In my recent ‘reading less’ period, I’ve been trying to pick short books, in the hope that I will actually get through them at a reasonable rate. I have no idea why I”m not reading as much as I used to, but there you go. And yes, I should have known that, even though Woolf’s books aren’t physically big, they are chock full of heavy ideas, and prose, so it’s taken me a bit longer than I expected…
Six children are playing in a park near the sea. Their thoughts are unordered, random, and noisy – spilling onto the page. As they being to mature, though, their thoughts become more orderly, more concerted. And so, as they begin to grow up, and move into the world, we follow the progress of their lives, and how dependent they have become on each other, and how lonely each one of them is in the modern world.
This is Woolf’s most experimental work, and regarded by many as her greatest. At least, that’s what the blurb says. As experimental works go, it’s pretty good. While The Waves is ostensibly narrated in third person, the only things the narrator says are the names of the six characters, and the word “said”. It reads almost as a script, with the dialogue alternating between each of the six characters, often in the same scene. Until the final section, the characters narrate their surroundings in present tense, providing a somewhat unique experience, as you are fully immersed within this world. The last chapter is narrated in past tense – an old man reflecting on his life, wondering if it was all worth it.
While there are six separate characters in this novel, they are, to some extent, facets of the same person – perhaps Woolf herself. They all share similar thoughts, fears and desires, and for most of them, a reliance on the other characters. Interestingly, these characters are most dissimilar during their formative years – as rowdy children, and as somewhat suppressed schoolkids, they retain some sense of individuality. As their lives slowly inch forward, however, they become more and more like each other, their inner monologues occasionally interlocking, and definitely complementing the others that surround their own.
So, six facets of Woolf’s own personality. We have Bernard, the writer; Louis, the insecure Australian outsider; Neville, the man looking for love in the same sex; Jinny, the socialite; Susan, the woman who finds solace outside the city, searching for motherhood; and Rhoda, always seeking solitude. To some extent, I think the male characters work much better than the female characters here, except perhaps in the school scenes – the women tend to fade into the background as the novel progresses. I love the insecurity of Louis, though, and the measures he resorts to in order to find someone who likes him – not that his friends don’t, but his constant questioning of himself means that he never truly fits in. Bernard is excellently drawn, too – partially because it is he who closes the novel, and muses on life and death in ways that only Woolf can ever do.
Woolf’s writing is as impenetrable as any other good modernist stylist, but what she says is written with such beauty, it almost doesn’t matter. As the title might suggest, it is sometimes better to simply let the words wash against you, enjoy the feeling, and pick up the flimsy plot as you go on. Just wait for the next part of the framing story – a lovely little short story about one day at a beach. To some extent, the plot (such that it is) isn’t important. This definitely falls into the character study basket, and that’s ok. We get a thoroughly interesting insight into this one (or six, depending on how you view it) character, and almost every single thought they ever have – from childhood to death.
I’m not sure how I feel about The Waves just yet. I know I’ve just read a work of genius, but I probably couldn’t tell you what it was trying to tell me. So, completely modernist in its style, then. I do love the language, though, and the audacity Woolf has to try and pull something like this off. And pull it off, she does – this novel is not a one trick pony, and beyond its unique structure lies a complex and thought provoking character study into (perhaps) her own mind.