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Katharine Smyth: All the Lives We Ever Lived

By and
Q&A
Katharine Smyth's first book, All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf, is part-memoir, part literary criticism and part-biography, which explores the themes of Woolf's novel, 'To the Lighthouse' set against her own family life and her father's alcoholism. Smyth asks existential questions of home, place, intimacy and the degree to which literature affects our emotional lives.

Arifa Akbar: Your life, on the face of it, is very different from Virginia Woolf’s: there is almost a century and a continent between you. You were brought up in America and write of your architect-father’s job loss, his cancer, his alcoholism and his death, but you weave the writing of this almost-memoir together with the life and work of Virginia Woolf, and especially her novel, To the Lighthouse. Why write your family story this way, and why To the Lighthouse?

Katharine Smyth: I first read To the Lighthouse at Oxford, where I was quickly convinced that Woolf’s work had an incomparable power to move and express me. But by the time my father’s cancer returned – I was 23 – I had already made a conscious decision to distance myself from her writing; my intense familiarity with her prose, once productive, had become debilitating. And so it was that I spent many years working on two manuscripts that had nothing at all to do with Woolf, both of which were rejected by publishers.

‘You need a hook,’ my agent finally said, ‘a framing device, something like the bird that anchors [Helen Macdonald’s memoir] H Is for Hawk.’ I sat down in a coffee shop that afternoon; I had never trained falcons, I thought, or traveled to India in search of enlightenment, or taught literature against the backdrop of an oppressive regime; in fact, the only subject on which I could truly call myself an expert was Virginia Woolf. And that’s when it struck me that To the Lighthouse, which shared an almost uncanny number of parallels with the story that I sought to tell, was the model for which I had been searching – while its radical structure could supply the literary form I needed, so too could its themes provide a kind of cradle for my own. So it was To the Lighthouse that finally allowed me to tell my father’s story properly, and my father’s story gave me a deeper understanding of my favourite novel.

AA: You say that you first read To the Lighthouse when you were a ‘moody, impressionable’ student but that one of the wonders of the novel is that it has a ‘seemingly endless capacity to meet you wherever you happen to be’ – that it has had a shape-shifting quality in different stages of your life. How has it affected you in subsequent years/decades?

KS: I first read To the Lighthouse as a twenty-year-old English major, and although my father had been sick for half my lifetime, I didn’t draw any overt parallels between him and Mrs Ramsay, or even between the Ramsay family and my own; I was more preoccupied with reading the text in service of crafting an academic argument. So to return to To the Lighthouse as a thirty-five-year-old woman who had lost her favourite parent, and was more interested in exploring that common experience than in accumulating evidence for an Honours thesis, afforded a larger and more generous reading; for the first time, I began to really understand how literature can help us to make sense of our own lives.

AA: You responded to the character of Mrs Ramsay ‘viscerally’ at twenty-one. What do you feel about her now, and do other characters have a different hold on you?

I still love Mrs Ramsay, who occupies a privileged position in Woolf’s oeuvre; she is the only one of her characters who is unquestionably beautiful, for instance, and despite her flaws – an obsession with marriage; a tendency to meddle – she remains untouchable. But these days I’m equally captivated by Lily Briscoe, a character who bored me slightly on first pass, and through whom I’ve gained a new appreciation for the subtleties and pathos of the novel’s third section. As I say in the book, Lily is roughly the age that I am now when we first meet her, and I have come to see myself in her narrative – in the strength of her desire to paint a true portrait of Mrs Ramsay, in her conflicted feelings about marriage, in her determination to investigate the vicissitudes of grief.

AA: You also say that To the Lighthouse demands re-reading. Are there other novels that you have understood differently/better only after second or third readings? Which are these, if any?

KS: I don’t do all that much re-reading, if only because there are so many books out there I’m still desperate to read for the first time. But I’ve probably re-read Mrs Dalloway five or six times, and I think it holds that same capacity to surprise as To the Lighthouse – I can find dozens of sentences in that book that I would swear I’ve never read before. And then of course there’s Shakespeare: every time I read Hamlet, I’m stunned anew by its brilliance and complexity; it feels as if you could tunnel into that text forever and never reach its outer limits.

AA: You write so compellingly about a place, a home and a landscape, outliving us, and you describe the permanence in this landscape – in relation to our own impermanence – as a comfort. You relate this both to Virginia Woolf’s relationship with her family home in St Ives and your own in Rhode Island. Will you say a little more about what consolation this landscape offers?

