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Two novels in which nothing happens.
on 19 December 2012
Virginia Woolf is a novelist you grow into. To the immature reader, these two books are interminably dull (for all their brevity) with their endless descriptions of everyday banalities and the ruminations of their main characters over memories and possibilities. To the mature reader, they throb with the richness of life experienced in almost unbearable intensity. Read Woolf and you will never again be bored, never feel life has nothing to offer. She teaches you to feel, to see and to understand with a nearly painful sensitivity. They are not, whatever is often assumed, women's books. They ARE books which assume you will look beneath the surface, resist the superficial attraction of action and excitement, and be ready to experience the lives of fictional characters, learn from them and gain wisdom as if you had lived yourself their whole lives in addition to your own.
Both books, though very different in other ways, explore the way memory, emotion and experience in the present mingle in our flow of thought. The two central characters are about the same age. In "To the Lighthouse", events are spread over decades; the latter part of the book looks back with the longing and regret of later life at youth and the everyday tragedy of parents who have died. In "Mrs Dalloway", everything happens in one day in the June of 1923 (Woolf's "Bloomsday"), and the novel flits from the central character to others she encounters at home and walking through London, weaving their different impressions and reminiscences into a seamless cobweb of feeling. They make a good pair.
Do not go into these books at a pace, waiting for the "best bits". Take them slowly and meditatively. You may, after all that, hate them - taste is very personal. But if you give them a chance to talk to you, and find you can "get" Woolf's way of telling, you'll be imeasurably enriched. Woolf is often thought of as a women's writer, and this is a mistake. She is a writer for anyone thoughtful, contemplative and alive to the complexities of human experience, of whatever gender. I would suspect, however, that she is a writer who you will appreciate more as you get older, and I would not be surprised to find that young students are often irritated by her.