, on the whole, I’m now pretty sure this, for me, will remain a less accomplished novel than either Thousand Autumns or Cloud Atlas.
Part Five: The Horologist’s labyrinth – I enjoyed Marinus (the ancient mariner) revisiting his past lives which was a great piece of writing. In fact I enjoyed this part until the battle. Though I even enjoyed that in the way one enjoys pantomime once I had accustomed myself to its hammy over exuberance and cheap plot devices. There was a lot of Dr Who in this chapter, intended I’m sure, with Marinus as the doctor and Holly as the female assistant to whom everything can be conveniently explained in layman’s terms and who switches from smart to dumb according to plot requirements. There’s no question Mitchell had a lot of fun writing this but there is a sense he allowed himself too much licence to send up the fantasy genre. Either that or, like a child, he just got too carried away with his game.
At times it could seem Mitchell was sending up the SF genre. It seems unlikely to me that such an intelligent and usually conscientious novelist would resort to such slapstick unless it was somehow intended? Obviously there’s a great deal of mischief in this novel but perhaps one problem is he went over the top?
So yep, the terminology was awkward, as was the device of using Holly as a conduit for every inconvenient plot problem. The villains were all slapstick, though we had a warning this was going to be the case with Hugo’s earlier meeting with Crispin. But I feel a bit mean being so critical cos I have really enjoyed reading this novel despite all its flaws. You can’t deny its vitality and its rampant joie de vivre.
Part Six: Sheep’s Head – Visual media has vanished from the last part which, as well as containing a dystopian vision also contains a utopian one – in the form of the back to nature theme and the community spirit which Mitchell went to great pains to create in this part. The world was thus both a better and worse place without it. He kind of lets us decide. So I think the influence of visual media did play a big and intended part in this novel. Ed was a reporter and through him we saw the Iraq war behind the newsreel so to speak but it very much called to mind the television footage. And I also think that Mitchell had oodles of fun smuggling into the text emblems of his own favourite television experiences, like Dr Who, Eastenders. What was clear at the end of the novel was that Mitchell wanted to create a genuine community spirit – thus, the endless procession of new characters. Almost a kibbutz spirit except created through necessity rather than social idealism. The horologists too were a community. So I think Mitchell was ultimately coming out in favour of community as a social model (attacked in the novel by, in turns, economic, ideological and religious zealotry). Though on the one hand, he was painting a bleak picture of life without modern technology and the resources we rely on, he was also perhaps offering a criticism of how these props have isolated us from one another and even dehumanised us. Mitchell’s vision of the future might appear at face value a bleak one but I think there’s also a powerful subtext of optimism about the human spirit and this was most poignantly personified by Holly herself. Holly grows in the novel. She becomes an admirable fully evolved human being capable of transfiguring gestures of love, nurture, empathy and sacrifice. You could say Mitchell gives us a narrative of history through the experiences of one ordinary individual woman’s life – an achievement Virginia Woolf once said was completely missing from our understanding of the nature of history. At the same time for all its exuberance and quotable one liners I ultimately felt there was a hollow ring to this novel. Probably because the fantasy overview, like some global multinational corporation, sucked so much lifeblood from the individuals. James Wood expresses it much better than I can.
“What occurs in the novel between people has meaning only in relation to what occurs in the novel between Anchorites and Horologists. A struggle, a war, is being played out, between forces of good and forces of evil, although how humans behave with one another appears to have little impact on that otherworldly battle. Mitchell has written a theological novel of sorts, and just as certain kinds of theology threaten to rob human life of intrinsic significance—since theology exists to convert worldly meaning into transcendent meaning—so Mitchell’s peculiar cosmology turns his characters into time-travelling groundlings, Horology’s dwarves.”
Mitchell’s principal writing tool seems to be vitality. Perhaps more than any other writer i know he lets himself be carried along (away?) by his sheer love of storytelling. It’s like its always galloping him ahead of the usual disciplines of novel writing. I kind of wonder if his penchant for the novella as a form isn’t simply the solution he found to give full expression to his prodigious vitality. Anyone who’s ever tried to write a novel will know how hard it is to commit to one idea, one character and discipline oneself to see the relationship through. Mitchell’s like a charming and mischievous cad of a writer whose imaginative vitality makes it hard for him to commit to long term relationships. He has so much creative energy his impulse is to spread it far and wide. He wants to play the field. And he does it with verve and audacious multi-lingual flair. His novels always pulse with a full-blooded generous heart.