To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

A Search for the Meaning of Life – To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

To the Lighthouse (1927) tells the vacation of the Ramsays and their guests at the family’s summer house. There is really not much of plot summary to offer. It is two days divided by a decade concluding in a trip to the lighthouse. The absence of a surface plot is accounted by the rich interior lives of its characters: Lily Briscoe, Mr. Ramsay, and Mrs. Ramsay, the central character who held everyone together.

[Read in August 2011.]
[Reread in April and May 2014.]
[5 out of 5 stars.]

The characters are based on Virginia Woolf’s own parents. Woolf explained that she could not get over her mother who died when Woolf was thirteen. She set out to write this novel to lay down deep emotions, and this helped her to stop hearing and seeing her mother more often than not. In a particular perspective, it is an ode to her mother, but true to her original intentions, she wrote the novel with her ruminations on life and death.

A popular question discussed among the readers of this book is about its title. Why “To the Lighthouse”? Why not “The Lighthouse”? “To” implies a destination and a journey. Hence, “The Lighthouse” does not suffice because the novel is not merely about the place the characters will reach, which is a “tower, stark and straight” and “barred with black and white”. They embark on their own journeys in search for some meaning, some yearning, something that seems unattainable, like the lighthouse, always present in its nearly insurmountable distance.

The characters go through their respective journeys in the way that they know how, which depend on how they view life. Mr. Ramsay fears that all life is doomed to oblivion. Man may be able to work his way from A to Z. He may be able to produce the most illuminating scholarly works but even a stone would outlast his reputation. This frustrates him and explains most of his outbursts and the tensions among the family members, but there is Mrs. Ramsay, always there to offer the sympathy that he wants.

Mrs. Ramsay, however, does not care much for the future or for reputation. She values the present. She doesn’t want her children to grow old, she wants to make things as perfect as they are for the moment. She uses her gift in maintaining social harmony to meet this, to make moments last for as long as they could. She reads to her son James, she knits a stocking for the lighthouse keeper’s son, and she does so, she is observed by their house guest, the painter Lily Briscoe.

Lily Briscoe struggles with her artistry and the social conventions clashing against each other. The voice of a man repeatedly saying “Women can’t paint, women can’t write” drones like a bad headache. As if that were not enough, she can’t translate the fleeting visions that occur to her to paint and canvas. This would recur through the novel as she ponders on the purpose of art, wonders if art can truly keep a moment, marvels at the beauty of Mrs. Ramsay, and asks The Big Question:

What is the meaning of life? That was all–a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.

An important section of the novel is Time Passes, the middle part that has all the ten years between the postponement of the lighthouse trip and the real trip. As opposed to first and last parts, both written with much detail on the consciousness of every character, Time Passes relates the years with a detachment that seems to say that the war, the lives, the deaths, everything in this world, are inconsequential. Time may stretch to great lengths during painting sessions, a lively dinner, or the moment before sleeping, but it may also compact everything the world has ever cared for in a matter of pages. This dual nature of time, clocking so fast or so slow, is portrayed in such lush language that it is impossible to not at least stop and think about your own ticking clock.

The journey for the little daily miracles in this novel is never a smooth sailing. Woolf’s expansive use of the stream of consciousness narrative, of which this novel is considered to be a landmark, threatens to deflect the reader from the flow of the characters’ thoughts. It is easy to go astray, to get lost, or to drown, but when the matches are struck, they are, you will see, such illuminations, such visions.

[198 pages. Trade paperback. New.]

A Death in the Family by James Agee

A Child’s Perception of Death – A Death in the Family by James Agee

A Death in the Family (1957) explores the bliss of marital life and the tragedy of death through the points of view of the surviving wife and the little children. The author, James Agee, is a self-doubting alcoholic with three wives and four children. He died of a heart attack inside a cab before he finished this autobiographical novel. He had worked on it for seven years. After his death, editor David McDowell wanted to help his surviving family. Hence, the novel was edited, published, and received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.

[Read in May 2014.]
[4 out of 5 stars.]

