Repeat after me: there is no such thing as too much Virginia Woolf.
I tackled her 1928 novel, Orlando, just a few weeks ago. And, before that, I reviewed one of her lesser-known novels, Night and Day, back in 1919.
Too much Woolf? Impossible! I hope you agree.
My only regret is that I haven’t been able to read her other classics yet, like Mrs. Dalloway (1925), or To The Lighthouse (1927).
This is, sadly, the last Virginia Woolf novel I’ll read for the Book to the Future project. It’s not the last novel she wrote – her final work, Between the Acts, was published in 1941. Virginia took her own life shortly after completing the manuscript. She was only fifty-nine.
This week’s review, therefore, is a kind of farewell to a woman who has become almost like a friend to me…
by Virginia Woolf
Published in 1932
In Orlando, Woolf was so bright, you could nearly glimpse her between every line; you could hear the light echo of her laughter in the sound of each turning page.
The Virginia Woolf who wrote Orlando was playful, flirtatious and devastatingly clever. She was in love. But the Virginia of The Waves is a different woman again. The Waves reveals another side to Virginia Woolf – here, settled between these pages, she is quieter, subtler, more bafflingly beautiful than ever. She’s more graceful, but, at the same time, she’s more powerful than ever.
The Waves shows us Virginia at her most demanding. This is not the kind of book you can read on the train on the way to work, while a large, middle-aged woman snores with enthusiastic abandon in the seat opposite. Trust me, I tried. Virginia simply won’t allow you to read her like this. The Waves requires silence, attention and intense concentration in order to be read. And, of course, plenty of time. I could almost feel her glaring at me from the pages as I tried to read The Waves in the space of one short week – almost as if to say how dare you?
Reading The Waves is intense; the kind of book that sticks in your mind almost as much for the experience of having read it as for the novel itself. It’s written in lush language that’s disarmingly poetic, yet at the same time, completely overwhelming.
Every now and then reading The Waves, I’d find that my thoughts had bounced off the words and I’d been off in a daydream for half an hour, having only read a paragraph. Whoops.
How to explain The Waves? It describes the lives of six characters – Bernard, Neville, Louis, Jinny, Susan and Rhoda. We encounter them at nine different stages of their lives, ranging from childhood to old age, in passages interspersed with a description of the sun gradually moving over the ocean.
The Waves is not a stream-of-conscious novel. I realised this within the first few pages, when I was introduced to six characters who, although they were clearly children, puzzlingly spoke with the voices of adults. And describing the passages as “monologues” is equally misleading, because no one actually speaks like this. Here’s an example from the book’s beginning:
“I see a ring,” said Bernard, “hanging above me. It quivers and hangs in a loop of light.”
“I see a slab of pale yellow,” said Susan, “spreading away until it meets a purple stripe.”
“I hear a sound,” said Rhoda, “cheep, chirp; cheep, chirp: going up and down.” (p.2)
Like actors wearing black on a darkened stage (it helped me to literally visualise them this way as I read) Bernard, Neville, Louis, Rhoda, Jinny and Susan each take turns to step forward and say their piece. And then, there’s Percival, the seventh character. He never speaks, but he’s integral to the group of six. They all worship Percival with an intense, almost blind adoration.
Percival’s death forms the very heart of the novel. We watch the six characters as they reshape their lives around this new emotion – grief – as they grow older and come to terms with the monumental task of living the rest of their lives.
Although the six characters of The Waves are distinct individuals, their voices are all the same. Their observations and experiences are different, but they’re all expressed in the same voice. If you’re not paying close attention, it’s very easy to forget who’s speaking. But even though their voices sound similar, each character has certain turns of phrase, or motifs that we come to associate with them. For instance, Rhoda is often associated with water; Jinny with fire; Susan with earth. By the end of the book, these six characters will feel like familiar old friends.
Woolf plays with us towards the novel’s conclusion, making the boundaries between the six characters even blurrier. Bernard tells us:
“I am not one person; I am many people; I do not altogether know who I am – Jinny, Susan, Neville, Rhoda or Louis; or how to distinguish my life from theirs” (p. 185)
While the six have their differences, their personalities and their unique experiences, in a way, they’re all aspects of each other; of the same personality. The Waves subverts the concept of the individual and shows us that, despite our differences, there’s something common that binds us all together. Maybe it’s life. Or maybe it’s death. Perhaps it’s both.
There are some terribly Big Serious Ideas floating around on these waves. Time, language – nothing is safe from Woolf. The Waves takes so many of the concepts we take for granted and sets them afloat like little plastic boats. She’s as bold and fearless as the Virginia of Orlando. But here, amongst The Waves, she’s much more serious.
The Waves might be profound, but it’s still imbued with the same intensely fierce humanism that I found so appealing in Orlando. This is why I love her. Virginia writes about people and emotions with an unflinching radiance that’s impossible to ignore.
And then, there’s the language of The Waves. It’s crafted with words as lush and decadent as poetry – it’s almost too intense at times. Woolf’s writing is quite literally stunning. Neville’s description of grief as a “tree with stiff leaves which we cannot pass” (p. 99) was one of those moments where I just had to stop reading and take a few breaths, to remind myself of the actual world around me. There are so many passages that left me reeling in awe.
But there were others that, unfortunately, on this reading, simply passed me by. For me, the constant intensity of The Waves was difficult to keep up with. It’s simply overwhelming. And that’s the problem with The Waves: it’s absolutely unrelenting. Once you’ve finished, you’ll continue turning over the events, the phrases of The Waves in your mind, forming your opinion slowly.
This is one review I can’t tie up neatly with a nice, pretty bow in the manner to which I’m accustomed. I can’t finalise my thoughts about this book with a pithy little final paragraph, because they’re still taking shape in my mind. Like waves themselves, my impression of this book may remain fluid forever.
Official Book to the Future rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should you read it?
I had a great deal of trouble deciding on a rating for The Waves. On one hand, it’s utterly brilliant. But, on the other hand, it’s almost too out-there to fully appreciate. It’s beautiful, but you can’t begin to comprehend it – not on the first reading, at least.
Much like, for instance, a new Radiohead album. You can’t listen to it just once. You have to keep listening and finding new things. And that takes time.
I’m afraid you’ll need to make up your own mind on this one.
In a word: