With thanks to Oxford World’s Classic – for providing this lovely edition.
The Waves has the distinction of being my final read of my year of #Woolfalong. Although I technically have enough time left to squeeze in The Years, as I had originally intended, I know I won’t read it this year now. So, I shall be saving that for another day.
Approaching The Waves, I think I had already decided it was difficult, infamously so perhaps – I knew some people love it while others find it almost unreadable, it’s hard not to be influenced by such conflicting opinions. Like Jacob’s Room, the last Woolf novel I read, I suspect I will get more out of The Waves with a second reading, but I certainly liked it very much, far more than I expected to. The beginning and the end were my favourite sections. Such exquisite renderings of childhood and old age.
“How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.”
Certainly, The Waves is not an easy read, it is challenging, and is considered her most experimental novel, and by many Virginia Woolf’s greatest achievement. It is a novel which explores the continuity of human life, through six inner monologues, spoken, by six friends. Taking us from childhood to old age, in togetherness and in moments of isolation. Small incidents, brief moments are shown to often have great importance, as the novel progresses we gradually get a sense of all these lives, each of them connected to the others, through their past and their friendship. Their soliloquies weave together, crossing one another, creating a sense of a shared existence between Bernard, Susan, Louis, Neville, Rhoda and Jinny.
“We are about to part,” said Neville. “Here are the boxes; here are the cabs. There is Percival in his billycock hat. He will forget me. He will leave my letters lying about among guns and dogs unaswered. I shall send him poems and he will perhaps reply with a picture post card. But it is for that that I love him. I shall propose a meeting – under a clock, by some Cross; and shall wait and he will not come. It is for that that I love him.”
Bernard is a storyteller, Susan keen to put the city behind her as soon as she can, living in the countryside she becomes a mother. Jinny is a London socialite, Rhoda filled with self-doubt, Neville seeks out a series of men as the object of his love, while Louis – the outsider seeks acceptance. For me Bernard and Susan were the characters who spoke loudest to me, who emerge from Woolf’s poetic novel most fully formed.
“I have torn off the whole of May and June,’ said Susan, ‘and twenty days of July. I have torn them off and screwed them up so that they no longer exist, save as a weight in my side. They have been crippled days, like moths with shrivelled wings unable to fly. There are only eight days left. In eight days’ time I shall get out of the train and stand on the platform at six twenty-five. Then my freedom will unfurl, and all these restrictions that wrinkle and shrivel – hours and orders and discipline, and being here and there exactly at the right moment will crack asunder. Out the day will spring, as I open the carriage-door and see my father in his old hat and gaiters.”
One of their particularly shared experiences is their hero like devotion to the memory of Percival, a friend who dies part way through the novel. Percival never speaks to us directly, like Jacob Flanders in Jacob’s Room we experience him only through the eyes of others.
Between the sections of soliloquy which chart each stage of these character’s lives, childhood, school, young adulthood, middle-age, are brief interludes. These interludes, describe a coastal scene, each one depicting a different time of day, from sunrise to sunset. I found these interludes to be strangely poignant, they add to the feeling of connectedness between human beings and the natural world, the ebb and flow of life.
“The waves broke and spread their waters swiftly over the shore. One after another they massed themselves and fell; the spray tossed itself back with the energy of their fall. The waves were steeped deep-blue save for a pattern of diamond-pointed light on their backs which rippled as the backs of great horses ripple with muscles as they move. The waves fell; withdrew and fell again, like the thud of a great beast stamping.”
Woolf’s prose is glorious, there is a rhythm and flow which I read with complete awe. I couldn’t help but ask myself how she managed to achieve such poetic prose, there is a delicious sense of movement, of the passage time, of life continually flowing, moving forward. Perhaps the best way to read such a novel is to simply allow the prose to wash over you, for the reader to put their trust in Virginia Woolf and ‘go with it.’
Realising that The Waves was going to be an incredibly difficult novel to write about succinctly (I write book reviews not critical essays) I have decided to keep it simple, and short. Sometimes it is better to let an author speak for themselves, which is why I have included so many quotes.