from Spring 2004 [Issue No. 2]
▪► Virginia Woolf
London: Hogarth Press, 1931
Now that we’ve finished it, we suggest that it is the height of impertinence to review a book like The Waves. It’s like reviewing the moon, the stars or – well, the ocean. The Waves existed long before we did, and will survive us too, an obdurate, imperishable monument.
Normally, on those occasions when we recall that 25,000 years ago, parts of Wisconsin were buried under ice a mile deep, we go all a-quiver and start thinking about what a mote of dust we are in the scheme of things, etc. Because we can’t recall the former Ice Age without wondering when the next one’s coming, and whether any human beings will survive it. The thing about the The Waves is, it will still matter 25,000 years in the future -- even if there are no human beings left to read it.
Skeptical? Imagine you’re the last person left on earth when the fuzzy creatures from Alpha Centauri finally show up and want you to bring them up to speed on what humanity was all about. If you can hand them The Waves, you’ll have a great time-saver: "Here," you can say, "This about sums it up."
So it’s embarrassing to admit that for many years, we were planning to give the book a miss. We said we’d read it when we got around to it, but we filled our reading time with lightweight stuff instead. True, we’ve been Virginia Woolf fans ever since we completely missed the point of To the Lighthouse in high school. (We liked it because the middle section, where the house is neglected and the garden becomes overgrown, made us feel curiously nostalgic for our own childhood summers. –You mean it made you nostalgic because you were neglected as children? --Oh, forget it.) We finally re-read Lighthouse a couple of years ago and were duly blown away. We’d never seen anyone even attempt to render in fictional form the touching counterpoint between the purely transitory aspects of human striving and the unchanging aspects of the natural world. (Technically, of course, we had seen someone do that before, because, as we’ve said, we read Virginia Woolf in high school. Remember her?) Nor had we remembered what an exquisite stylist Ms. Woolf was. After finishing Lighthouse a second time, we immediately started reading it over again … and duly swore to make a complete tour of Virginia Woolf’s other works. Only to find that we weren’t up to spending so much uninterrupted time in the company of such a rigorously original mind. We needed a Breather. A breather which stretched out for so many years that we began to tell ourselves we didn’t really need to read The Waves after all. We got through college without reading Plato’s Republic, we reasoned, so we’d probably be able to do just fine without The Waves.
Then a friend recommended it about a year ago. She said we’d like it and described it as "a woman-friendly Dance to the Music of Time." Since we are nothing if not fans of Anthony Powell’s twelve-volume Dance (which we would describe, in its turn, as a sort of reader-friendly Proust for voyeurs), we snapped up the bait.
Which is not to say that we recommend it, exactly. Yes, it’s a masterpiece. Yes, you should read it, and yes, if you love language, it’s like drowning in honey. After all, it is one of the very few works of fiction that seriously attempts to render human experience in four dimensions (like Proust and Powell), and it is the only one we’re aware of that seriously and successfully sketches human consciousness. But the fact that it does all this while eschewing tawdry little devices that have drawn audiences to storytellers for millenia – like conflict, or dialogue – will queer the deal for most readers.
To be an avid reader is not enough. To be a lover of literary fiction is not enough. We’re not talking Barbara Kingsolver here, or John Irving. You have to have a certain amount of patience to read the sequential, fragmentary, and highly metaphorical soliloquies of six characters without a single page that would be recognizable to the consumer of contemporary literary fiction. We’ll say it again: to read The Waves, you need patience … and a certain amount of bloody-minded determination. You’ll also need an ear for exquisite language, and ready reserves of awe.
A Pertinent Question
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