Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather (1927) 212 p.

Death Comes for the Archbishop. That’s a heavy title: it sounds like an ominous proclamation, something whispered by monks in the hallways of a remote monastery, or the last sentence in the scrolling text at the beginning of a Gothic fantasy movie. In my mind it summons up the image of a skeletal spectre stalking through the night, coming to reap a soul. The Archbishop has sinned, yea, and he shall face the ultimate reckoning. But Death Comes for the Archbishop is actually nothing like that at all – it’s a wonderful, beautiful, heart-warming novel. Death does indeed come for Father Jean Marie Latour, Willa Cather’s fictionalised version of Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy. But death comes for us all, in time. We can only hope that our lives have been worth the living.

Father Latour’s certainly is. In 1851 he is a humble young priest in Ohio, surprised to learn that he has been reassigned as bishop for a fledgling diocese in the newly-acquired American territory of New Mexico; or, as a priest in Italy puts it, a land of “countless canyons and arroyos,” a harsh country which will “drink up his youth and strength as it does the rain.” But Father Latour is a devout Catholic and a faithful servant of the Church, and he loyally sets forth into this strange new land which will become his home for the rest of his life.

Cather was not a Catholic, and was largely renowned as a writer of stories set in the American West rather than anything overtly religious. Death Comes for the Archbishop is not so much a Catholic novel – although it certainly touches on matters of faith and God – as it is a story about the intersection of different cultures, of Native Americans and European Americans and Mexicans mixing together on the frontier of a new society, of the relationships and friendships formed over the course of one man’s long life. There is no plot, no structure; Death Comes for the Archbishop is a series of vignettes and notable experiences over the course of many years, just as any life is. When Father Latour dies at the conclusion of the novel, as indeed he must, it’s without any sense of loss or sadness. We only hope that we, too, might life a life as rich and satisfying as his.

Cather’s prose is excellent. It’s too early for me to tell whether it’s the kind that will grow stronger in my mind as time goes by, or whether her writing is the sort that breathes joy and colour in its own moment, like a lived experience, and then fades into memory. All I know is that as I read it, I had no doubt I was witnessing a great artist in action. Death Comes for the Archbishop is small and simple, yet refined and beautiful – like a poem or a tapestry or a stained glass window. One of the best books I’ve read this year.

In those days, even in European countries, death had a solemn social importance. It was not regarded as a moment when certain bodily organs ceased to function, but as a dramatic climax, a moment when the soul made its entrance into the next world, passing in full consciousness through a lowly door to an unimaginable scene. Among the watchers there was always the hope that the dying man might reveal something of what he alone could see; that his countenance, if not his lips, would speak, and on his features would fall some great light or shadow from beyond. The “Last Words” of great men, Napoleon, Lord Byron, were still printed in gift-books, and the dying murmurs of every common man or woman were listened for and treasured by their neighbours and kinsfolk. These sayings, no matter how unimportant, were given oracular significance and pondered by those who must one day go the same road.

– From “Death Comes for the Archbishop,” by Willa Cather

london

Kristie and I have left London. I meant to post this a while ago, but we’re travelling through Europe on the way home and amidst all the last-minute planning it fell by the wayside. We’re currently in a sunburnt little village somewhere in the cicada-droning scrubland of Andalucia, which reminds me strongly of Perth.

Leaving London in July fairly neatly marked our time there as a year, or just over that, although we decided that we’d leave this summer back around Christmastime, or about halfway through our time there. There’s no one reason for leaving, just as there was no one reason for going there in the first place. We went there partly from a desire to live and work in Europe, partly from an urge to seek work in the publishing and writing field in a larger job market than Australia offered, and partly because we (or at least I) had a need to do some more uprooting and travelling while still young, before settling down. On the work front I had absolutely no success, and spent the entire year doing the same job for the same company I worked for in Melbourne. It was certainly more lucrative than a lot of other jobs would have been, but also deeply antisocial, since I spent most of the day sealed inside a soundproof booth, and it didn’t exactly made me feel like I’d made a worthwhile career move. Kristie, on the other hand, was successful in landing a job as an editorial assistant at a publishing house – but she ended up hating it, because it was mostly admin drudgery.

