The middle section of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is famous for its depiction of time’s ruthless passing. As the narrative frame-rate spikes, and main characters perish as the old house falls to ruin, readers observe a time-lapse film proceed at its own dire speed—with no regard for the human wish to slow down, hold on. Lauren Groff, the author of Fates and Furies, is as impressed as anyone by Woolf’s unflinching vision, but she also sees tremendous tenderness in “Time Passes.” That Woolf reveals her characters’ deaths in tiny, bracketed asides is not a dismissal. It’s a heroic gesture, Groff says, a small, significant revolt against the way that time destroys us all—and it taught her that sometimes the biggest moments can only be done justice indirectly.
Fates and Furies, Groff’s third novel, explores a marriage from both perspective: Telling his side first, then hers, Groff shows how different lives spent side-by-side can be. Groff’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and the anthology 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories. Her novel Arcadia was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She lives in Gainesville, Florida.
Lauren Groff: One August I was left alone for a few weeks in an old camp in Cooperstown. My parents wanted to fix the place up, though it would prove so decrepit that they’d soon tear it down to prevent the house from detaching from the hill and taking one slow somersault into the lake. Inside, there was a slight and constant noise that came from either the vermin eating the wood or from the phantoms I felt at night as clammy presences beside my bed.
I had just returned from a year in France; I was about to start college. None of my friends were around. I was confused, silent all day, between worlds, and I was angry because I didn’t know why I was so confused. I would read into the night to stave off the terror, and wake as soon as the sun hit the water and lifted wraiths of fog. I’d go for a run. The rest of the day I’d read on the dock, letting the sun sear my body, flipping over so the water licking through the slats would cool me off.
At some point, I picked up an old library copy of To The Lighthouse someone had bought for 25 cents. I began to read and didn’t stop until the sun had blistered my back. A mysterious rightness, a beautiful submerged truth had invaded me, one that has ever since seemed slightly beyond my grasp. This is, I think, Virginia Woolf’s intention. Her project in To The Lighthouse is to capture the fleeting nature of happiness and transfer it directly to the reader. It’s a sort of literary possession, a ghosting.
In the first part of the novel, “The Window,” Woolf makes beautiful use of the free indirect discourse in a way that is intensely, often erotically, intimate. There is great drama here—not of plot, but of promise, of thought, of looking. It’s a quite ordinary, happy day: Lily Briscoe paints, James waits to sail out to the lighthouse, Minta loses her brooch on the beach. But minute shifts within each person gather and layer, and, in layering, build. Mrs. Ramsay is the warm heart of this book; this grand Victorian mother of eight observes everyone in her orbit and every other character observes her, her great elegance, her kindness. Her daughters, even while being reprimanded by her, notice something in their mother that is like the “essence of beauty;” they “honour her strange severity, her extreme courtesy, like a Queen’s raising from the mud to wash a beggar’s dirty foot.”
The dreamy, shifting first part of the book couldn’t prepare me for the second part, the famously stunning “Time Passes” chapter. There are 10 numbered sections here, moving outward from human time, closing up the house for the night, to the house’s own vision of time as the sleepers settle in, with airs creeping in and exploring the letters in the wastepaper basket, brushing the yellow roses on the wallpaper, hovering above the sleeping faces of the humans. And then time expands even further, to envelop autumn time, with its wild and destructive winds, the “drench of hail,” the sea that “tosses itself and breaks itself.” Human time is only marked in terms of restless sleepers, until the terrible bracketed kicker, the most moving death in literature, marked only as an afterthought, a parenthetical:
[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]
God! The bracket is a whisper, a step back into human time. Mr. Ramsay’s arms are themselves brackets for the absence of Mrs. Ramsay, who has unexpectedly left the story for good.
And then, to add to the devastation the reader feels, life goes on. There are six more sections in “Time Passes.” The house slowly disintegrates. Mrs. McNab lurches in and out, growing old herself, her vivid memories fading. The war booms not far away, explosions shattering teacups, rattling the foundations of this once-happy house. In brackets, young Prue, so beautiful and lively in the first section, dies in childbirth. In brackets, young Andrew is blown up. Dirt invades, rats invade and steal things the humans forgot. The house is on the brink of death itself; then Mrs. Bast and Mrs. McNab grunt and stomp back in to rescue what could be rescued, to clean and fix and polish it. If a few of the people in the first section return after these 10 bad years, they are not the people we want so badly to return. The world is at peace again, but irretrievably diminished.
The greatest texts, I think, first dazzle, then with careful rereading, they instruct. I have learned from Virginia Woolf, more than I even know how to articulate. Among so many things, “Time Passes” has shown me subversive ways of portraying time, of looking away from the human to the far more terrifying, far more immense texture of time beneath the minute span of a human life. Flicking from one to the next so swiftly gives an immense gravity to a beloved character’s sudden death. To bracket information is an almost unbearably intimate way of whispering it into the reader’s ear. Sometimes immense things, like war, and death, and aging, are best seen from the corner of the eye and written of only obliquely, with tremendous lightness.