So, yes, The Waves was my first Virginia Woolf ever. I tried to read A Room of One’s Own last year but I wasn’t in the best physical and intellectual dispositions to make the most of this reading so I just dropped it. So when an acquaintance suggested that I read this novel which is “a wonderful novel, you’ll love it”, I said, yes, sure. I was willing to discover this great author, leading light of the British literature.
Well… I must say I was relieved when I reached “The End”. And even that is an understatement. Despite all my efforts, I think I’m just not made to enjoy modernist literature after all.
In The Waves, we follow a group of six friends through different stages of their lives, from childhood to middle age. And that’s pretty all I can tell for the “plot”. At regular intervals in the novels, poetic descriptions of the rising and setting of the sun in the course of one day alter the perception of time: the stages of life of the six characters follow the course of the sun in the sky, dawn introducing their childhood, midday, their twenties and so on until the sun sets. Time takes on another dimension: it is not submitted to the clock of social rhythm but to a natural rhythm, one life lasting not more than one day, or one day representing a whole life. This is an aspect of the novel I particularly enjoyed, because it reminded me of the Buddhist perception of time, according to which time doesn’t exist per se: we only live in the present moment.
Like many XX° century novels that are part of the modernist movement, The Waves centres less on what actually happens than on the effects events have on the characters. We are thus drawn into the minds of the six characters who take turn in sharing their thoughts, impressions, dreams, fears or hopes. The inverted commas beginning each paragraph constantly remind us that we are in a literary construction: they are visible seams showing the narrative technique, lest we forget.
I would say that the main quest of those characters is to try and define who they are, which they cannot do, because they find that they are not the same when left alone or when under the scrutiny of others. Who they are, at the end of the day, seems only to be their collections of impressions, always anchored in the present.
Virginia Woolf, The Waves, Penguin Books
While I find this approach technically interesting, and I’m sure I would love to read analyses of the novel, I found it extremely tiresome to read. To me, it seemed like endless ramblings. Those voices were irritating, I found them flat and nagging (perhaps like the sound of the waves… I’m always happy to hear them but also always happy to return to silence). I had to force myself to pick up the book and finish it and I couldn’t help but count the pages until the end (which is not a good sign, is it ?).
I only keep a collection of impressions conveyed by repeated words, images and motifs but I couldn’t make sense of most of it. Reading The Waves required concentration to try and understand what was actually happening when a character was describing something through his/her own eyes, his/her “narration” being interspersed with interruptions or remarks on something the character would see or think of, and most of the time, I couldn’t get what the event was. So yeah, I understand that this was not, precisely, the point, that the point is how the mind drifts away and leaps from one idea to another and comes back to the present only to fly away again into the refuge of memories. As I said, I’m sure I’d love to study it in class, were I still a student, but there were moments when my exasperation reached such a point that I kept wondering: “why am I reading this?”.
I’ve read that The Waves might not be her easiest novel so perhaps it was too brutal an introduction to Woolf for someone who’s never read her. I have Mrs Dalloway at home so I’ll give it a try some day. I really like the idea, intellectually speaking, of focusing on the workings of the mind, but I guess I can’t get rid of years of loving XIX° century literature whose novels are filled up with detailed descriptions, numerous characters and gripping plots.
I hope I have not offended Virginia Woolf’s devotees here: again, these are only my impressions and I’m perfectly willing to accept that I might have been missing out on something. If you feel this is the case too, please enlighten me, then!