It’s probably not a coincidence that we made the decision to leave during the depths of winter. It was actually a little sad to leave during summer, when everybody is keen to do things, to go out and get drinks and have dinner and soak up the sun, instead of trudging home from work in the freezing dark and pulling the covers over their heads until morning. Seasonal affective disorder was undoubtedly in play. But even at the height of summer, I think we both preferred our old lives, and our friends back home.

There are aspects of England that I’ll miss. The sense of history and heritage, and the ability to travel only a few hours and be in a wonderful town or city that you’ve barely ever heard of, both within England and abroad in Europe. We’ve had some wonderful weekend breaks here, and I’ve learnt more than ever (and this is a sentiment that leaked into my brain when I first properly visited Sydney while reading Oscar & Lucinda) that cities are so much more than dots on a map or letters in a word or photos on Google image search: they all have their own smells, their own flavours, their own character. Paris is not just a French version of London: it’s an achingly beautiful city of splendid architecture, possibly the only large beautiful city in the world, which curiously enough always looks very dull and generic on film. Stockholm is not just the capital of Sweden and the place where Stockholm Syndrome comes from: it’s an ancient maritime trading city spread across hundreds of islands, with gaily-painted houses, in the cold blue light of midwinter, the sun sinking beyond the ocean at half past three. Barcelona is not just the second-biggest city in Spain: it’s the capital of the distinct Catalonian region, with a baroque Gothic old quarter, and an artistic scene and ease with its status as second city that reminded me of Melbourne.

I’ve enjoyed my time scratching the surface of Europe, and regret that I will not spend my life in a place that has hundreds of worthy cities within a $150 return flight. But it’s also telling that my favourite memories of London are the times I spent outside it. I should mention that I quite like Britain itself. I’ve enjoyed my time rowing a boat in Stratford-upon-Avon, wandering the canals in Cambridge, tramping about the Chilterns, drinking tins of convenience store beer on the pebbly beach at Brighton at sunset. I just don’t like London.

It’s indisputably a grand old city. It’s big, it’s powerful, it’s second only to New York as the nexus of the human universe. (And I will miss that – that feeling of hustle and bustle and importance, the sense that you might not matter but the place you live does, an extended sequel to the feeling I had when I moved from Australia’s west coast to its east coast.) London was a great place to live once, and perhaps it will be again. But at this point in its history, on financial terms alone, London is not a good place for ordinary people to live. I was sick of flicking through Time Out and looking at all the awesome shit happening that I couldn’t afford to do. I was sick of living precariously, saving nothing, being ripped off on literally everything from housing to food to transport. When it came down to it, my day-to-day lived experience was far, far better back home than it was in London.

And beyond that, I think maybe big cities aren’t for me. We lived on the edge of Zone 1 because I was determined to live as close to the heart of the city as possible, without realising that this was a hangover from my university days in the suburbs of Perth, when I vowed to be quit of a such a dull and quiet place. 26 is hardly old age, but I quickly grew weary of the soot and the sirens and the screaming outside my bedroom window every night. I don’t want to move back to the Ballardian suburbs of Perth, but jeez, there’s a healthy middle ground. (It’s called Melbourne.)

Among the many things I learned living in London, mind you, was that it’s utterly impossible for anybody to objectively judge any city, ever. I will happily het my blood up and stride into the comments section whenever the Guardian publishes an article about the merits or disadvantages of Perth or Melbourne or London. But the truth is, the circumstances of your life are influenced by far more than the objective qualities of the town or city you live in. I moved to London and did not find success: I paid extortionate rent to live in a shitty neighbourhood in the East End, commuting clean across the city for an hour each way to work at the same dead-end job as I did back home, but for $12,000 AUD less per year. In an alternate universe, perhaps I landed a dream job with a publishing company. Perhaps I worked for a cool magazine in Bloomsbury with a generous paycheque and a clear path for progression in my career. Perhaps I lived in Hampstead, and only had a twenty-minute commute. Perhaps I earned 25,000 pounds a year and regularly hung out with a tight circle of friends at a charming Old World pub like in a Richard Curtis film.

