Leonard Woolf’s first impression of his wife’s novel The Waves was, “It is a masterpiece,” “And the best of your books”. He also thought “the first 100 pages extremely difficult.” Virginia Woolf’s own note read “never have I screwed my brain so tight over a book.”
Each of those sentiments is immediately recognisable as I read this remarkable prose poem. As is my custom I read the introduction to my Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Waves after completing the novel. Had I read it before I may have felt less inadequate to the task:
Certainly, the reader of The Waves needs to swim, to trust to the buoyancy of the eye and the suppleness of the understanding. It is no good panicking when sequence seems lost or persons are hard to pick out. The rhythms of the work will sustain us comfortably as long as we do not flounder about trying to catch hold of events. The events are there, sure enough, but they are not sundered from the flow. This is to say that the form of the waves is acted out in the actual reading experience, and the reader must trust the medium. The rhythmic patterns of the book, this ‘play-poem’, provide the clues for the performance.
The feelings of inadequacy that this novel inspired from time to time never subtracted from the thrill of reading something sublime. Reading T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is comparable. The inadequacy comes from the knowledge that there are allusions and a depth that would need a lifetime of study to fully comprehend.
Bernard’s final soliloquy is the only part of the novel where I read more than fifty pages in a single sitting. Prior to the last chapter, twenty page bursts were sufficient at a time. I needed to recap, to drink in the words. The last chapter presented no alternative but to be consumed singly, breathlessly.
The book is brilliant and a logical development, the one I hoped for, from Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. As an exploration of self and perception, the book is profound. To be aware of Woolf’s psychologically precarious existence and her diary entries that these “characters” suggested different aspects of of self, perhaps of that enigmatic “lady writing” whilst the gardeners sweep, is to appreciate more profoundly how difficult this book must have been to write.
Here in the few minutes that remain, I must record, heaven be praised, the end of The Waves. I write the words O Death fifteen minutes ago, having reeled across the last ten pages with some moments of such intensity and intoxication that I seemed only to stumble after my own voice, or almost, after some sort of speaker (as when I was mad) I was almost afraid remembering the voices that used to fly ahead.
Reading The Waves brings to a close Woolf in Winter, my first shared reading experience. My heartfelt thanks to Sarah, Emily, Clare and Frances for galvanising me finally to tackle Virginia Woolf. Reading Woolf, particularly To the Lighthouse and The Waves, has been enriching.
Though Mrs. Woolf and I need a little time apart, I will surely read The Years and Between the Acts, Hermoine Lee’s biography and dip frequently into the essays and diaries, all of which now sit on my library shelves. The Waves and To the Lighthouse are also novels to be read again, several times.
In a twelve month period where I have finally read Austen and Woolf, this Harold Bloom excerpt seems apposite and appropriately controversial:
Will we ever again have novelists as original and superb as Austen, George Eliot, and Woolf, or a poet as extraordinary and intelligent as Dickinson? Half a century after Woolf’s death, she has no rivals among women novelists or critics, though they enjoy the liberation she prophesied.
Feel free to provide answers below.