Who’s unafraid of Virginia Woolf?
“Perhaps there is one book for every life,” Katharine Smyth writes in the first sentence of her memoir, “All the Lives We Ever Lived.” For her, that book is Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse,” and as if to prove her point she braids readings from it with threads of her past to create a reflective meditation on loss, childhood, memory, home, and art.
Smyth’s account is only obliquely about herself; though the narrator, she’s a shadow character in a story that’s mostly about her father. She recalls her childhood with her parents in Boston and Rhode Island but writes equally vividly about her father’s life in London and Cambridge before she is born. She is equal parts daughter and reporter, describing her father’s larger-than-life persona, his alcoholism, his career as an architect and financial struggles, his marriage to her mother, and his long illness and eventual death during her early adulthood. Throughout, she draws on “To the Lighthouse” as well as Woolf’s other writing and biography, using them as windows into her life and mind.
“All the Lives We Ever Lived” is a quiet book and, like its literary touchstone, an intensely interior one. In one close reading of a scene, Smyth observes that Woolf is the master of “moments that hold up a mirror to our private tumult while also revealing how much we as humans share.” The same can certainly be said of Smyth, who expertly dissects the finest gradations of emotion in any given scene: the moment her father tries to drunkenly discuss one of his favorite novels with her, for example, while she brushes her teeth. She turns him away, then wishes he’d come back, then thinks of his impending death, then goes to sleep.
Smyth is a restrained writer. She exposes intimate details of her own world and that of her parents but omits more than she shares. This is especially true of her life away from her family; we only get the contours. Perhaps one of the most moving moments in the book — a chills-down-the-spine moment — comes early, in a chapter on courtship and marriage, both that of her parents and of Virginia and Leonard Woolf. She writes, “When I was thirty, I married a man I’d dated for five years; four years later, he left in the middle of the night, and I never saw him again.” She hardly mentions this again.
Her reticence coupled with her candor are refreshing. It’s a model of writing about oneself that emphasizes focus and control over unbridled openness. Some of the best scenes — like Woolf’s — are richly descriptive of the external world: “From the basin to the river to the bay to the sea: At the edge of the Atlantic, we lost sight of the land, so the world seemed naught but sky and water, and we the center, always the center.”
Given all the similarities — the death of a parent, a life shaped by water and houses — it’s no surprise that Smyth turns to “To the Lighthouse” as the book for her life. “All the Lives We Ever Lived” joins a genre that’s in vogue: memoir that blends the personal with literary criticism, and sometimes history. Leslie Jamison’s “The Recovering” falls into this category, as does Maggie Nelson’s “The Argonauts.” When done well, this approach can be illuminating; art backlighting the contradictions and tangles of a life.
In the case of “All the Lives We Ever Lived,” this approach sometimes works. The strength lies in Smyth’s gifted critical reading — the close, multifaceted dissection of Woolf’s words. She can turn a passage inside-out. As a frustrated tutor once noted while she was studying abroad at Oxford she has a keen “intuitive sense of Woolf,” if not a consistently scholarly one. That blend of the critical and the emotional enlivens our sense of Woolf and of her.
But like many books that trade in both memoir and criticism, Smyth’s is somewhat lopsided. The passages about her own life tend to be the most compelling. The constant and predictable shift to Virginia or Mrs. Ramsay can feel like a downturn. There is rarely an elegant way to mesh these dimensions together, which is perhaps why a writer like Nelson used a more fragmentary approach, letting things hang together as they will.
Still, “All the Lives We Ever Lived” is a powerful book, driven by the engine of Smyth’s controlled, rich description. It’s an astonishingly clear-eyed portrait of a person through myriad lenses, a kind of prismatic attempt to capture a life.
By Katharine Smyth
Crown, 308 pp., $26
Sophie Haigney is a New York freelance writer who has covered arts and culture for The New York Times, The Economist, The San Francisco Chronicle, and other publications.