That’s stupid, but you see what I mean – if things had gone a different way in London I very well could have had a brighter opinion of it. Conversely, if things had gone differently in Melbourne, I might not love it as I do. Your opinion of a city is coloured largely by your circumstances within it. I’ve met many people in London who hate living there but do so for the career opportunities; also several who only live there because all their friends moved there after university, so if they moved to a smaller city they’d have no social life. I’m glad, I must say, that Australia has two large and equally competitive cities, instead of one monstrous beast squatting in the corner which sucks up all the talent and energy.

Anyway, cities are big and complex and contain multitudes. I can fairly and truthfully say that I believe London is a grand, pulsating, fascinating and important world city, and also a polluted garbage pile which erupts from the skin of England like a cancerous mole.

So we’ve left. Maybe I’ll be back one day; who knows what might happen in life?

I’ll miss: Hampstead Heath, The Holly Bush, The Spaniards, Gordon’s Wine Bar, the Idea Store on Whitechapel Road, northern hemisphere seasons properly aligning with the months that popular culture has led me to expect from childhood, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer, a sense of history and heritage, proximity to Europe, passenger trains in all directions to the countryside (and the best train network in the Western world, despite what the British think), the book market under Waterloo Bridge, the West End plays and musicals, the way that landmarks like the Shard or Big Ben have a way of creeping into your view down the edge of a street, the National Gallery, the Word on the Water, Galaxy chocolate, the Ship and Shovel, Foyle’s and Hatchard’s and the Piccadilly Watermark’s, broadcasters which actually commit themselves to ethnic diversity on the TV screen, the endless parade of human life that is the London Underground, the feeling of sheer joy when the long winter is over and spring begins to bloom, frozen puddles and the constant hope of snow in winter, English Christmas, Halloween.

I won’t miss: the depressing manner in which the streets have become a scrolling cartoon backdrop of the same Pret/Boots/EAT/Tesco outlets, overcrowded and sweltering tube rides with your face in a stranger’s armpit, paying 500 quid a week for a room the size of a prison cell in a house with five other people in London’s poorest neighbourhood, a failing and weirdly authoritarian healthcare system, the summer pollen count, the horrendous tabloid newspapers, David Cameron’s punchable face, the pervasiveness of the world’s dullest sport, dickheads high on ecstasy on the Central line on Saturday night trying to engage people in conversation, people getting stabbed outside my bedroom window at 3:00am, not being able to afford a motorcycle, constantly being accosted by homeless panhandlers and ignoring the twisting feeling in your gut which tells you that you’re only a few paycheques away from ending up like them, London’s horribly bleak yet frustratingly snowless winters, the worst air pollution in the EU, diesel fumes seeping through my bedroom window from a truck idling outside for twenty minutes, the infuriatingly slow walking speed of the average London pedestrian especially in the tube, endless fucking ear-splitting sirens, stifling summer heat which happens every year and yet nowhere has air conditioning because they don’t think it gets hot (which to be fair is much like Australian cities not having central heating because they don’t think it gets cold), and – more than anything else – a persistent sense of instability, of endlessly treading water and living paycheque to paycheque, knowing that in fiscal terms, like in so many others, you are going nowhere in life.

It has been an educational year. I don’t regret it, but I’m glad it’s over. All my memories get rose-tinted anyway, so in a few years I’ll probably look back on it warmly.

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886) 110 p.