It seems that the novel did not need a lot of editing. The simplicity of its beauty need not be marred by McDowell’s pen. There are parts that do not seem to fit within the plot and these were placed after each part of the novel in italics. It’s as if the editor didn’t want to lose these parts for their sheer lyrical power, so it would be better to let the readers experience them.

Rufus Follet, a sensitive boy not older than six, is the novel’s main protagonist. It is through his perceptions of his father’s death that we get the most compelling parts of the novel. What is it like to be dead? Why do people have to die? Where do people go after they die? These are some of the questions that he asks and processes with his innocence and little knowledge of the world. His mother, Mary Follet, explains the event to him with the help of religion. God has taken their father, Jay Follet, to heaven, and soon, they will all be together up there.

Such explanations are received with a child’s curiosity, one that leads to more questions that are more difficult to answer. Mary tries her best to help Rufus understand what is going on until she reaches the point of near vexation and uses her adult authority instead to put a finality to the child’s questionings. Rufus is left wondering what a concussion is and how to properly pronounce it, and he is a slightly disappointed that he cannot show his new cap to his father. Catherine, the three-year-old sister, asks Mary again why their father cannot come home. For Catherine, dead is something that doesn’t exist in the children’s universe.

With death comes religion. For Mary, religion is her balm to the overwhelming sadness that suddenly takes over her life. For some, religion is the answer to death-related questions. For others still, it is the bane of human reasoning. In discussing death, Agee allows the reader to reëxamine beliefs and faiths without the pomposity of a fanatic. It makes one read more slowly, to wonder and to muse.

There are raw emotions in this book. The first part of the novel is lovely in showing us the beginnings of a new family. Jay takes Rufus to a bar and prides himself in his boy’s ability to read at a young age. Jay asks Mary what she wants for her birthday. Jay drinks a little but sings his children to sleep when the nightmares descend upon their room:

And God knows he was lucky, so many ways, and God knows he was thankful. Everything was good and better than he could have hoped for, better than he ever deserved; only, whatever it was and however good it was, it wasn’t what you once had been, and had lost, and could never have again, and once in a while, once in a long time, you remembered, and knew how far you were away, and it hit you hard enough, that little while it lasted, to break your heart.

Jay Follet is a great man, and aren’t great men always taken away just a little too soon?

If, as a child, you have experienced such a death in your family, you will be amazed at how accurate Agee depicted the scenes. A child knows that there is something going on, that there is grief, that there is mourning, but what exactly are these? Why are the adults acting strangely? A child knows that a certain code of conduct must be followed during such an event, but why is it so important to accordingly? Why are they told off if they outside to play? A child knows when not to ask questions, but what are these adults talking about? What is the afterlife and what is a miracle?

This one is. Having read a novel that might not have made it to my shelf is nothing short of a miracle.

[318 pages. Mass market paperback. Secondhand.]

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

Comic Books Aren’t Trash – The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a novel that is set during the golden age of comic books. The eponymous heroes Kavalier and Clay team up to create their own series of comic books that features The Escapist, a superhero that has powers of escape and liberation. These superpowers are drawn from the creators’ own desires and fantasies to escape their own chains: Joe Kavalier wants to free his family in the Nazi-dominated Europe while Sammy Clay wants to free himself from the bigotry of the New York City of that decade. Written in a compelling language that manages both to be profound and geeky, this is one book that every comic book lover who has a knack for good writing should not miss.

Joe Kavalier meets his cousin Sammy Clay in the latter’s bedroom one night after he successfully escapes from Prague at the cusp of the WWII. This meeting allows the two to discover each other’s interest in magic tricks and drawing. Joe’s illustrating talent and Sam’s narrative gift allow them to convince the latter’s boss to invest on comics and introduce a new superhero to the already booming comic book history. With the boss’s nod, The Escapist is born.

And the adventures begin. But what else are borne out of this team up? What struggles and successes await the cousins? What does The Escapist mean to Kavalier and Clay? What are they escaping from?

