Trying to Imagine Post-Pandemic Life? Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison Can Help

By Michelle Orange

A lesser mystery of the pandemic: how to square the rise in total book sales (roughly 10 percent in 2020) and the number of readers (roughly all of them) who over that same period described the struggle to conquer a single paragraph, much less all, of “Middlemarch.” A year of dread, loss and social tumult has stretched at both ends the extent to which taking a new book in hand constitutes an act of hope. If the ability to immerse oneself in another world has wavered, it would appear that the will to do so endures, bound up, for now, in the piles of un- and half-read books fortifying our respective holding cells.

Release from those cells will depend on more than data, the vectors whose rise and fall continue to redraw the boundaries of our lives. It will rest, finally, on our capacity to imagine the world we actually want to re-enter. It will require the kind of sustained attention, in other words, for which reading makes excellent practice.

Early this spring, wary and disoriented despite the vaccine at work in my system, I sought a book to help me navigate the strange, bardo-like moment in which disaster and its aftermath begin to overlap. “To the Lighthouse,” Virginia Woolf’s 1927 masterpiece, was the one that kept coming to mind — specifically its experimental middle section, “Time Passes.” Parsed into 10 “chapters,” with its swirling rhythms, involuted structure and flights into abstraction, “Time Passes” presents an especial challenge to the pre-post-pandemic brain. I hoped to find in Woolf’s evocation of grief as a disruption of one’s sense of time not a solution but the solace of a riddle’s key connections laid bare.

Nine years after the end of World War I, which left 40 million people dead or wounded, and seven since a global flu pandemic killed at least that many, Woolf sought to mark the unmaking of the world as she knew it, and, with her depiction of the Ramsay family and the various artists and scholars in their midst, tell a new kind of story about grief and restoration. She envisioned the structure with a line drawing: two blocks, the before and after, connected by a thin corridor. “I am making up ‘To the Lighthouse’ — the sea is to be heard all through it,” Woolf wrote in her diary. “I have an idea that I will invent a new name for my books to supplant ‘novel.’ A new — by Virginia Woolf. But what? Elegy?” Dislodging elegy from its poetic traditions and long history of men memorializing other men, Woolf set out to explore its terms within a more expansive, narrative form.

In the novel’s first section we meet the Ramsays — 50-year-old Mrs. Ramsay, a Victorian ideal of privilege and womanly self-sacrifice, based on Woolf’s own mother; Mr. Ramsay, her crusty philosopher husband; and their eight children — at the family’s seaside idyll, surrounded by guests, servants and hangers-on. Woolf veers in and out of the minds of her characters, charting their impressions of one another across a single day and evening. The “action” is minimal: A visit to the nearby lighthouse is scrapped, two members of the party become engaged and a splendid meal is served. At dinner, Lily Briscoe, a youngish, unmarried artist with a fixation on Mrs. Ramsay, glimpses a way forward for the painting that taunted her all afternoon.

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