The problem with reading Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in the modern day is that we all know the twist. The novel is structured as a mystery, with a London lawyer investigating his client Dr Jekyll’s decision to leave his fortune, in the case of his disappearance, to the notoriously brutal and unpleasant Mr Hyde. I can imagine that a 19th century reader going into it blind would be drawn into a what is, objectively, a well-written and engaging mystery with a supernatural slant. Modern readers don’t have that luxury, because of course we know that Jekyll and Hyde are the same person: a monstrous transformation putting Jekyll’s baser instincts into physical form, indulging in all manner of crimes across London while Jekyll’s reputation remains unimpeachable.

Of course there’s all kinds of interpretation and analysis you can make of it, about the duality of man and the repression of darker instincts and the nature of good versus evil, et cetera. For the most part, though, it struck me as more of a potboiler. Stevenson was, after all, mostly a writer of adventures like Treasure Island and Kidnapped. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde would have been a pretty decent supernatural mystery novel back in the day – for us, unfortunately, popular culture has spoiled it.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865) 182 p.

It’s the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, so it seemed an appropriate time as any to read this classic of literature. It’s once again one of those novels which people know all about even if they haven’t read it, because it’s been copied and referenced and parodied so many times that all its elements have become famous: the grinning Cheshire cat, the Mad Hatter, the footmen who are living playing cards, the bottles labelled “eat me” or “drink me,” et cetera.

It’s also an absolutely nonsensical book without much reason or purpose to it – but then, that’s sort of the point, since Carroll wrote it as a silly children’s story to amuse his friend’s daughters on a rowing trip. (He also clearly had a creepy infatuation with 10-year-old Alice Liddell, the progenitor of the character Alice.) It’s not a novel you should feel particularly compelled to go out of your way to read, since you’ll get about as much out of it as any of the countless adaptations, or general cultural osmosis, as you will from the random silliness of the book. It’s fairly short, so I didn’t really mind burning through it just to have read it, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless, like me, you’re trying to check off all the classics.

Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman by E.W. Hornung (1899) 231 p.

The concept behind the Raffles stories is basically if Sherlock Holmes was a criminal rather than a detective. Hornung was Arthur Conan Doyle’s friend and brother-in-law and the book is even dedicated to him as “a form of flattery.” The format mimics the famous stories of Holmes and Watson quite closely, being narrated by the hero’s sidekick, who is constantly in awe of his friend’s amazing abilities – although the Raffles stories tend to link together more closely than I recall the Sherlock stories doing.

Raffles is a fairly likeable roguish character, and Hornung has an ahead-of-his-time take on why it’s not immoral to be a thief in the corrupt and exploitative system of the British Empire. There’s also a decent story set in Australia, a location often ignored or forgotten by Victorian novelists, since Hornung spent some time there in his youth. But it wasn’t, overall, a hugely engaging book. It’s readable enough, and worth checking out as the genesis of the “gentleman thief” archetype which has influenced hundreds of other works, but I couldn’t say it was as compelling or well-written as any of Doyle’s works – and I’m not exactly a Sherlock Holmes fan either.

House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones (2008) 328 p.

This is the third and final book in the Howl trilogy, though it was written in 2008, a full eighteen years since Castle In The Air. House of Many Ways again takes us to a new location with new characters: the vaguely Mitteleuropan country of High Norland, and the young girl Charmain, who has been roped into housesitting her wizard uncle’s house while he goes away for medical treatment.

This is the only book in the series where I didn’t already know the plot, since I’d seen the film version of Howl’s Moving Castle and read Castle In The Air in primary school. Unfortunately I think it’s a bit of a step down from the first two books. There’s a lot of domestic slapstick comedy going on, with bursting water pipes and clueless children and a feud with the kobold servants. There’s not so much actual adventure and excitement, and the serious plot which does eventually develop is dealt with in a pretty perfunctory manner. Although come to think of it, that was the case in the first two books, so maybe nostalgia made me happily overlook it? I’ll have to try some more of Jones’ fiction to get a better idea. House of Many Ways was a bit of a lacklustre ending to a trilogy, and didn’t leave me with much to say about it.