The Escapist who reigned among the giants of the earth in 1941 was a different kind of man. He was serious, sometimes to a fault. His face was lean, his mouth set, and his eyes, through the holes in his head-scarf, were like cold iron rivets. Though the was strong, he was far from invulnerable. He could be knocked cold, bludgeoned, drowned, burned, beaten, shot. And his missions were just that–his business, fundamentally, was one of salvation. The early stories, for all their anti-fascist fisticuffs and screaming Stukas, are stories of orphans threatened, peasants abused, poor factory workers turned into slavering zombies by their arms-producer bosses. Even after the Escapist went to war, he spent as much time sticking up for the innocent victims of Europe as he spent as he did taking divots out of battleships with his fists. He shielded refugees and kept bombs from landing on babies. Whenever he busted a Nazi spy ring at work right here in the U.S.A. (the Saboteur’s, for example), he would deliver the speeches by which Sam Clay tried to help fight his cousin’s war, saying, for example, as he broke open yet another screw-nosed “armored mole” full of lunkish Germans who had been trying to dig under Fort Knox, “I wonder what that head-in-the-sand crowd of war ostriches would say if they could see this!” In his combination of earnestness, social conscience, and willingness to scrap, he was a perfect hero for 1941, as America went about the rumbling, laborious process of backing itself into a horrible war.

Every superhero has a tragic story hidden behind the mask or slipped under the tights. The novel, despite its lighthearted humor, does not forget to reveal this underlying tragedy. Joe, a survivor of the Holocaust, carries a deep remorse for merely surviving, as if it were a grave sin to survive. The Escapist, with his uppercuts connecting to the jaws of Joe’s illustrated version of Hitler, and his general anti-Nazi propaganda in his comic book battles and adventures, help him earn a lot of money, money which he puts away to take his family away from the impending war in Europe.

But it’s not enough. It is frustrating not to be able to get something when you have the money to pay for it. Not even The Escapist can help him and his family escape. So as a result of the rage that is built up within him and that is caused by the world events that the Jews are suffering from, he goes out attacking anything that is remotely German, which is something that almost leads him to self-destruction.

Sam, on the other hand, has to deal with his sexuality. He realizes that he is not like most men are, that he is someone whom people in those days would call a fairy. This slow realization is consummated at the height of his career not without the disdainful attitude of bigoted people towards homosexuals and the almost unbearable pain of letting go of a love that is deemed forbidden.

Appearances from various big men in the comic book industry are interspersed in the novel with gusto, and such stuff is something that will be relished by the comic book fan as if it were the definitive source of the industry’s history. The reader is also given some insight on the ins and outs of this industry, particularly the heydays that are often accompanied with the ruthlessness quietly unleashed by the big people behind it.

There is also the myth of the golem, an artifact created by a rabbi centuries ago that is believed to save the Jews from its oppressors. But will this giant made out of mud actually bring deliverance to the Jews from the Holocaust, or will it just remain forever hidden and send signals to people in distress to help them escape or, more importantly, find personal freedom?

There is geekdom. There is magic. There is artistry. There is pop culture and world history. There is fame and heartbreak. These are the amazing adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

Dates Read: March 3 to 12, 2012

No. of Pages: 639

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Smaller and Smaller Circles by F. H. Batacan

Serial Mysteries – Smaller and Smaller Circles by F. H. Batacan

Smaller and Smaller Circles is a mystery novel that revolves around two Jesuit priests, Father Gus Saenz and Father Jerome Lucero, investigating a series of killings at the Payatas dumpsite, a popular one in the Philippines. Having a background in forensic anthropology, the two priests are tapped by the men of the National Bureau of Investigation to assist them in capturing the killer who cleanly rips off the faces and hearts of preteen boys living at the dumpsite. Soon enough, the matter is put wholly into the priests’ hands. With the aid of the meddlesome yet resourceful reporter Joanna Bonifacio, the priests are able to find out who the serial killer is despite the inefficiency of the government’s main crime investigation body.

It was not without a little trepidation that I started this novel. I want to like it. In fact, I want to fall in love with it because it’s a popular contemporary novel by a fellow Filipino writer. It won a slew of awards and has gone on further to become both a best-selling and literary sensation. However, I am not into mystery-slash-crime novels.

