Hold on tight and take a deep breath – I’m about to introduce you to the fourth sentence of Virginia Woolf’s seminal novel To the Lighthouse. Ready? No. Too bad, I’m gonna do it anyway:
“Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallize and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests, James Ramsey, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator as his mother spoke with heavenly bliss.”
That, I hope we can agree, is not among literature’s most accessible sentences. It’s not just that it’s long (though obviously that it is), it’s quite the tangle too, isn’t it? As though Woolf had several competing thoughts, couldn’t choose between them and so decided to let them each have their say – all at once, like bad radio.
Perhaps, after all, they were thoughts well worth having. The thoughts of a thoughtful writer, more than happy to be shared. I’ll leave you to wonder on that, though, as it’s not really what I’m here for.
What I’m thinking is why oh why did Woolf near-as-dammit start To the Lighthouse with such an unfriendly sentence? One with, by my count, exactly 100 words, nine commas, and a second, left-field “since…” that seems to have charged in from another sentence altogether. Even if you reckon it smart, or intriguing, or expressive (more than likely, a pretty hefty ‘if’), you’d be hard-pressed to argue it a soother of tired eyes, or an early indicator of a real ‘page-turner’ read.
Get to the end of this sentence – on page one, no less – and right away you’re thinking, ‘oh nuts, this book is gonna be a tricky little bugger.’ And surely, even if you’re Virginia Woolf and a member of the Bloomsbury set, that’s the kind of thing you’d want to avoid.
Either way, couldn’t an editor, publisher, or agent have looked at the thing and circled it in red? (In the margin: “Eh?” and “Verbose, Virginia!”) I don’t know, a couple hundred pages into a book, I’m sure I could cut such a thing some slack – if I’m still reading at that point, chances are I’m at least halfway invested… But four sentences in?! Show a bit of leg, no? Forgive me, Burkas really aren’t sexy – and unless you place a tremulous hand on the small of my back and start whispering in my ear, I reserve the right to be shallow, distant, and restless. Come on, Virginia, I could be reading anything right now… or, more to the point, not reading at all – out with friends, watching football on the tele, or having a little sleep (perchance to dream).
This being a blog, clearly I’m only wondering aloud. This time, mind, I’m wondering with a greater sense of purpose than usual. Why? Because, of late, I’ve come to realize that writing a novel is something that I’m gonna do. As in within the next couple of years and after investing great swathes of time and effort.
More and more, I feel it something I must do – if that’s not too solipsistic or conceited of me to say so (it is, isn’t it? – and yet, I think it, so I may just as well write it, you know?) And here’s the thing: I want more than anything to do a decent job of writing. To be respectful of how hard a thing it is, put the necessary hours in, and come out the other side for the most part content.
And meantime, I’m hoping, Woolf and other writers can shine some lights to follow. And show, without meaning to, some other obstacles to avoid. Big unfriendly sentences, say, where there might otherwise be a more eager welcome.
…As for the rest of To the Lighthouse, well, I look forward to seeing what’s to come (my bookmark at present no further along than page 11). Notes the back cover of my copy, Woolf “captures the transience of life and its surrounding emotions.” Yes please, for me someday, I’ll sure sign up for that.