MARCH 27, 2019
IN A 1925 diary entry, Virginia Woolf declared: “I have an idea that I will invent a new name for my books to supplant ‘novel.’ A new — by Virginia Woolf. But what? Elegy?” She was thinking of To the Lighthouse, that strange, brilliant, elusive book, so ingeniously structured it invents and dissolves a new genre all at once. What is it about? I’ve read it at least six times, and I still couldn’t tell you. To say that it is a novel about Virginia Woolf’s parents, or the house in Cornwall where her family spent their summers, or time’s passing, or the inescapable finitude of life — all of it seems to miss the mark. Just as the narrative is constantly being poured from one character’s consciousness into another’s, and thereby roaming free of any one physical being, so Woolf manages to evade what she once called “the fabric of things”: the describably concrete, the plainly material. Recall Mrs. Ramsay reading to her son James and thinking of all eight of her children — “Why must they grow up and lose it all?” — and then thinking suddenly of life itself:
There it was before her — life. Life: she thought but she did not finish her thought. She took a look at life, for she had a clear sense of it there, something real, something private, which she shared neither with her children nor with her husband. A sort of transaction went on between them, in which she was on one side, and life was on another, and she was always trying to get the better of it, as it was of her; and sometimes they parlayed (when she sat alone); there were, she remembered great reconciliation scenes; but for the most part, oddly enough, she must admit that she felt this thing that she called life terrible, hostile, and quick to pounce on you if you gave it a chance.
When the American writer Katharine Smyth, in her literary debut, All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf, says that To the Lighthouse “tells the story of everything,” she is surely thinking of a passage like the one above. No other novel is so explicitly, so insistently about life: its privacies and mysteries, its little commonplaces, its fleeting beauty. Like Mrs. Ramsay and her boeuf en daube, or Lily Briscoe and her painting, it is a novel that wants to summon together and give shape to our formless, fluid existence, to make of the moment something permanent, something “immune from change,” as Mrs. Ramsay has it. “Life stand still here,” she commands, though life never does: time passes, people die, nothing stays. Life will end; death will come.
All the Lives We Ever Lived is both a reflection on To the Lighthouse and a lingeringly beautiful elegy in its own right. Set primarily in Boston and Rhode Island, where Smyth grew up, it recounts the life and death of Smyth’s father, Geoffrey, who died in 2007, at the age of just 59. To navigate her grief, Smyth returns again and again to Woolf’s novel, whose three-part design (what Woolf called “two blocks joined by a corridor”) offers a structure “by which to contain and grapple with our dead.” The novel’s middle section, the corridor, famously describes the effect of time’s passing on the house on St. Ives, sidelining the characters so that the moment of Mrs. Ramsay’s death is but a casual, bracketed aside. Not until the third part, which takes place several years later, are we made to feel the full impact of her death, as her widowed husband and surviving children return to St. Ives for the first time in a decade. As Smyth writes, “the book’s radical form — not just a pioneering literary innovation — is also an endeavor to speak to and rectify grief’s essential formlessness.”
In Smyth’s narrative, her father stands in for Mrs. Ramsay, at once larger-than-life and alluringly mysterious. An Englishman who began his career as an architect in London (he cofounded an architectural magazine called Clip-kit in the 1960s), Geoffrey Smyth later studied at Harvard Business School and eventually settled in Boston with his Australian wife, Minty, and the couple’s only child, Katharine. Funny, charming, affectionate, wise, Geoffrey “was always inviting people over, and he never wanted anyone to leave.” As a young man, he’d been extroverted and handsome, and was even named one of London’s most eligible bachelors by the Evening Standard. He taught his daughter how to sail and fish, how to build fires and tie knots and play tennis. Smyth remembers him always “beavering away” at something: “Sanding the hull of the boat in winter, fine flecks of crimson antifouling carpeting the asphalt, or varnishing the teak of the cockpit.”
But in the early ’90s, when Smyth was still a child, life dealt Geoffrey a series of calamitous blows. First, he was laid off from the real estate company he worked for in Boston, and then, shortly after, he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. For the next many years, he remained underemployed and out of luck, sinking deeper and deeper into himself and turning his back on life. “Always a cynic,” Smyth writes, “he soon grew downright nihilistic — his word — and always a heavy drinker, he began to drink steadily from lunchtime on.” Smyth recalls ugly scenes at the dinner table: her father incapacitated with wine, her mother sullen and unhappy, both of them liable at any moment to spark a fight:
While my father, unable to remember his hostile conduct of the previous evening, would wake feeling positive and well-disposed toward my mother, she would wake feeling angry and resentful, and as a result be prickly all morning. My father used her morning behavior as evidence that she was the root of the problem, and she used his evening behavior as evidence his drinking was.
Adding fuel to fire, Smyth often sided with her father. She knew he was to blame, and she loved and pitied her mother, but rather than bring them closer together, Geoffrey’s drinking ironically drove mother and daughter apart. “She bore the brunt of my unhappiness,” Smyth writes. “I wanted beauty, I wanted glamour; I wanted a mother whom I could look to as a paradigm of the feminine as I myself became a woman.” But instead of fulfilling this image, Smyth’s mother reacted to Geoffrey’s drinking and unemployment by gaining weight. To avoid her husband, she disappeared upstairs to play solitaire on the computer or read in bed. Over time, she became resentful of the closeness of Smyth’s relationship to her father, whose many flaws and countless wrongs rarely if ever compromised the godlike reverence he inspired in his daughter.
