Thursday, September 13, 2012

a dog barking somewhere: passing the time with Virginia Woolf

Yesterday I read the "Time Passes" section (book two) of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. Woolf gives us a decade of England slipping past in about 20 pages, covering the deaths of several major characters and all of World War I. The historical facts are given as two-sentence parentheticals tacked onto the ends of chapters, and the abruptness of these facts (25 young men killed by German bombs in the trenches of Flanders; at least their deaths were instantaneous), the unadorned manner in which they’re presented, strengthens their impact. Had Woolf written the traditional Victorian novel death scenes that go on for page after page, the reader wouldn’t suffer the same shock, and sudden death is supposed to be shocking, yes? But the main trick, the real magic show Woolf presents in “Time Passes” is the use of the summer house, empty but for the occasional visit of the old housekeeper, falling gradually into frightful disrepair. The family deaths, the Great War, the sliding of Europe into disarray and destruction, are all echoed by the failing condition of the vacation home. The gutters and drains are blocked and the water gets into the house. The plaster falls. There are rats in the attic and moths in the closets among the decade-old summer fashions still hanging there. The garden is a ruin and floorboards are sprung, etc. It’s a magnificent performance from Woolf, with darkness and wind and rain all personified as curious visitors to the building. It’s also one of the saddest things I’ve ever read.

The house was left; the house was deserted. It was left like a shell on a sandhill to fill with dry salt grains now that life had left it. The long night seemed to have set in; the trifling airs, nibbling, the clammy breaths, fumbling, seemed to have triumphed. The saucepan had rusted and the mat decayed. Toads had nosed their way in. Idly, aimlessly, the swaying shawl swung to and fro. A thistle thrust itself between the tiles in the larder. The swallows nested in the drawing-room; the floor was strewn with straw; the plaster fell in shovelfuls; rafters were laid bare; rats carried off this and that to gnaw behind the wainscots. Tortoise-shell butterflies burst from the chrysalis and pattered their life out on the window-pane. Poppies sowed themselves among the dahlias; the lawn waved with long grass; giant artichokes towered among roses; a fringed carnation flowered among the cabbages; while the gentle tapping of a weed at the window had become, on winters’ nights, a drumming from sturdy trees and thorned briars which made the whole room green in summer.

Another clever bit of structuring Woolf does with this section is bookending it with sleep and waking. "Time Passes" begins with all the family and guests gathered in the house (after the magnificent formal dinner chapter that ends the first book), putting out the lights and going to bed. At midnight, Mr Carmichael puts away his copy of Virgil and blows out his candle. He is the last person in the house to go to sleep. It’s at this point that time begins to flow quickly past us. After the decay of the house and the decay of Europe and the aftermath of the War (Mr Carmichael publishes a book of poetry which is surprisingly popular), the old housekeeper hears from the family in faraway London that she must get the house ready for them; they are coming again to the Scottish beach this summer, and builders are hired and the wild grasses are cut and the books are dried in the sun and the first of the guests arrive and spend the night and the section ends with Lily sitting up in bed the next morning:

She clutched at her blankets as a faller clutches at the turf on the edge of a cliff. Her eyes opened wide. Here she was again, she thought, sitting bolt upright in bed. Awake.

Thus ends the "Time Passes" section of the novel. Bolt upright and awake, so abrupt and staccato, are good signposts for what’s ahead in the next book.


  1. One of my favourite books. And the only one that's ever made me cry at something that happened in brackets. I want to read the whole thing again now!

  2. I know: those bits of emotionless reportage hit the reader hard, right below the heart. The third section, "The Lighthouse," is so brilliant, surprising and brutal. "They had sworn to resist tyranny until death." Virginia Woolf is not for wimps. "I have had my vision!"

  3. Time Passes is writerly genius. I'm glad you read it because now we can always talk about it. It comes up in my mind often.

  4. We can talk about how Tolstoy would've handled that section!