I'm seriously hoping others feel as I do when they first read a Virginia Woolf novel...very confused verging on completely at sea.
I seem to have no bearings, no signposts and I muddle on through feeling mildly shipwrecked, desperate for some bit of passing flotsam to cling onto.
In the back of my mind always that pressure that Virginia seems to exert invisibly...everyone else adores one, understands one, knows EXACTLY what one is doing, so sad that you fail to see it.
Over the years I've learnt not to panic because eventually I will see it.
It took five long rounds with Mrs Dalloway before I suddenly realised that I loved the book and I think it may take at least that many trips To the Lighthouse before I'm getting it.
It was actually Margaret Atwood who got me into this mess but also helpfully and reassuringly out of it again. I was browsing through her fabulous book Writing With Intent : Essays, Reviews, Personal Prose 1983-2005 and noticed a piece on To the Lighthouse. I didn't read it, just impulsively thought it would be good to read some Virginia and then I'd see what Peggy thought, and anyway my edition was that lovely Oxford World's Classics with the mesmerising cover painting, part of Dame Laura Knight's At the Edge of the Cliff.
I wanted to pick it up there and then.
You have to see a Dame Laura Knight picture for real to truly appreciate the depths of ultramarine that she uses for the sea in her paintings, it must be the purest essence of lapis lazuli ever to grace a paint brush and so I was perfectly in the mood for To the Lighthouse as I set off.
Rapidly bemused but little shafts of brilliance were penetrating the fog and here's what the 19 year-old Peggy thought,
'Why go to the lighthouse at all, and why make such a fuss about going or not going?
What was the book about? Why was everyone so stuck on Mrs Ramsay, who went around in floppy old hats and fooled around in her garden, and indulged her husband with spoonfuls of tactful acquiescence...why would anyone put up with Mr Ramsay, that Tennyson-quoting tyrant, eccentric disappointed genius though he might be? '
Well quite, the young Peggy and the older me are in accord again,
'In Woolfland, things were so tenuous. They were so elusive. They were so inconclusive. They were so deeply unfathomable.'
The light is a bit intermittent here too at the moment so I have paused my reading to give time to reflect, in fact I'm almost dashed on the rocks but for the fact that Mrs Ramsay is a knitter of 'reddish-brown hairy stockings' and we knitters must stick together. There's something significant in there I'm sure, knitting round and round, row after row, and turning to Volume III of Virginia's diaries (remember that hardback set bought for £1 each at a book sale?) I was hoping for some authorial enlightenment,
' 27th June 1925...the sea is to be heard all the way through it...'
' 20th July 1925...I think though that when I begin it I shall enrich it in all sorts of ways; thicken it; give it branches & roots which I do not perceive now...'
' 8th February 1926...I am rather tired, a little tired, from having thought too much about To the Lighthouse. Never never have I written so easily, imagined so profusely. Murry says my works won't be read in 10 years time...I am now writing as fast & as freely as I have written in the whole of my life; more so - 20 times more so - than any novel yet. I think this is proof that I was on the right path; & that what fruit hangs in my soul is to be reached there.'
' 21st March 1927...Dear me, how lovely some parts of The Lighthouse are ! Soft & pliable, & I think very deep, & never a word wrong for a page at a time. This I feel about the dinner party, & the children in the boat; but not of Lily on the lawn. That I do not much like. But I like the end.'
On her second read 43 years later Margaret Atwood saw the light,
' How was it that this time, everything in the book fell so completely into place? How could I have missed it - above all the patterns, the artistry- first time through... the way time passes over everything like a cloud, and solid objects flicker and dissolve...some books just have to wait until you're ready for them.'
I should know by now that I can't read a book by Virginia Woolf in the same way that I may read any other book. This is truly reflective reading, little instalments which plant seeds of brilliant word-thought long after the page is turned, and in this case the on-off beam of the lighthouse lamp feels like a constant and perfectly regulated shaft of light alternating with darkness throughout the book and I'm starting to 'get it'.
In fact I think I'm ready to set off To the Lighthouse again now.
This may all take weeks but hopefully not 43 years.