Book Review ‘To The Lighthouse’ by Virginia Woolf.


Author- Virginia Woolf

Genre- Fiction/ Modernism

Theme- Time

My review

Definitely not an easy one to read let alone understand, the novel tracks a tricky unconventional mode better known as the ‘stream of consciousness’ where the readers go through the mental pictures of characters rather than actual speech or actions. There are no specific indications or pointers as to whether they are traversing the past, present or future, each sliding stealthily into the other. Woolf seems to intentionally smudge the lines between them, thereby confusing the reader’s perception of space and time.

It’s confusing at many levels, primarily in getting a sense of location and chronological order. To give an example, Mrs. Ramsay’s soliloquy while knitting, darts from the future prospects of a nuptial union of Mr. Banks and Lily and suddenly turns into empathizing with the maid’s past, whose father had been suffering from cancer, who was forced to separate from him and work in a faraway place. Interestingly the reader’s mind darts in a similar fashion from future to past and from past to present, oftentimes failing to link events in order chronologically.

The novel has an autobiographical element, of Virginia’s childhood spent at the summer-house in St. Ives, Cornwall. That period is showcased in the first part of the novel, taking place before World War One, with all it’s Victorian mores and ethos. The last part centers on the post-Victorian period, same as Virginia’s adulthood when the frame of mind of the characters undergo a drastic change, their attitudes change and situations are weighed up against the past occurrences.

Postwar period ushered in a modernistic era when experimentation in formalism, modernism, structuralism, and realism took root in literature and art beginning from the dawn of the twentieth century. Virginia, who had been home-schooled by her mother, was able to experience the freedom of thought and style in literature through the masterpieces of TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and the like.

Notable in the literary style is how Virginia composes the complexity of thought followed by simple actions. She explores the realities and mundanities of everyday life, a stark contrast to the romanticism of the Edwardian era novels. It is refreshing for the reader to experience life as it is rather than dabble in the fantasies of Romanticism. Nevertheless, our thoughts get entwined with the character’s inner working of mind so much so that the reader sometimes wish to escape from the bubble to a world outside. Another feature of the novel is the poetical beauty of her prose, especially while picturing nature. And here, she follows T.S Eliot’s Impersonal Theory of Poetry. The characters engage in a kind of ‘soliloquy in solitude’ disconnected from one another.

Woolf’s strong stance on feminism is said to have evolved from this novel onward. In the novel, the character Charles Tansley’s patriarchal and misogynist statement ‘ women can’t paint, women can’t write’, in a condescending manner, comes back to Lily’s mind every time she tries to start her painting. The status of women as an artist or anything beyond the role of a housekeeper during Victorian times is rigidly being looked down upon and criticized by the character, Charles. Virginia surmounts this by drawing Lily’s character as someone out of the box, individualistic, whose persistence and grit triumphs finally, in bringing forth her artistic vision. According to her own words, the novel had been sort of release from the obsessions of Victorian mores foisted on her and her sisters by their mother. Her attitude to the inevitability of marriage for a woman is criticized through the character, Lily who hates marriage and parries the efforts of Mrs. Ramsay to get her married. Virginia had expressed it inconceivable for herself to have evolved into a writer, had her father been alive. In the novel, she delivers subtle snipes against both her parents’ outlook to women in general.

The novel is rich in symbolism and imagery. Taking Lily’s artistic visions as an example, Virginia has used Lily as a medium to convey her ideas of feminism, to expound on life and death, persistence, and finally self-realization. The lighthouse could be symbolic of desires, unattainable/ reachable.There is not just one interpretation to the meaning of the novel, but many since it had been written and each offers different perspectives on a subjective basis.


Book Review ‘The Four Books’ by Yan Lianke


Genre-     Political fiction

Subgenre-    Political satire

Author-         Yan Lianke

My rating-      3 star 

My Review

                   A political satire by the Chinese novelist Yan Lianke, winner of Franz Kafka Prize and the finalist for the Man Booker Prize 2013. The catastrophic times during the Maoist Great Leap Forward, the state surveillance, moral policing, political oversight of literature, academia, and misrepresentation of history, expressed allegorically and satirically has an Orwellian theme with Grand Guignol-ish narratives in between. It is no wonder that this book is banned in mainland China and is the apple of the Western literary jurist eyes.

The satire illustrates how policy mistakes batter the lower rungs of society when ideologies are translated into realities. For those not familiar with the Maoist ‘ Great Leap Forward’ and it’s catastrophic consequences dealt with in this book, let me summarise what I had read about it from the recorded history( not from Chinese authors and historians, who might have a different take on the whole thing).

The Great Leap Forward was an economic and social campaign led by the Communist Party of China from 1958 to 1962 under Chairman Mao Zedong. He emphasized collective farming and industrialization as vehicles for the rapid economic and social progress to keep pace with the rapidly developing Western world. Aggressive farming and steel smelting were supposed to bring progress in the short term. The resources from the agricultural sector were invested in the industry with the result that agriculture bore the brunt due to lack of essentials and this finally culminated in the Great Chinese Famine that caused millions of deaths. The statistics of agricultural production was greatly overhyped, exaggerated and contorted. History tells us that the common man died out in droves, though the ‘higher-ups’ withstood the onslaught and China was exporting rice when the people starved.

Political control and manipulation of art, literature, history, and academia reached a zenith and anti- Rightist campaign saw the compulsory internment and re-education of intellects, students, artists, authors and so forth in Re-ed camps. The novel is set in a Re-ed camp called the ninety-ninth district close the Yellow River. The inmates are identified by their professions and not their names- as Author, Scholar, Musician, Physician, Theologian and so on. The camp is overseen by a part dictator, part naif, part martyr character termed The Child( Not sure whom the author is evoking, could be Stalin) who uses a carrot and stick policy to keep things going as per the will of the higher-up’s. The Child keeps an eye on the day to day happenings in the camp with the help of the Author, who is being bribed to provide incriminating details about the other inmates through a collection of documents titled ‘Criminal Records’. He is being offered freedom in return. Though the initial agricultural and steel smelting processes came out well, the policy mistakes caught up with the whole thing and the consequent famine took millions of lives and the barely living were forced to feed on grass, wild vegetables and ultimately human flesh. (There is a gory, grisly, upsetting account of human flesh being cooked into a broth and fed. )

The name ‘Four Books’ comes from the names of the four books that the Author is composing in the novel- ‘Criminal Records’ for the higher-ups and three other manuscripts being composed in a clandestine way. Throughout the novel, there are allusions of Christian Mythology( crosses, Inferno, etc.), Chinese Mythology and the novel ends with A New Myth Of Sysiphus( an allusion to divine punishment and human response). The title also evokes the four gospels of Christianity and the four sets of Confucian texts.

Carlos Rojas has brilliantly translated the Chinese text to English. As he has mentioned in the prologue, Yan Lianke is one of the Chinese authors who does not care a speck about whether his works are critical of the regime, is being banned or goes unpublished. He famously wrote that he just wants to produce a work as he exactly wanted to without regard to the topics, contents, terms, recklessly without any concern for the prospect of getting published. As Carlos puts it in the prologue, ‘in view of this, Kafka Prize is a befitting one to Yan, named after an author who famously burned the majority of his compositions and demanded, on his death bed, that his remaining unpublished manuscripts be destroyed as well’.