Rating: 4 stars
Let’s start with some context. I have a few issues with Virginia Woolf. Prior to this one, I had read three of her novels. I read Orlando when I was at university. I found it entertaining and clever, with interesting things to say about gender politics. I appreciated its time travelling nature, and the sexual fluidity of the main character.
Later in my adult life, I felt I ought to read some more Woolf. ‘Ought’ is a key factor. I didn’t feel compelled to read her because I had enjoyed Orlando so much. I felt compelled because clever people who talk about books for a living say that Virginia is a Very Important Writer.
The other two books I have read are Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. I understand what Woolf was trying to achieve in each book, that she was aiming for a departure from the traditional narrative form of the novel. I can appreciate that both works are ground breaking in comparison with other works being produced at the same time. I recognise that she was a voice for women, that she wanted to demonstrate that women could be creative and experimental in art just as much as men could. Her focus on stories about her class and their drifting lack of real purpose wind me up, though.
In Mrs Dalloway, Woolf starts the process of detaching the narrator from the narrative form and introduces a more sensory style, where the focus is on feeling and being, rather than on telling. Unfortunately, as far as I’m concerned, Clarissa Dalloway doesn’t have a story worth telling, or feeling. She is a twittering fool, obsessed with appearance. In the context of my class-based chippiness, the book made me so angry that I wanted to burn it after I finished reading it. Oh to have a life where the worst you have to worry about is whether you married the right person, whether people will come to your party, and whether the flowers will arrive on time.
To the Lighthouse didn’t improve my opinion of Ms Woolf’s writing. The trope of feeling/being rather than telling is developed further in this book, but the cast of characters left me cold. I didn’t care about Mrs Ramsay’s life. I didn’t care that she was viewed as some paragon of virtue. I didn’t care about Mr Ramsay or the acolytes who worshipped him. I didn’t care about the Young People, who seemed self obsessed to a fault. I didn’t care about Lily Briscoe or her paranoia about whether she was a good artist or not. The drifting narrative, couched in introspective recollections and observations, irked me.
Now that all of that is out of the way, let’s move on to my review of The Waves.
I was surprised by how much I liked this book. It is more interesting than the other books I’ve read by Virginia Woolf. In it, Woolf has finally succeeded in breaking free of traditional narrative form. It ceases completely to be a narrative and becomes a sense. The book is part play, part extended poem. It is an incredible flow of individual self awareness eddying and combining to form a communal sense of self written like a spoken word performance. The style made me think of Walt Whitman’s essay-like poetry, and also of Greek tragedy, with the chorus narrating the action. I thought that Woolf got across the inner voices, and I mean deep inner voices, of the six narrating characters very well indeed. It was like overhearing how it feels to be performing the actions described, rather than imagining yourself in the place of the characters whose story is being narrated to you. We don’t overhear an internalised conversation about what has happened. Instead Woolf puts words to the sensations we feel when we are in the midst of acting. Very clever. I felt lifted out of myself as I was reading, as though I was hovering above, looking down, and at the same time as though I was seeing the action through a macro lens, so close to the characters they might feel my breath. The depiction of grief was astonishing in the way it embodied the sense of time stopping, of other people’s continuation being offensive, of nothing mattering when the person who acted as anchor in your life has gone. I remember that from when my dad died. The changes that friendships undergo as we age and experience shapes us were also well depicted and caused me to reflect on the friendships that I have had for many years. How easy some are, how others take more effort and a forgiving nature to sustain.
Louis and Rhoda were my favourite characters early on, although I liked Bernard, too. Louis and Rhoda are outsiders, one desperate to break in, the other trying to escape notice. Louis knows he is cleverer than his more privileged friends, but the accident of his colonial birth means he will never have the same opportunities as them. Rhoda wants to be left alone with her rich interior world. She has no interest in being fêted or admired like Jinny, and she doesn’t find fulfilment in practicalities like Susan. She lacks confidence, though, because she feels that her self is the wrong kind of self to be. Bernard revels in his multiple personalities, yearns to be famous, and always has one eye on what his legacy might be. His awareness that he only really has a self while being observed by others fascinated me. Towards the end, I preferred Neville and Susan. They seemed to distill into something I understand, in this moment when I am of a similar age to them, post-Percival.
All good, then. But no. Woolf has to spoil it in the final section of the book by casting aside her innovative chorus of inner feelings and reverting to a standard, dull narrative. Bernard drones on about how his life has passed, and it breaks the spell. From a magical sphere of disembodied voices, I was pulled back to a sort of mundanity, and I had to force myself to read to the end, even though Bernard was telling me what I had worked out, even though I wasn’t interested in his conscious perspective. I wonder why Woolf chose to end the book that way.
These are my random jottings:
Sections begin with the sun moving across the sky, moving through the periods of a day, its light passing across a house. I think it’s an allegory for the people in the novel and the passage of their lives. They are like the sea, bobbing up and down, crashing to and fro, seemingly unchanging.
Section one is a game of hide and seek as remembered or narrated by the players. It was hard to tune into at first, but once I’d slipped over the edge, it was beautiful and I could visualise the events as though I was there with them. It felt idyllic. To immerse myself in the style, it helped to think about the title, and to imagine I was submerged, hearing the action through the distortion of being under water.
Section two is the experience of going to school, moving through school, leaving school, and all the intrigues, irritations and idiocies that happen along the way. The crushes, the self-exploration, the comparisons of self to others, and the effect that has on ego.
Section three is early adulthood, university study or work, fulfilling society’s expectations of what an adult should be, squaring it with who you want to be, the individual merging with the collective. Each has their own reverie, separate from those of the others, but threads connect them, like the sense that doors are opening, new experiences are becoming available. Individually and collectively, they are on a cusp.
Section four is reunion, their separate existences brought back together for the sake of saying farewell to the friend whose thoughts we never share in. They realise that he is the centre of their existence as a group, he is the one they seek to impress, to become part of. Everything they think they are is nothing without his context.
Section five is grief and loss and the inexplicable continuation of life.
Section six is separation into individuality after the loss of the central focus. Collective behaviour has ceased.
Section seven is solitude. Life and priorities changing, old friendships becoming elastic, the need to reassess your self in middle age.
Section eight is reunion again, but older, more distilled, less forgiving, less willing or needy. The old patterns still tickle but the older self resists. Understanding of what the self was in youth and how time and experience has changed it.
Section nine is reminiscence. One person’s reminiscence, bogged down in a dull narrative. A disappointing end.