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The Waves by Virginia Woolf

This book took me much longer to read than I anticipated, and I enjoyed it less than I had hoped. This is a pattern. I first tried The Waves when I was a pretentious 15-year old. I gave up. Later I came to it when I read all Virginia Woolf’s novels in the order in which they were written. I liked it, but not much of it remained with me. I was impressed by its structure, the lyrical evocation of time passing over the waves, and by the six voices of the novel. It seemed a bold experiment, but I was not sure what Virginia Woolf had achieved with it.

Emboldened by participating in #Woolfalong, hosted by Heavenali on her blog, I decided to give The Waves another go. This is my sixth contribution to #Woolfalong. You can find the others listed at the end of this post.

298-waves-coverA Summary

The structure of this book is conveyed through the six voices of the six characters. Their lives unfold through episodic sections. Between these parts are very lyrical descriptions of the waves and the surrounding countryside at successive times of day, beginning at dawn ending 200 pages later with the simple phrase

The waves broke on the shore.

THE END

In To The Lighthouse Virginia Woolf had written a similar section called Time Passes, which referred to the material condition of the Ramsay’s house, the animals who lived in it, the people who were its caretakers, and the people for whom it had once been so important.

The other sections of The Waves are reported in the voices of the six speaking characters, each one indicated by ‘Bernard said,’ or ‘Jinny said,’ and so on. The characters are of an age, three boys and three girls, and there is another who never speaks, Percival, to whom they all looked up. He was something of a hero to them, a situation cemented by his early death as a result of a fall from a horse.

We follow these six people from childhood in the garden to Bernard’s death. In the final section his is the only voice and he reflects on the lives we have been reading about.

Reading The Waves

298-waves-vintage

I had several long train journeys and many quiet hours in rural France when I could expect to devote myself to the book, but it took me much longer than I had anticipated. I found that the narrative was too slight to carry me forward. I needed to read more carefully, more slowly than usual. It was like attending a modern dance performance and not being very sure where on stage to give attention.

Some of the writing is dense, unusual, experimental. Here is Bernard noticing that they have moved into another stage in life, in middle age.

‘And time,’ said Bernard, ‘lets fall its drop. The drop that has formed on the roof of the soul falls. On the roof of my mind time, forming, lets fall its drop. Last week, as I stood shaving, the drop fell. I, standing with my razor in my hand, became suddenly aware of the merely habitual nature of my action (this is the drop forming) and congratulated my hands, ironically, for keeping at it. Shave, shave, shave, I said. Go on shaving. The drop fell. All through the day’s work, at intervals, my mind went to an empty place, saying, “What is lost? What is over?” And “Over and done with,” I muttered, “over and done with”, solacing myself with words. People noticed the vacuity of my face and the aimlessness of my conversation. The last words of my sentence trailed away. And as I buttoned on my coat to go home I said more dramatically, “I have lost my youth”. (141)

This passage introduces the image of the drop indicating time has passed, adding to the idea of the steady dripping, sand running out. Virginia Woolf here combines the everyday and concrete (shaving, buttoning on a coat), clichés (such as ‘over and done with’) with this more cerebral or at least philosophical consciousness of how time changes us.

There are some motifs to notice in the text: the drop, the flower, the moths and, of course, the waves. Each wave, each event is followed by another event, similar but different, bringing change, making its mark, both creating (patterns on the sand, piles of detritus) and destroying what it makes. Some events become like talismans; an example is the water poured over his skin that awakens the very young Bernard to the sense that there is something outside of him.

What was Virginia Woolf trying to do?

Virginia Woolf in 1927

Virginia Woolf in 1927

Virginia Woolf was always experimental, and since Mrs Dalloway she had been revealing the world from inside the heads of her characters, rather than show the reaction of the characters to events. The term for this is stream of consciousness, and in an earlier post about To the Lighthouse I said,

But the phrase [stream of consciousness] is inadequate, stream suggesting a linear form, imposed by the limits of words in sentences. But Virginia Woolf conveys the layers, textures, and loops of consciousness, making the image of the stream misleading.

And here she is doing it with six characters over their lifetimes.

In the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition Kate Flint contrasts the approach of Virginia Woolf with novelists such as Arnold Bennett and HG Wells who, in conventional plots, emphasised the importance of the material world.

Here she goes even further than previously in the direction of demonstrating that identity, rather than depending on the concrete circumstances of a person’s life, is primarily constructed from within, through an individual’s deployment of language. (x)

I would go further and say that Virginia Woolf rejected essentialist notions of identity. It is common to suggest that novelists uncover the true identity of their main characters. In The Waves Virginia Woolf shows us that our sense of our self changes, and in relation to others. We know our identity, have a sense of ourselves, only as far as we share, contrast and mutate with others through words.

What I loved

To the extent that this makes a great novel I am not sure. I think I would have to reread it many times to understand its many layers, themes, motifs and ideas. But I can start with picking out some of the successes that I noted on this, my third attempt.

First those lyrical sections, between the episodes in the life of her six characters, are marvels of writing: imagery, rhythm, colour and timbre. Descriptive passages are often static, a moment for the reader and characters to draw breath. But in The Waves the interludes bring change, are all about change.

The sun rose. Bars of yellow and green fell on the shore, gilding the ribs of the eaten-out boat and making the sea-holly and its mailed leaves gleam blue as steel. The girl who had shaken her head and made all the jewels, the topaz, the aquamarine, the water-coloured jewels with sparks of fire in them, dance, now bared her brows and with wide-opened eyes drove a straight path over the waves. The quivering mackerel sparkling was darkened; they massed themselves; their green hollows deepened and darkened and might be traversed by shoals of wandering fish. As they splashed and drew back they left a black rim of twigs and cork on the shore and straws and sticks of wood, as if some light shallop (see note) had foundered and burst its sides and the sailor had swum to land and bounded up the cliff and left his frail cargo to be washed ashore. (54)

Portugal 2010

Portugal 2010

Then there is a section that brought a nostalgic pang to my reading, which follows the passage just quoted. The six characters are now young adults, Bernard and Neville up at Oxford or Cambridge, the others beginning to feel their adultness. In this section the possibilities of life are fully anticipated by the young people.

‘The complexity of things becomes more close,’ said Bernard, ‘here at college, where the stir and pressure of life are so extreme, where the excitement of mere living becomes daily more urgent. Every hour something new is unburied in the great bran pie. What am I? I ask. This? No I am that.’ (56)

It’s a long time since I felt acutely ‘the stir and pressure of life’ as extreme. This novel put me back in touch with that feeling.

And so …

And so I feel pleased that I have again engaged successfully with this novel and enjoyed some segments. But much of it seems very obscure, dense and I am not surprised that, as far as I am aware, no other writer has attempted to follow Virginia Woolf to show how people’s identities are formed from inside their heads.

(note) A shallop, by the way, is a boat used for rowing in shallow waters, especially a two-masted, gaff-rigged vessel of the 17th and 18th centuries. It is connected to the more familiar sloop.

The Waves by Virginia Woolf (1931). Originally published by Hogarth Press, read in Penguin Modern Classics edition (1992) 241pp.

Related posts

My previous contributions to the #Woolfalong include:

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In step with Virginia Woolf

Who said this?

… a word is not a single and separate entity; it is part of other words. Indeed it is not a word until it is part of a sentence. Words belong to each other …

We heard the voice of Virginia Woolf in a BBC radio broadcast in 1937, and saw her handwriting projected onto the front curtain of the main stage at the Royal Opera House last Saturday. From the darkness emerged the still figure of Alessandra Ferri, recognisable as Virginia Woolf.. It was a thrilling opening to an amazing event. Woolf Works – Virginia Woolf in ballet.

Outside the ROH

Outside the ROH

And what I like is the connections Virginia Woolf makes between words, ballet steps and people. With a little adjustment you could substitute words, in these passages, for ballet and people.

… a word/ballet step/person is not a single and separate entity; it is part of other words/dance/community. Indeed it is not a word/ballet step/person until it is part of a sentence/ballet/community. Words/ballet steps/people belong to each other …

All this from a ballet? Well, yes!

Woolf Works

The full-length ballet by Wayne McGregor is described as a triptych and was drawn from three of Virginia Woolf’s novels: I now, I then (from Mrs Dalloway), Becomings (from Orlando) and Tuesday (from The Waves).

178 VW 3 novelsWayne McGregor read Virginia Woolf and it inspired the desire to choreograph a full-length ballet without a strong narrative thread – a challenge to mainstream balletomanes. Wayne McGregor wanted to capture ‘the spirit of her writing’. I understand him to want the audience to have an experience not unlike reading Virginia Woolf’s novels.

How was it done?

As I’ve said, this was not a ballet with a narrative thread. Virginia Woolf herself was questioning ways in which to capture experiences and feelings in her novels, and experimenting with ways of writing about them. Wayne McGregor explains his ideas.

And I thought Woolf was perfect for my idea of making a full-length ballet without a narrative, because she herself doesn’t write conventional stories – they’re more like collages, where thoughts, emotions and sensations take precedence over plot. The audience will recognise certain characters. Alessandra Ferri, who is a wonderful dance actress, is obviously an older presence, and will convey the sense of Woolf within and alongside her work. You’ll see a dancer inhabit the body of an androgynous Orlando. They’ll be like hooks that allow the audience to go on a longer journey than with a purely abstract piece. (ROH magazine Jan 2015)

McGregor is known for his collaborative work. The choreography, the music and the design all brought together to create this ballet.

What was special?

Here are a few highlights, but in no order and this is not an attempt to capture the whole experience:

  • A male dancer in tweeds (from Mrs Dalloway).
  • Septimus’s angularity of body and movement, expressing acute psychological damage (also from Mrs Dalloway).
  • Alessandra Ferri, had a calm stillness about her, and combined with suppleness captured Virginia Woolf without caricature. And, by the way, she’s 52.
  • The fabulous gold costumes of Orlando, and the romp being enjoyed by the cast. You can view pictures of the production here.
  • The mounting tension (The Waves) accumulating through dance, sound and lighting towards the terrible conclusion of Virginia Woolf’s fate. Her suicide letter was read before this part. More words.
  • The cello.

The Naysayers

He [Wayne McGregor] admits he had been completely unaware of how possessive some of those readers would be when he began work on the project. “I was really surprised by the number of people, some of them very passionate and expert, who approached me and told me exactly what they thought my piece should be like.” McGregor has put a careful distance between himself and the “Woolf industry”. (From Dances with Woolf by Judith Mackrell in The Guardian Review on Saturday 2nd May 2015.)

And on reflection …

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

In some ways Virginia Woolf is so cerebral that I was surprised to be so moved, overcome with emotion, and differently moved in each of the three parts. Septimus’s sequence had me rigid in my seat, my hands and feet flexed. The whirl of dancers building to an exuberant climax in Orlando was stirring. I was steadily pulled towards the appalling and inevitable horror of the waves, waves of sound and dancers, towards death.

I have written about my reluctance to embrace films of novels here, mostly because they dispense with imagination and complexity. But ballets that draw on them do not have the same limiting effect on the audience, indeed I felt Woolf Works enhanced the readers’ experiences.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, first edition via WikiCommons

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, first edition via WikiCommons

I will now reread Mrs Dalloway, and possibly The Waves, certain that I will find new experiences. An additional reason to reread books (see the previous post on rereading books.)

And I go back to the words we heard her say as the lights dimmed.

Words, English words, are full of echoes, memories, associations – naturally. They’ve been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today – they’re stored with other meanings, with other memories, and they have contracted so many famous marriages in the past. The splendid words ‘incarnadine’, for example – who can use that without remembering ‘multitudinous seas’? [Virginia Woolf in a BBC radio broadcast in 1937]

 

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Desert Island Books

It’s that old scenario, white sandy beach, a single palm tree, gulls shrieking, strings playing Sailing By and Kirsty Young asking you to choose eight books. The Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare are apparently already under the palm tree, thanks to the DIBSTUS (Desert Island Bible and Shakespeare Top Up Society).

What criteria to use? After all, millions of people are not listening to your choices, so you don’t have to answer to them, or make your choices represent important people or events in your life. But DIBSTUS will only deliver 8 more books so you do have to find some criteria or other.

It’s clear that I should choose books I want to read again and again, for all the years I will be stranded, listening to Sinatra singing My Way (also provided by DIBSTUS for all castaways)? I could go for the greatest books list. The Guardian’s 100 greatest novels of all time begins well enough with Don Quixote, and Pilgrim’s Progress, and then at #3 – just the thing on your desert island – Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. There are no women writers in the top eight books in the list. Jane Austen’s Emma and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley come in at #9 and #10. They may be the greatest (longest?) novels of all time, but these top eight are worthy, harsh and actually, rather masculine. I expect DIBSTUS would approve. I’ll take a different set to my desert island.

My great-grandfather referred to reading as a conversation with the author, and I find myself asking with whom would I like to converse on my desert island? Not John Bunyan or Daniel Defoe I am sure. John Bunyan would treat every day like Sunday, and Daniel has seen it all before, after all. Been there, done that! Is there a T shirt?

So here is the list of authors with whom I would like to converse, and my pick of their books:

Jane Austen, I think I’d try to persuade Kirsty [see what I did there!] to allow me the complete works, but if she doesn’t agree I’ll take Pride and Prejudice.

Pride & Prej

Joseph Heller, Catch-22 has the kind of humour that exactly appeals to my generation, loads of characters and idiosyncrasy, full of those moments of human stupidity and situations when only laughing at the absurdity will get you through.

Virginia Woolf, The Waves. It’s about time I got to grips with this novel. She’s such an amazing and thoughtful writer, never did anything without great reflection. But I felt mostly relief when I first finished reading it. The island context would seem appropriate for a project related to the sea, and to explore the novel further.

Marge Piercy Woman on the Edge of Time for its vision of a world where gender differences are irrelevant; or Ursula le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness for a different approach to the same topic. (Help! Can’t decide!)

W.G. Sebald Austerlitz. I don’t believe I would ever tire of the inventiveness and imaginativeness of Sebald’s writing. And the tour de force of the description of Theriesenstadt deserves the familiarity a castaway’s life could provide.

George Eliot Middlemarch. I wouldn’t tire of this book either with its study of people and their relationships and the fixes they get themselves into.

Susan Coolidge, What Katy Did. I want to overthrow the teachings of this childhood favourite, with its awful insistence on self-sacrifice for girls. I might write What Katy did in 2013 to replace it. The date in the title would have to adjust according to when I get rescued.

Bookshelf DSC00106

That leaves one choice. Any suggestions? In the absence of better offers I can always take the Guardian’s #1 because I have never read it all through: Don Quixote.

Oh dear, Kirsty is asking for a last choice: just one of these books and one luxury. Reading glasses perhaps. But which book?

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