Among the reasons for this reverence is Geoffrey’s enigmatic nature, the seemingly disparate parts that make him up or, rather, fail to. Why did he struggle to find employment? Why did he continue to abet his own decline? Smyth wonders if, like Mrs. Ramsay, her father felt himself “locked in a battle with life”:
Alongside the image of my father as a gregarious young man who never wanted anyone to leave is that of those countless evenings when he retired to the deck after dinner with nothing but a drink and a cigarette and the reach of his own mind. Was he moved? Was he bitter? Was he addled, sad, or scared? Was he dormant, like a machine that’s set to sleep; was he distilled, like Mrs. Ramsay, to a core of darkness free to roam?
Smyth asks: “How must he see his life?” After such promise, after all that youthful ambition and energy, he had become a middle-aged alcoholic, slowly but surely dying of the cancer that had now spread to his bladder. Eventually, his bladder had to be removed altogether. Smyth, who was studying abroad in Oxford at the time, flew home to be with her parents for the surgery. The doctor assured them there was cause for hope, though he explained that Geoffrey would never be able to drink again. “How marvelous that would be, and yet, how impossible to imagine,” Smyth thinks to herself. After being released from the hospital, Geoffrey was admitted to an inpatient drug and rehabilitation clinic. Within days of leaving rehab, he had a glass of wine. Within six months, he was back to drinking the equivalent of three bottles of wine on a daily basis.
There is an investigative — a reportorial — aspect to Smyth’s portrait of her father. In the course of writing All the Lives We Ever Lived, she reads through letters and diaries and interviews both family and friends. She visits her aging grandmother in the South of England, talks to old friends and colleagues in London, and even uncovers a love affair from Geoffrey’s Harvard days, when he was already involved with his future wife. Smyth wants to explain him — not only to us, the readers who never knew him, but to herself, the daughter who adored him. “On the day he died,” she writes, “I believed I knew my father, believed that I saw clearly to his core; today […] he is more of a stranger to me than he has ever been.” Her desire to see her father through adult eyes eventually gives way to the recognition that he will always remain unknowable to her, that she only ever knew him as her father, not as a husband, brother, son, or friend. Similarly, she accepts that she will never understand her parents’ marriage, or their decision, despite all the arguments and fights and uncertainty, never to get divorced: “A marriage is a secret, an alliance so private that even one’s closest friends are privy only to its contours, to the performance that it becomes in public; no one on the outside could know the precise nature of its dynamics within.”
Smyth’s probing narrative is effortlessly entwined with reflections and digressions on Virginia Woolf and To the Lighthouse. She dances skillfully between the two, often moved by an urge to conflate Mrs. Ramsay and her father, or by the need to shape her grief using her favorite novel as a template. “I […] found myself longing for ritual, for structure, for some organizing principle by which to counter the awful shapelessness of loss,” Smyth writes. Woolf’s novel offers her that organizing principle because it reflects the same longing. “What is the meaning of life?” Lily Briscoe asks toward the end of To the Lighthouse, trying to complete the painting she began a decade earlier. Sitting on the lawn, she thinks repeatedly of Mrs. Ramsay and toys with the idea of saying something to the poet Augustus Carmichael, dozing in a lawn chair beside her — something “about life, about death, about Mrs. Ramsay,” but words repeatedly fail her. “[O]ne could say nothing to nobody,” she thinks. “Words fluttered sideways and struck the object inches too low.”
Like Lily Briscoe, Smyth is always going back and forth between the desire to articulate something deep and revelatory and the fear that her attempts to do so will inevitably come to naught:
My father is dead. I say that not as I did in that first year (trying to make it real, trying to understand what it might signify), but as a fact, and one that sometimes makes me wonder whether all this — this reading, this remembering, this reflecting, this reckoning, this parsing, this clarifying, this hoping, this hypothesizing, this meaning making, this solace seeking, this writing — counts for anything at all. Have I come up with anything, has Woolf come up with anything, that is more than merely circling a brutal truth?
It is a moment of unusual candor and vulnerability. Has Smyth come up with anything? Some reviewers of All the Lives We Ever Lived have suggested that the author’s digressions on Woolf were perhaps not entirely necessary, or even very substantive. Writing in The New York Times, Radhika Jones admits that she “didn’t retain much of Smyth’s commentary on Woolf. It is insightful and reverent, but not revelatory.” Others have similarly hinted that the narrative parts of the book were compelling enough to stand on their own and that Smyth merely got in the way of herself by repeatedly going back to Woolf.
But as I revisited To the Lighthouse this winter, I was struck by how it appeared to have expanded, and how my own impression of the novel had subtly shifted. Things I had not given much thought to before now stood out to me, like the engagement of Paul Bayley and Minta Doyle, and what the novel tells us about marriage, a subject Smyth discusses with insight and experience. This may not be “revelatory,” but then I don’t think Smyth intended it to be. What her book does is add to our perception of To the Lighthouse, not through analysis or commentary, but by writing through the novel, assuming and exploring its worldview, and in the process redescribing it to us with an infectious passion and hard-earned wisdom.
Of course, by writing in the margins of a novel widely regarded as one of the 20th century’s greatest, there is the concomitant risk that one’s own prose will sound pedestrian in comparison. Remarkably, Smyth’s doesn’t. She writes with a measured, lyrical grace all her own. Here are waves “large and swollen […] as if the ocean were a giant eiderdown someone was plumping”; in a fishing village in Mexico, there are “leathery, blinking iguanas [running] across the terra-cotta rooftops”; in the family’s old summerhouse on the water in Rhode Island, books and floors and rugs and linens are bleached until each becomes “a cheerfully bloodless version of itself.”
These examples and the many others like them are what Lily Briscoe calls “little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark” — the small shapes in the midst of chaos. In the end, the most revelatory thing about All the Lives We Ever Lived is its absence of revelation. Nothing stands still, nothing is permanent. There are just the little odds and ends to lay hold of, some sight, some sound. It is enough.