I haven’t read a lot of novels branded as such. The only one that I can think of right now is Diane Hoh’s The Fever, a mystery about a teenage girl whose fever won’t die. That was eons ago. It was stashed in one of the cabinets at my grandma’s house. I don’t know who owns it but that doesn’t matter. I stumbled upon while I was looking for something, so I read it and I did so at a furious pace. Yeah, I enjoyed reading it. I mean, I was always amazed when the clues leading to the planned killing were found out by the main character mostly because I was a gullible and unsuspecting reader with no criminal instinct.

And after reading it, I put it back at the cabinet. It was fun, but it felt like munching on empty calories. Well, what did I expect? It was not supposed to teach me a Big Lesson about Life, right? It was just supposed to thrill and entertain me during those dog days at my grandma’s house. So yeah, after that, I didn’t go after mystery novels.

However, this is supposed to be different because it’s a literary-slash-mystery-slash-crime novel. The first page of my copy even has a quote from Nietzsche. Like whoa, I did not expect that, but I didn’t really bother to link it to the novel. I just read it, and yeah, I did so at a furious pace.

It’s depressing to read the papers or to watch the news. Everyday something bad happens–a bank gets robbed, a war breaks out, a child gets raped–and nobody can do anything about it. Not the police, not the press. Not the mothers and fathers, not the lawyers or the priests.

We are all powerless in the face of evil.

No, no, that’s not true. We are powerless while we wait for other people to act in our behalf.

Yes, that’s it. The truly powerful man is the man who stands alone.

The novel offers the murderer’s point-of-view in the first person, relating to the reader the thoughts that he or she has. The thoughts often juxtapose with the plot driven by the characters’ roundabout way of investigating, complete with the government officials’ bribery and the mass media’s sensationalist manner of reporting. Through these, one could glean that the murderer is just nearby. And maybe just after passing through the middle part of the novel, the identity of this murderer is revealed. So what’s the point? This is supposed to be a mystery novel and yet, why is the Big Mystery revealed at such an early point?

Perhaps that is not the point of the novel. A mystery novel that is so easy on giving away clues (yes, I detected them despite my being a gullible and unsuspecting reader) must have another mystery going on, no? Perhaps one of those mysteries is one of my shallow complaints: why do the main characters have to be Jesuit priests? Why can’t they be just merely forensic anthropologists? I find this part really pretentious (and I’ve been avoiding the use of this word) and really, nothing would have changed anyway whether they were priests or not.

Or perhaps the mystery is the NBI’s lack of resources to hunt down a serial killer. Really, that is not a mystery, but think about it: why two priests instead of a whole armada of policemen and NBI agents? Are there any known serial killings in the Philippines? Have they never experienced cracking down a case as this?

Or perhaps the mystery is how the reporter and the head investigator got to where they are. Why does the former have a lot of power over other people (and why could she speak four languages so fluently)? Why is the latter at such a position if he’s not fit for it?

Or perhaps the mystery is the serial killer’s past, who is both a murderer and a victim. Who is to be blamed for his or her end? The parents? The school? The thing that happened to the murderer when he or she was young? The society at large? The murderer alone?

Or perhaps the mystery is the source of evil in local society. Is it the luxurious lives of the Jesuit priests, or at least one of them? Is it the government’s lassitude and helplessness? Is it the media’s need for big scoops and ratings? Is it the vengeful heart of the murderer? Is it the squalid and dirty place where the victims live? Is it the place? Is it the people? Is it us?

And perhaps I should have given this the credit that it is due. This is a required reading in some local universities. However, just like the first mystery-slash-crime novel that I read, it felt to me like empty calories, although it is not at all empty. It is actually provocative, hence, all the questions posed above. But I am all too familiar with this circular way of crime-solving;  it’s something that I’ve seen vicariously, it’s something that I’ve indirectly experienced. And the whole thing is just not my cup of tea.