Goodbye To All That by Robert Graves (1929) 360 p.

In the preface to the 1957 edition of Goodbye To All That, the poet Robert Graves describes this memoir as his “bitter leave-taking of England,” a phrase which now pops up in pretty much any discussion about it. It follows his early life in an English public school, his time as an officer on the Western Front in World War I, and his life as a veteran studying at Oxford and later teaching at a university in Cairo.

The World War I section comprises the vast majority of the book, with his life’s other experiences bookending it as though they’re mere afterthoughts; although I suppose being a war veteran might be very much like that. Graves’ memoir is clear, unsentimental and quite reserved; he doesn’t openly analyse the politics behind it or discuss to any great extent the feelings and motives of himself or his fellow soldiers. It has a bit of a stiff upper lip feeling to it. You can nevertheless feel the resentment simmering below the surface, particularly when he deals with jingoism on the home front or his incompetent and arrogant superior officers (at one point, after reporting on a particularly bloody battle while his CO eats a beef dinner in his dugout, Graves is reprimanded for allowing his company’s uniform standards to slip).

The emotionally distant nature of the account means you have to do a lot of reading between the lines. Graves seems to possess strange, conflicting feelings of disgust with England and the home front and a bitter attitude to the war itself, and yet also a burning desire to return to the trenches. It’s exactly the same sort of feeling expressed by Siegfried Sassoon in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy of fictionalised historical novels, which is no coincidence, since Graves and Sassoon were close friends and Sassoon appears often in Goodbye To All That; in fact, the military tribunal convened to judge Sassoon for his open letter denouncing the war at the beginning of Regeneration is told here from the perspective of Graves, who was instrumental in influencing the panel to have Sassoon sent to a mental hospital rather than a prison. It’s quite odd reading about the same character in both fiction and non-fiction, but also very interesting. (Similarly, in his later time at Oxford he’s chums with Lawrence of Arabia.)

I thought I might be tired of stories about World War I in the same way that I’m tired of stories about World War II, but what I found so compelling about Graves’ dispassionate account was the close, first-hand account of day to day life in the trenches: the logistics, the geography, the little details and trivia, like how the soldiers would heat the water for their tea by firing off hundreds of rounds from the machine guns at nothing in particular, how generally despised the avaricious French locals were by the English troops, and some very shocking details about war crimes. (In particular, I have no doubt that most Australians would stubbornly and stupidly refuse to believe an account Graves gives of an Australian soldier who boasts of having murdered captured Germans; nationalism and othering is as strong today as it ever was.) There are details about the shoddiness of their gas masks, long accounts of stratagems during particular battles, descriptions of the experience of crawling across no man’s land at night – for a direct account of life in the trenches, this is really solid stuff.

And it’s also, as any honest account of World War I should be, a testament to the sheer revolting loss of it all. There’s a particularly sombre moment as Graves and his wife go bicycling through southern England a few years after the end of the war:

We rode across Salisbury Plain in the moonlight, passing Stonehenge, and several deserted army camps which had an even more ghostly look. They could provide accommodation for a million men; the number of men killed in the British and Overseas Forces during the war.

The total number of soldiers killed on all sides was 10 million; add civilians, and the death toll rises to 17 million. That’s a genocide, a holocaust. Imagine how many artists and inventors and entrepreneurs and leaders and thinkers and statesmen and writers the world was robbed of; how many minds, how many individual worlds, we lost to that pointless, useless, meaningless war.

