This Is Why We Read "To the Lighthouse"
In the bookstore I'm hunting for old Stephen King. A hunger came over me: I want to see that moment when things go wrong. I don't care how he works it out -- I'll probably stop reading halfway through -- but I love how he erodes the world. And it's not even about being scared. It's about being suspicious; it's about recognizing when something large passes behind the backdrop.
I've been waiting three months for an answer, and I know how this works: third time's the charm. You need to know the name of the little gnome, you need to keep what the old ladies give you, you need to be kind to the bridge as you pass; you need to pretend the world's not yours so that it can be, later, when it counts. Well I've been good, clouds, earth, powers that be; I've kept my hands to myself and my little home neat. Where's my beloved? Where's my key? Where's my kingdom?
What are you reading? The Metaphysicals, Mikhail Shishkin's Maidenhair, magazines; rereading poets near and far, wondering what they mean. As close as I am to poetry, I've never been to the manner born, and sometimes I feel -- how should I put this? -- dense, emotionally thick, perhaps, unable to assimilate someone else's subtler state of mind. Maybe that's why I want horror now: can't miss the thick paste of that prose. But no, it's something else -- it's nostalgia.
The world King erodes, in his early novels, is one I came from and yet don't know: the sixties, the seventies, but especially the late seventies and the early eighties. King has a special flair for brand names, clothes, cars, how people talk, how they do their hair, how they make love (that's what they do, you know; they don't fuck); he's an ace scene dresser. And to watch this scene that I was born into shimmer, to watch it ruck and tear at the edges, to watch it crumble -- what an apocalyptic pleasure.
A discovery: among the barista magazines, I see To the Lighthouse on the table at the coffee shop. But -- it's my own old copy, with my notes in it, the one I lost I don't know when, in a move, in the division of assets, years ago. I caress the cover. I remember when I bought this: on my way back from Prague, in a stop-off in London, I went down to Strand Street and bought this and some other books from the huge displays of Wordsworth Classics, a pound apiece. I'd just fallen in love for the first time, and he must have recommended To the Lighthouse, because I remember how I went for it, like it was already mine and it wanted me too. I started reading it later that night, sitting alone at a little table in the hip London hostel where I was staying, taking no advantage of my surroundings, of the assorted Swedes and Aussies and Austrians ready to play. And I haven't read the book since that summer. You know how it can be: you read it once, you remember it as perfect, and you don't want to go back.
But this must be my answer. I turn the pages: Mrs. Ramsay, the rich cast of relations and friends, Mr. Ramsay headed "on to R," flickering blushing Woolfian perceptions ("when all at once he realized it was this: it was this: -- she was the most beautiful person he had ever seen"), all that and my own notes. This was what, ten years ago? More. Who was it who questioned Woolf's choice of "barren and bare," noting "I'm not sure of this"? Who was it who, pages later, murmured "Indeed," and later, as if she would always be here, always reading this, "This is why we read To the Lighthouse"?
I take it home. Easy; it's a slim novel, especially in this cheap edition. Slip it into my bag, go out into dusk, not saying goodbye to anyone; my nodding acquaintances have turned their heads, bobbing with whatever's in their headphones.
At home, I remember something about my copy: there's an error. In the book's second section, in the silent passage of years, all readers will remember the crucial parenthesis in which the book's seeming main character, Mrs. Ramsay, dies:
[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]
But my copy read—yes, here it is:
[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, he stretched his arms out. They remained empty.]
I've remembered this for years and thought it must be a reprint at the margin, something like that. But now that I can see it again, it's clear it's no such thing.
I take to the Internet -- where I learn that my copy is not in error: it's the British edition rather than the simultaneous, yet different American edition. In fact, the sentence is a crux: Woolf's intentions for it, one critic laments, are still unknown.
It's a thunderbolt to me. I've remembered this sentence for years -- wrongly, I thought -- remembered its rupture, its causal loop -- he stretches his arms out, but she's dead, so he stretches his arms out -- a break in time, a hitch, a little eternity in which she is...
Drinking my glass of wine, alone, I'm not alone. I'm with whatever interruption brought this strange sentence into being, whether a printer's error, a slip of the pen, or Woolf herself, leaping the gap.
You're always living among the signs of something larger.