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.