For some time now – or perhaps since the war itself, judging from Graves’ account – we have sanctified the “fallen” soldiers of WWI. (I hate the euphemism “fallen.” They were gassed, shot, bayoneted in the stomach, buried alive in mud from collapsing trenches, had their throats cut by German patrols after being wounded in no man’s land, died of septicaemia, burned alive in airplane crashes, committed trauma-induced suicide, and on and on and on.) The war itself has become aestheticised – the poppy, in particular, is a pretty flower that has come to muffle grisly realities. The problem begins when we (the civilians) demand to consider Our Lads as heroes rather than victims. This feeds into the same glorification of violence and combat that led in the first place to the mass enlistment of young men who had no idea what they were getting themselves in for. It still leads to kids enlisting for our endless string of wars in the Middle East today. It’s the same base notion that leads to young, Western Muslim men absconding to join Islamic State.

After the war Graves is asked to speak at a commemoration ceremony, and this is one of those few passages in which we glimpse his inner anger:

[The rector] suggested that I should read war-poems. But instead of Rupert Brooke on the glorious dead, I read some of the more painful poems by Sassoon and Wilfred Owen about men dying from gas-poisoning, and about buttocks of corpses bulging from the mud. I also suggested that the men who died, destroyed as it were by the fall of the Tower of Siloam, were not particularly virtuous or particularly wicked, but just average soldiers, and that the survivors should thank God they were alive, and do their best to avoid wars in the future. Though the Church party, apart from the liberal-minded rector, professed to be scandalised, the ex-servicemen had not been too well-treated on their return, and liked to be told they stood on equal terms with the glorious dead.

In the 21st century, far more US soldiers commit suicide than die in combat, and very few Americans know that. It’s easier and neater and more reassuring for us to venerate the dead rather than to grapple with (and pay for) the mental health issues of the living – let alone question why we did this to them at all. In the centenary of World War I, Goodbye To All That remains an important and valuable book.

Equal Rites, by Terry Pratchett (1987) 288 p.
Discworld #3 (Witches #1)

I had dim memories of this one, just as I did of The Light Fantastic. I remembered it being slightly better than the first two, but still weaker than the next book, Mort, which I’ve always held in my memory as the first properly good Discworld book. I recalled that it introduced Granny Weatherwax, one of the series’ strongest characters, but that she was a sort of proto-version of herself who didn’t live up to later standards, and that it wasn’t really a proper Witches book.

Equal Rites begins with a wizard walking through the rain in the remote Ramtop Mountains, heading for a tiny village clinging to a ravine in the middle of nowhere. He knows that he is going to die, and he wants to pass his staff on to a newborn wizard – the eighth son of an eighth son. He finds the village smithy, where the blacksmith’s wife is in labour upstairs, and as the child is brought down he guides its hand to the staff before expiring. The only problem is that the baby turns out to be a girl – and as everybody knows, women can’t be wizards.

The first act of the book is the part I remembered best, and that’s probably because it’s the best. Eskarina Smith grows up under the watchful eye of Granny Weatherwax, the village witch, who is mistrustful of wizard magic and determined to ensure that Eskarina doesn’t become a wizard. As she grows older and begins showing signs of latent magic ability, Granny tries to steer her towards becoming a witch instead, and takes the girl under her wing. Esk moves into Granny’s cottage and begins learning the craft of magic, in a section of the novel very reminiscent of the early parts of Usrula Le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea. Esk learns, of course, that being a witch involves very little actual magic, but an awful lot of herbology, fieldcraft, woodland lore and what Granny calls “headology,” which is to say, giving people the impression that you’re a witch; a psychological placebo. “Most people don’t set foot outside their own heads much,” Granny says.

Headology is a core part of Granny’s act, and the word will come up a lot in the later Witches books. I was honestly surprised to see it crop up so early. It’s a brewing indication of what would later become a more general theme of Pratchett’s: his fascination with the power of belief, which he writes about in arenas ranging from religion (Small Gods) to the rule of law (Jingo) to fiat currency (Making Money). Granny, too, is a far more fully-developed character in this novel than I recall her being. Obviously this is her first novel, and Pratchett improves as a writer, and all characters should grow in any case, but I had no problem seeing her as fundamentally the same Granny Weatherwax of the later novels: not necessarily intelligent in all things, but with a wise and powerful mind.

