Unwritten Modernist Beach Reunions
Reflections on the literary masterpieces that inspire us to write.
On the way home from San Diego, I read my second-favorite book by Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse. It may be my new favorite.
People who love plots may not love this book, for less happens in To the Lighthouse than happens in most of Woolf’s other novels (at least according to me, but I’ve only read six of nine). In To the Lighthouse, a bunch of wealthy and highly literate people assemble to dine and talk at a Scottish beach house (on the Isle of Skye) in 1910, and then again in 1920. Do audiences hunger for such a tale? Well, while dozens of adaptations have been filmed of, say, the story of Cinderella, so far no adaptation of Woolf’s novel has been released in theaters.
We’ve covered this sort of ground before when considering the function (or absence) of plot. One classic episode of the TV show Seinfeld, for example, showed Jerry, George, and Elaine trying and failing to get a table at a Chinese restaurant. Not much to see there, one might think. We cared about that episode not because anything happens (NBC objected to the lack of plot, but Larry David threatened to quit if the network enforced changes to the script), but instead because the observations and foibles of the three protagonists were so entertaining.
Rather than relying on comedy, To the Lighthouse emphasizes the philosophical and psychological responses of members of the Ramsay family, as well as their artistic and literary guests. The omniscient narrator spends most of book inside the heads of the various assembled characters, representing the poetic stream-of-consciousness thoughts of the various peeved and aching geniuses. As a poet myself, I relished the novel’s associative logic and ambitious use of words and allusions.
Woolf was also a poet, though one who published no books of poetry, having once written in her diary that "Yet, it is true, poetry is delicious; the best prose is that which is most full of poetry." Woolf kept 26 volumes (26 years’?) of diaries between the time she was 33 and when she took her own life at age 59. Her husband Leonard Woolf called these journals “a method of practicing or trying out the art of writing.”
Other scholars have explored the interrelationship between Woolf’s diaries and her novels. She cribbed liberally from herself, having her various characters reflect her own ingenious contemplations in their internal monologues. In doing so, with To the Lighthouse Woolf has written a modernist masterpiece, and a book that outsold all her previous books. With the proceeds, the Woolfs were able to buy a car!
I doubt that any of my books have sold enough copies to fund the purchasing of even a bicycle, but then again, I’ve never published a novel. In recent years, I have been reading, teaching and writing journalism, a genre of writing that seems as wholly different from a modernist novel as could be categorized. I’ve enjoyed creating prose that is accessible, rather than inscrutable, and that is current, rather than that which aspires to be literarily permanent.
Nevertheless, I’ve been inspired. Just back from Coronado Beach, I still hear the echoes of the surf in my ears and I still feel the moist seaside sand crunching beneath my bare feet. Maybe I, too, could write a novel about family reunions in a beach house, the way that Woolf has. Most of Woolf’s best work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926. If I were to get to work on it now, the book might come out in time for the public’s rediscovery of To the Lighthouse, published in 1927. In that case, in the form of an homage, I could even imagine borrowing directly from the structure and choice phrases of Woolf herself, so that her genius could overtly rub off on my own attempts at fiction. I would welcome the influence. As Woolf once wrote, "I think writing, my writing, is a species of mediumship. I become the person."
After a long break from Woolf, I have been revived by returning to her fiction. I encourage you also to read To the Lighthouse or, another favorite, Mrs. Dalloway. Despite her recursive and esoteric 100-year-old prose, one need not be afraid of Virginia Woolf.
Thanks to all of you who support the ongoing remote Pub Quiz I host on Patreon. Here’s what one subscriber wrote me last week about the quiz: “[Team Name Redacted] in its current [Z]oom formation had 9 participants, including the Olympic Cottage contingent and me from Davis as well as my son in Reno, a [S]crabble buddy from Toronto, and a sister in Colorado. Thanks for giving us a safe way to socialize! We got 26 correct, so we would almost have been in the winners’ circle in auditing status of course.” I’m happy to contribute to the entertainment of sons in Reno and Scrabble buddies in Reno! So be like this lucky woman, who has subscribed to the Pub Quiz since we launched on Patreon, or like Branka, who just joined the mailing list yesterday!
P.S. Here are three questions from last week’s quiz:
Cities in San Diego County. Starting with the letter C, the second most-populous city in San Diego County is found equidistant between downtown San Diego and downtown Tijuana. Name it.
Pop Culture – Music. Of the five living individual performers who have sold over 250 million albums as individuals, the oldest released his first charted record in 1969. What is his name?
Sports. Of the six highest-scoring basketball players in NBA history, only number six was born overseas. Name him.
P.P.S. “It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.” Virginia Woolf