KS: One of the central questions that inspired me to write the book first arose on that September evening that appears in the first chapter. My father had just left the hospital, and I was walking up the dock; the Rhode Island house was all lit up, and I could see my parents’ figures through the windows. I felt very moved and exultant then, and yet also very worried about my father and the future, and I remember that I actually said to myself, aloud, ‘Will it be like this when he is gone?’ Was the solace and strength that I had always taken from this house dependent upon my father, or could they still endure without him?

So though I never explicitly ask it in the text, that question – Will it be like this when he is gone? – runs deep throughout the book, culminating in the final chapter. I don’t want to be too reductive about it, but my conclusion is basically, yes, I do believe that a house can retain its spirit without the person who set it all aglow. But this is only because those people live on in our houses, more so there than anywhere else – because it is our houses that are capable of still connecting us to them.

Virginia Woolf (Getty Pictures)

AA: As much as the book is a memoir, and a literary exploration of Virginia Woolf’s work, it also reads like a rumination of how we conceive of our parents’ lives before we were born – and how this is always an act of imaginative reconstruction. Was this book a conscious way of working through towards a better understanding of your parents?

KS: Absolutely, or at least with regard to my father. In the months following his death, when I first began to write about his life, I kept thinking of Vanessa Bell’s initial response to To the Lighthouse – Bell wrote that her sister, in inventing the character of Mrs Ramsay, had ‘given a portrait of mother which is more like her to me than anything I could ever have conceived of as possible’. For years it was this goal that governed my writing: to paint my father’s portrait as faithfully as possible, and in so doing, to arrive at a better understanding of the man he had been. But what I didn’t realise at the time was that seeking to see all of him would so complicate my understanding, and thus make him even more distant and unknowable.

AA: You write of failure – Virginia Woolf’s fear of it even when writing To The Lighthouse, which she judged to be the best of her books – but mostly your father’s. Did you consider him a failure as you were growing up? And what are you feelings about failing?

KS: I did, which I feel guilty about, though in a certain sense I still believe it. I couldn’t understand why my father had given up a glamorous, successful career in architecture for business, or more specifically, for buying and renovating a series of commercial properties in the Boston suburbs. As a teenager, I thought the latter seemed so dull! I see now that there were external factors at play – losing his job, for instance, and an ongoing recession – but I still wish that he had found the force of will to pursue a career that deeply excited him. As I mention, Woolfian failure, which I see as ever striving, ever seeking, is a very different breed from my father’s own.

AA: Did your father know you were writing about him? How did he feel about this if so?

KS: He did know, although he never read anything I wrote about him, and I imagine that he would have had mixed feelings about it. There’s a scene in the book in which I mention that I’m writing an essay about him – about his bout with delirium tremens – and he tells me that he’s bothered by the ‘ignominy’ of it. But at other times he was encouraging. I remember standing with him on the lawn in Rhode Island not long before he died and expressing concern that no one would want to read my work. ‘It’s a legitimate concern,’ he said. ‘God, I wouldn’t – been there, done that. But then again,’ he added, ‘people want to read about all kinds of unlikely things.’

AA: How difficult or cathartic was it to write about the last months and days of his life that you capture with such forensic detail?

KS: I’m nervous about the idea of writing, or at least formal writing, as therapy – I don’t think one should ever write a book and ask other people to read it if the primary purpose was simply to help the author feel better. And yet writing about my father’s last few months in detail – scenes that I originally recorded in my diary – was cathartic, and that turned out to be a wonderful bonus. That will be one of the most difficult parts of saying goodbye to this book, I think – the fact that I will no longer be spending my days with him. I’ve already noticed that I dream about him less.

AA: You discover a big secret about his life only after his death, and its discovery sparks existential questioning of how much we ever know another person. You talk about your father as a stranger, saying, ‘The more I learn about him, the more distant he becomes.’ Has this discovery undermined your belief in intimacy or changed it in any way?

KS: The question of to what extent we can ever know another person is a very Woolfian theme, and one that interested me long before I stumbled on my father’s secrets. I tend to take a fairly pessimistic view – as I say in the book, I think we are all ultimately unknowable to other people, and perhaps even to ourselves. So that discovery didn’t challenge my understanding of the limitations of intimacy, but rather underscored it; it was confirmation that even the people we know best are strangers to us half the time.

Katharine Smyth’s All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf is published by Atlantic