“There is a code of behavior, she knew, whose seventh article (it may be) says that on occasions of this sort it behooves the woman, whatever her occupation may be, to go to the help of the young man opposite so that he may expose and relieve the thigh bones, the ribs of his vanity, or his urgent desire to assert himself; as indeed it is their duty, she reflected, in her old, maidenly fairness, to help us, suppose the Tube were to burst into flames. Then she thought, I should certainly expect Mr. Tansley to get me out. But how would it be, she thought, if neither of us did these things? So she sat there smiling.”
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
How would it be, indeed. I am reading this book for the first time, and I am glad I am only reading it now. It seems, halfway in, to be all about ego and social pressures and insecurity and loneliness and regret and failure and bitterness, and our choices in the face of other peoples’ choices. And how finding a bit of time to think to yourself, and a stubborn insistence upon your own happiness amid all of that, is an ongoing battle. I’m not sure I could have fully appreciated all that until fairly recently. (Ha?)
Or maybe that’s not at all what it’s about but I’d see that in every book I read.
In any case, above all it feels wonderfully rebellious in its long sentences and refusal to make any sacrifices at the altar of absolute clarity of communication. Reading this after spending my days writing clear, concise, economical, defensible sentences day in and day out — it’s sort of like how I felt watching this 60’s-ish woman in the airport security line this morning. They told her her bag was to big too carry on and she flung it around the snaking line, slammed it on its side, yanked out her pearls, and yelled at the poor airport employee. All of us were a little embarrassed for her, wanting to say, hey, you can’t behave this way. You can’t do that. But also a little bit thrilled. She did look great. Her husband remained stoic, picking her purse up off the ground and staring straight head, moving forward in the line.
A few minutes later they called final boarding for my flight - I was still taking my shoes off, putting my laptop in a bin — and I paced nervously, whispering c’mon c’mon c’mon under my breath, panicking, wishing I could fling my bag onto the ground and scream at someone.
But Virginia Woolf: she gets to do it. She can write the long winding sentences that are hard to follow, and we follow her. Or some of us do. And I like that.