Tuesday, October 18, 2011

To the Lighthouse, Woolf

To the Lighthouse
Virginia Woolf

“No, the other was the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too.”

            The essence of the book is that everything one thinks, feels, and sees is real, at least for that moment. One wants to sum the book up with some definite truths – either there is connection among people, or there is not connection among people and we all, as Mr. Ramsay says, “perish, each alone.” Come on, Woolf, make up your mind already! a reviewer might be inclined to shout. But the flashing in and out is, of course, the point. Can people connect, the book asks? Yes. When, how? Seldom, it answers; the how changes all the time.
            The book has three parts: The Window, Time Passes, and The Lighthouse. The first sets the scene of the Ramsay family at what might be considered the height, or heyday of their communal happiness. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are staying at their house at the seaside along with their eight children and several family friends. Though the story comes to us primarily through the consciousness of Mrs. Ramsay, the thoughts of a few of the children and several of the guests are also conveyed. The overall impression is of a cozy life of pleasure, marred by only fleeting disturbances of emotion.  
In the Time Passes section we are told, in small, bracketed paragraphs, that Mrs. Ramsay and two of her children have passed away in separate incidents. The beautiful and melancholic descriptions of nature, light and shadows here reminded me a little of Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson, which I have reviewed on this blog before.
Finally, in The Lighthouse, a few of the family members – Mr. Ramsay and two of his children – and two of the guests return to the seaside house. This section is primarily told through the still (happily) unmarried painter, Lily Briscoe.
            “Was there no safety? No learning by heart the ways of the world? No guide, no shelter, but all was miracle, and leaping from the pinnacle of a tower into the air? Could it be, even for elderly people, that this was life? – startling, unexpected, unknown?” 
            These thoughts of Lily’s hint at one of the central themes of this book, and of all of Woolf’s fiction – Time. How do we, and how do others, change? Why does everything always change? Perhaps most importantly, what remains? All of the characters in To the Lighthouse ask themselves these questions in different ways. What they do not do, however, is ask each other. This brings us to the next most important theme in the book – Connection. Everyone here seeks connection with others, and all find moments of it. For no one, though, does this sense of connection to humanity last longer than a few brief, blissful moments. This remains true. The characters’ understanding and acceptance of that truth changes.
            All of the typical Woolf elements are here: waves, the seaside, rocks, light, shadows, parties, artist characters. And, as I said, so are her usual preoccupations – Time and Connection. It’s tempting to judge a writer, such as Woolf (or Robbins, or Auster, or Austen, or Huxley, etc etc) for getting stuck on a theme or a particular set of questions. We could dismiss these writers as “one trick ponies,” but I contend that in so doing we would miss out on each of their beautiful attempts to convey what haunts and inspires them.

            What do you think? If a writer always comes back to the same themes, do you get bored? Do you stop buying their next books? Or do you find that you love their voice, style and particular way of looking at the world so much that you don’t mind the repetition, instead enjoying journeying along with them on a new, slightly different foray into their obsessions?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Our Man in Havana, Greene

Our Man in Havana
Graham Greene

“There are many countries in our blood, aren’t there, but only one person. Would the world be in the mess it is if we were loyal to love and not to countries?”

            What I like about Graham Greene’s novels is the flavor of exotic locals, that sense of armchair travel to foreign times and places. Greene really did travel to and live in the places he writes about, and he is more than willing to divulge the bad along with the good, conveying settings that seem real precisely because of their confusing mix of beautiful scenery and repulsive humanity. Since I, too, am a lover of world travel and have spent time living outside my home country, I also appreciate that Greene doesn’t varnish the truth of what ex-pats are like abroad. He paints us in all our drunk, detached, sentimental glory, and explores, albeit in an offhand, sardonic way, our reasons for leaving, for staying away, and for every step in between.
            Our Man in Havana follows Wormold, a (horrendously named) English vacuum cleaner salesman in Havana. Wormold’s wife left him long ago and he has had to raise his now-teenage daughter, Milly, by himself. This plot twist allows Greene to show that Wormold is a better guy than many we’ve encountered in the stories of other British humorists. He’s not just trying to get along for his own sake, but for his daughter’s, who he raises Catholic in spite of not being a Catholic himself (his wife was). Concerned with mustering enough wealth to provide for his daughter, who has expensive tastes, Wormold accepts a position as a spy with a British intelligence agency when an agent from the London office somewhat randomly offers him a job in a bar bathroom. Of course, he has no idea of how to be a spy, so he makes up stories and invents fake agents, whose salary and expenses he then collects. It’s fraud, yes, but the reader feels more sympathetic twoards the meek and unassuming Wormold than the “intelligence” agency. This is not surprising considering Greene’s depictions of the men at the top in his “Interlude in London” sections: “Hawthorne, I believe we may be on to something so big that the H-bomb will become a conventional weapon.” “Is that desirable, sir?” “Of course it’s desirable. Nobody worries about conventional weapons.”
            The ideas and questions Greene raises in this novel are interesting, but the way he raises them is often so heavy-handed that one loses the sense of discovering something for oneself. There is hardly a question of meaning here: Greene lets us know what we are supposed to think. “A family-feud had been a better reason for murder than patriotism or the preference for one economic system over another. If I love or if I hate let me love or hate as an individual. I will not be 59200/5 in anyone’s global war.” What our countries do should not define us as individuals, even though that’s exactly what they hope to achieve, subsuming our individuality in order to bend it to their own purposes. We may be tempted or conditioned to believe that our countrymen and women are closer to us than people from other cultures but, as Wormold finds out, it doesn’t matter where someone comes from, it’s what they do and how they live that counts.
            Greene’s books are short, quick reads that transport you to another time and place without ever leaving dear old England very far behind. I enjoy traveling to these places with Greene and I will continue to do so, even though I know I’ll have to look further to move beyond the important but somewhat basic idea that England just doesn’t have all the answers.