Blog #149: Detecting a Distant Turgenev Tunnel in To the Lighthouse

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To get ready for my Anna Karenina explorations, I’ve been reading Roberta Rubenstein’s Virginia Woolf and the Russian Point of View. In my browsing last night, I came across Virginia’s notes on Turgenev, the notes she used to write “The Novels of Turgenev” (1933). What struck me was how applicable the notes are to To the Lighthouse. The notes date from 1933, but Rubenstein makes clear that Woolf was reading and admiring Turgenev during the decade between 1910 and 1920. “A Glance at Turgenev,” her review of Two Friends and Other Stories, was published in 1921, and in 1927 she recorded more of her thoughts on Turgenev in “A Giant with Very Small Thumbs,” ostensibly a review of a Turgenev biography by Avrahm Yarmolinsky.

The 1933 notes, a mixture of excerpts and analysis, contain comments such as the following: “But his teaching seems to be, never explain, never emphasise, let the reader understand for himself.” “All the lines rubbed out except the necessary.” “Perhaps the curious thing is that the Russian subtlety, change, inconclusion [--] enclosed in the elegant & conclusive French form. Perhaps the moving, the constricting thing is the artist’s control: that he knows how to be outside. Shown in his omission, selection.” “The different “I”s in novel writing. [Turgenev?] was I the lover off Madame Viardot; the man who was bullied by his mother—but the other I essential—the one who is the revealer of the laws of life.” “Being an artist: seeing what belongs in a confusion of things. bringing the related together. but what is the force that makes one thing seem a whole?” “The poetic quality that gives his books their peculiar emotion: That he stands outside. The view of art: that one must be impartial in one sense. Use the right I—not the hot one.”

So many of these comments can be read as comments on the methods and aims of To the Lighthouse. Here is her indirection, her rubbing out of all the traces except the necessary. Here is her determination to make demands upon the reader. Here is her selective inclusiveness, bringing a confusion of things together to make a seeming whole. Here are hints about her views on the self and the multiplicity of “I”s. In preparing to write about the novels of Turgenev, Virginia is also looking back at some of the lessons she learned from him. Turgenev was already part of her when she wrote To the Lighthouse, and eventually I will have to explore the Turgenev tunnel.

So many tunnels. These Turgenev thoughts make me think about the confusion of things, about the staggering number of writers and thinkers assimilated and subsumed by Virginia in To the Lighthouse. Already I have looked or glanced at, in no particular order, Scott, Bennett, Grimm, Shakespeare, De Quincy, Forster, Conrad, Browne, Peacock, Tolstoy, Homer, Virgil, Elton, Cowper, Tennyson, and Shelley. Still to come are Austen, Balzac, Plato, Sterne, Hardy, Trollope, Proust, Dostoevksy, Eliot, James, Joyce, Flaubert, Turgenev, and how many others? By this time nothing about Virginia should surprise me, yet the longer I explore To the Lighthouse the greater my awe at the scope of her ambition and at the virtuosity and profundity of her accomplishment. She consciously worked dozens of major writers and thinkers into her novel, and yet there is nothing of the pastiche in her work. She is in conversation with all of the greats of the past, and the conversation is a conversation of equals. Out of so many disparate themes and voices, she boldly makes something uniquely her own. A lesser writer, even a great one, would have been overwhelmed on occasion, would have let their vision be warped and their reality distorted. Not Virginia. Her reality and her vision of life shine clear, unclouded by any other. She assimilates and subsumes her sources completely.

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