“If you can’t learn to ride an elephant, you can at least learn to ride a horse.”
“What’s an elephant?”
“A kind of badger,” said Granny. She hadn’t maintained forest-credibility for forty years by ever admitting ignorance.

It’s for that reason that I feel happy classifying this as the first Witches novel, rather than a standalone. Nanny Ogg and Magrat aren’t here, but Granny is, and she’s a far more substantive character than Esk, whom we never see again.

Equal Rites does stumble a bit after the enjoyable first act, however. Esk’s latent wizard magic is so strong that Granny has no choice but to take her to Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork for tutelage, before she hurts herself or others, and so Pratchett gets a bit of quick and aimless world-building in along the road to the city. The third act takes place in and around the university itself, where another talented young wizard is accidentally breaching the boundaries of time and space, exposing the Discworld to the Dungeon Dimensions.

This is the second Discworld book in a row to be built around the menace of the Dungeon Dimensions – the ugly plane of reality full of lurking Lovecraftian horrors, drawn to magic, constantly trying to break into the Discworld. I’d honestly forgotten how much they featured, and how much of a contrast they are to Pratchett’s later human villains. They are, of course, quite boring, and a climax built around them is always bound to involve of a lot of pokey-jiggery and hand-waving magical solutions. They’re an unavoidable reminder that this is still early Discworld and still fundamentally a satire of pulp fantasy, rather than the broader fiction the series will later become. Unfortunately, if I recall correctly, there’s at least two more novels to come that are built around them.

On the whole, though, Equal Rites is a good book. It’s still lacking a certain spark, but it’s a better novel than The Colour of Magic or The Light Fantastic. Next up is the first Death novel, Mort – and if memory serves, it’s quite a good one.

Discworld Reread Index

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927) 209 p.

This book is a self-indulgent piece of shit.

Stream-of-consciousness is a literary technique pioneered by the modernists of the early 20th century, probably most well-known for its use in James Joyce’s Ulysses. I was well aware of what stream-of-consciousness writing was, and wasn’t particularly inclined to seek it out, and unfortunately I didn’t realise Virginia Woolf – one of those authors who Must Be Read, one of those members of the Esteemed Literary Canon – was also a practitioner.

Woolf is apparently considered one of the less intense purveyors of stream-of-consciousness; an easier introduction, if you will, to the more difficult works of Joyce or Proust. If that’s the case, I can only imagine what those monsters subject you to. To The Lighthouse is an excruciatingly, eye-wateringly tedious voyage through the thoughts of a bunch of people on the Isle of Skye in Scotland before and after the First World War. I read that on Wikipedia – if that information is in the text I must have missed it, probably because it was difficult to stop my eyes from glazing over and my thoughts from wandering away every seven or eight words.

The modernists thought traditional literature was dead. They thought the traditional structure of fiction had nothing left to say, that it was useless, that it needed to be reinvigorated. They were deeply wrong, but their effete, self-important legacy left this ugly scar upon the world: stream-of-consciousness novels which read like nonsense poetry, the mind flitting from one subject to another, the reader subjected to a dreamlike state of free association, unable to discern between real actions and dialogues or the thoughts, fantasies and anxieties of whoever happens to be narrator halfway through any given sentence (because, yes, they change without warning). I could tell this was a rubbish book 30 pages in, and for the rest of it I just sort of let the words rush past me like rain on a window: distant and inconsequential, though nowhere near as pleasant.

I’ll concede that To The Lighthouse is a lighter read than what I’ve flicked through of Ulysses, and that if you were really dedicated you could sit down and focus on every sentence, and properly try to understand what Woolf was trying to communicate to you. I just can’t imagine why you would. When I read a classic work of literature and dislike it, or even hate it, I often feel compelled to concede that it’s just my opinion, and that it probably has objective literary merit, since everybody else over the past century seems to love it. Not this time. History is wrong; To The Lighthouse is pure garbage.

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