Dates Read: May 12 to 13, 2013

No. of Pages: 155

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Ulverton by Adam Thorpe

Hear the Voice of the Dead – Ulverton by Adam Thorpe

Ulverton is a novel composed of a dozen short stories bound together by the history of the fictional village Ulverton. The stories are ordered chronologically, from 1650 to 1988, and these stories are told in different styles and different points of view. It’s a pastiche made of a traditional short story, a sermon, a journal, a series of literate letters, a series of illiterate letters, a bar story, a set of photographic plates, a one-way conversation, and a movie script. Some characters are mentioned from story to story, particularly the characters in the older stories, but these characters are less important than the place itself because Ulverton is the main character of the novel.

I was merely looking for a good translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary when I stumbled upon an article that tells of Adam Thorpe’s new rendition of the said novel despite the recent one that Lydia Davis did. In that article is also the news of the recent inclusion of Thorpe’s first novel, Ulverton, in the illustrious Vintage Classics. This made me wonder because how could a novel that is younger than me become a classic only after twenty years. My curiosity was piqued further with the rare but magnificent reviews that I read, so I ordered a copy online.

I’ve read something that is similar to the novel’s form and structure, and something that presents us with a connected disconnectedness. But here is something that tells us the story and the character of a village. From Ulverton to Ulver to Ulverdon to Ulvoton to Ullverton to Vulverton and back to Ulverton, we read of its vaguely remembered folktales, its farming techniques, its part in the industrial revolution, its barns and brooks and idyllic landscape, its grand sweep of history dating back to the 17th century, and its persistence to stay alive in the face of forces that threaten to change it.

But no one spoke, that was true. It was like they were listening for the right way, like in church over the rustle of skirts and  a child’s coughing and the babies. Listening for the Word that would tell them the right way. As I was listening with the wood of the shutter dark with soot against my cheek. And I think now that over the cold and the wind came the voice that told them, but it was not God’s voice, and Gabby never heard.

Reading through the stories, one will realize that people view historical events differently. The loneliness of an adulteress in the 17th century is remembered as the mark of a witch in the succeeding century. That unrecorded piece of event in this village haunts the town like a gust of wind filled with whispers that resonate the sadness of the woman. The story of this woman pervade some of the stories, and though she left an indelible mark that is not quite the truth, it speaks volumes about how our actions can affect people and their perceptions at a given stretch of time.

That our piety is no longer snug with companions.
That we are spaced so, like scattered candles in the dark.
That we are cold.

The novel features stories about the radical lower classes and the elite upper classes, and it is admirable how Thorpe captures the voices of the people from different classes, considering that the stories have to match the period of time when each of them occurred. One may even feel that this may have been written by a number of writers because all stories barely have a trace of Thorpe. That means some of them need a lot of work to be understood, particularly one chapter that is 20 pages of streaming consciousness in the style of Molly’s soliloquy, the last chapter of Ulysses by James Joyce, which Thorpe admitted to imitate. And according to Thorpe, what is reading if the reader doesn’t try to do a little work?

I hardly understood that chapter, and when I finally got over it and warded off a threatening headache, I proceeded to the next chapter only to feel a sense of jagged transition, which I found weird because the stories do not have a direct relationship with each other in terms of plot. And yet, why did I feel that way?

It’s because the connections are sublime. Perhaps this is what Hilary Mantel means when she says that reading this is like hearing the voice of the dead. One doesn’t need to connect the dots when reading the novel, although one cannot help from ooh-ing and aah-ing when some connections are made. These overt connections are actually the weaker ones because the stronger ones are so subtle that they are left unsaid. They can only be sensed through the kind of reading where the reader lets the words sink in without trying so hard at instantly decoding them. The understanding will not come immediately, but it will come soon.

[Those ribbons looked so tattered and pale and torn it was sad, like he had pulled out his own heart. Even his fierceness was not that of love but, as I think, of anguish.]

In the first nonpastiche story, a soldier comes home with ribbons and whatnot for his wife. In the last story, land developers unearth a skeleton with ribbons and whatnot held close to the sternum by what remains of the hand. If that just made you sigh, read this. But there’s more to this skeleton than that. Just read it to find out.

Dates Read: April 1 to 18, 2013

No. of Pages: 415

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars