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The Waves (thoughts)

February 26, 2010

And so Woolf in Winter is coming to an end. I’ve had a marvelous time participating in three of the four discussions (I skipped To the Lighthouse), and while the read-a-long might be over, I’ll still have some Woolf in my life for awhile. I need to read Between the Acts so that I can then read the nonfiction bibliophilic book The Things That Matter, and I have Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers checked out from the library for the March 7th discussion of Not the TV Book Group. But today we’re discussing The Waves, and the wonderful Claire of Kiss a Cloud is hosting.

I first read this one in either late high school or early college, so I was in the 16-18 age range. It’s an impressionable age, and I adored The Waves to little bits and pieces. I’ve been calling it my favourite Woolf ever since, and as I pulled it off my shelf to reread, I was equal parts excitement and trepidation. Would I still really love it? Or was my younger self a tad bit pretentious, and thus had somehow tricked herself into thinking she had enjoyed it when really it was incomprehensible?

Guess what? I still love it, and I don’t find it a struggle to understand at all. I know that’s odd, because this is considered one of Woolf’s more ‘cerebral’ books, but I seem to merge into these characters, to see bits and pieces of myself in all of them, and it hits me in the gut. Woolf’s style also matches the way that my own brain thinks and narrates, so that I flow effortlessly into her novels and am immediately in her world. I suppose that’s why she’s always been a favourite.

But why do I love The Waves so very, very much? Well, the format is pretty awesome! I think nowadays it’d be marketed as a novel-in-stories, since it follows the inner lives of six friends and pops into their heads during different phases of their lives, spanning the whole time period. Between each vignette is a short interlude describing a sun rising (and later setting) and waves and nature, and the prose is so beautiful it takes my breath away. I also enjoy the conceit of comparing a human life to the movements of the sun over a single day; while it isn’t incredibly original, it grounds the book, and I feel like the imagery and metaphor are fundamentally a part of what Woolf is exploring. They weren’t tossed in at the end to gussy it up, if that makes sense.

I also love how we never see the characters acting, or even talking to anyone other than themselves. We see their whole lives through their own inner stories, and the inner stories of their friends. I know that I tell stories to myself about various events in my life, and I’m sure that I’m not the only one, so this rang really true. It’s neat to watch those stories change as the characters age…while some of the attitudes stay the same, others mature, which is great fun to watch. I think the strongest bits are when the characters are teens, first at school and later at university. Woolf captures that combination of self-centeredness and playfulness and belief in the possibility of anything and extreme highs-and-lows that is adolescence so perfectly! But really, the whole book has an awareness of the oddness of consciousness, of the deep-down absurdity of how we experience and tell our lives. Here’s a passage that leaped out at me:

On the outskirts of every agony sits some observant fellow who points; who whispers as he whispered to me that summer morning in the house where the corn comes up to the window, ‘The willow grows on the turf by the river. The gardeners sweep with great brooms and a lady sits writing.’ Thus he directed me to that which is beyond and outside our own predicament; to that which is symbolic, and thus perhaps permanent, if there is any permanence in our sleeping, eating, breathing, so animal, so spiritual and tumultuous lives.

While I enjoy all of the characters, and how distinct Woolf makes their voices, I connect most with Jinny and Susan (probably because they’re girls-becoming-women, like myself, and they represent two different ‘ideals’ of womanhood, in a way). Here’s a bit of Jinny’s story that I loved, when she’s on the train:

Now we roar and wing into a tunnel. The gentleman pulls up the window. I see reflections on the shining glass which lines the tunnel. I see him lower his paper. He smiles at my reflection in the tunnel. My body instantly of its own accord puts forth a frill under his gaze. My body lives a life of its own.

And here’s a different character, reflecting on Susan. This is probably my favourite excerpt from the whole book, because the imagery is so perfect and memorable and precise:

To be loved by Susan would be to be impaled by a bird’s sharp beak, to be nailed to a barnyard door. Yet there are moments when I could wish to be speared by a beak, to be nailed to a barnyard door, positively, once and for all.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, I adore Woolf’s writing style as much as everything else! So reading this book is a delight to me, because it has everything I could want as a reader. That being said, it’s not a book that I’d fervently press into the hands of everyone I know. Not everyone is going to have that instant, visceral connection to Woolf’s style that I do, and I don’t know what the experience of this book would be like if I had to work for it. Instead, I’ll just be grateful that we get along so well, and that my rereading of The Waves kept it from favourite Woolf so far (I still have a lot more of her to read).

I’ll close with one more excerpt, which really jumped out at me, because it seems to describe the book itself, and the way Woolf approached it:

They want a plot, do they? They want a reason? It is not enough for the, this ordinary scene. It is not enough to wait for the thing to be said as if it were written; to see the sentence lay its dab of clay precisely on the right place, making character; to perceive, suddenly, some group in outline against the sky.

Tell me: are there any authors that you have a special connection with?

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50 Comments leave one →
  1. February 26, 2010 12:34 pm

    This sounds so good. I really wish I’d had the time and inclination to pick up Woolf again, as I’d intended to for this one. I haven’t been reading all the posts (more like skimming them) and it just sounds so satisfying in the end.

    • February 28, 2010 7:42 pm

      It’s definitely my fave! I’m curious to see what I think about a new-to-me Woolf…I seem to read about one a year, lol. Maybe this year I’ll read more.

  2. February 26, 2010 12:34 pm

    I’m in the middle of this book right now (first time reading it), and while I really enjoy so far, I have trouble keeping each character distinct from one another. Hopefully that isn’t a problem for my understanding of the book as a whole.

    • February 28, 2010 7:43 pm

      I can see that! For me, there were enough quirks w/ each character that I could tell who was talking, but a lot of the other participants didn’t see it distinguished much. ;) The last bit is all from one character’s pov anyway, so that’ll simplify things!

  3. February 26, 2010 12:34 pm

    Lovely. I couldn’t keep up the pace of Woolf in Winter but I will read this (and Orlando) and hope to read EVERYTHING by VW. I probably need a bio or two, as well.

    • February 28, 2010 7:44 pm

      Go for Hermione Lee’s! :) I want to read all of her writing too, eventually. There’s a ton of it though, so it should last me a lifetime!

  4. February 26, 2010 12:47 pm

    Like Care, there was no way I could read so much of one author in one winter! But your love for this book really shines through. While I intend to first read Orlando, I am glad to have gotten more exposure to Woolf as a writer. I don’t know what my preconceptions of her were previously, but they were vague and quite inaccurate.

    • February 28, 2010 7:45 pm

      These were all rereads for me, which I think helped a bit! :D But then, I’ve always gone on occasional author binges in my reading life, so I’m used to it. hehe

  5. February 26, 2010 12:48 pm

    Interesting that you read it so young and loved it, and still love it now! That’s a sign of strong writing, don’t you think? There are plenty of books I read in my teens that haven’t held up, and some I read back then that I didn’t like, but now find wonderful. This was my first read of Waves, but it won’t be my last.

    • February 28, 2010 7:45 pm

      That’s definitely a sign of strong writing! Austen has grown with me too. :D

  6. February 26, 2010 1:03 pm

    I so relate to your instant & visceral connection to Woolf’s style, Eva, although I had that experience more with Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, and don’t love her choppier style in The Waves quite as much. But definitely, when a writer’s prose hits you in the gut like that, it’s a very special find. Thanks so much for joining 3/4 of Woolf in Winter!

    • February 28, 2010 7:46 pm

      To the Lighthouse is the only novel of hers that I’ve read and not immediately connected with. Odd, right? I did love Mrs. Dalloway to bits and pieces though!

  7. February 26, 2010 1:52 pm

    “I think the strongest bits are when the characters are teens, first at school and later at university.” I agree with you here, Eva. I wish the book had been more about these years. Later, when they re-unite in the restaurant it turned very depressing for me. I wondered what connected them, besides their schooling experience. When I first began reading The Waves, it really had trouble getting past the beginning pages. After reading a bit about the novel via an outside source and understanding that for Woolf the novel was like a “play-poem,” could I then just forget about trying to follow a “story” and just appreciate some of the language. I’m actually only half-way through. My schedule has been hectic, so don’t know if I’ll get around to even posting any reflections, but am enjoying reading everyone’s thoughts on the novel.

    • February 28, 2010 7:47 pm

      I’m always curious how they stayed in contact once they went off to seperate (gender-wise) schools! But I guess I just accept it as necessary for the book. :) This definitely has a monologue and episodic feel to it, rather like a play. It’s not a traditional novel at all!

  8. February 26, 2010 5:08 pm

    Especially like that last quote that lays bare the process of writing, of creating language that points to it’s own brand of artifice. The unreliability of the subjective.

    Thanks so much for joining the conversations for the shared read. Always lovely to have another Woolf fan along.

    • February 28, 2010 7:47 pm

      Isn’t that quote lovely? Thanks for hosting-this was so much fun!

  9. February 26, 2010 5:25 pm

    Superb discussion, Eva. As I’ve said before, I always struggle with Woolf, but whenever I read what you’ve written about her work, I really want to pick up a book of hers. Your passion is infectious.

    I always felt a strong connection to Sylvia Plath. I love her poetry, I love The Bell Jar, and after I read her journals, she became my favourite writer.

    • February 28, 2010 7:47 pm

      Thank you! I’ve read and loved some of Plath’s poetry, but I haven’t read The Bell Jar. I should one of these days. :)

  10. February 26, 2010 5:32 pm

    This is also my favorite Woolf! When I first read it I actually went back and started it all over when I finished because I felt so moved by it. Like you, I was probably 17 or 18 and felt really connected to the writing.

    Marvelous review!

  11. tuulenhaiven permalink
    February 26, 2010 9:26 pm

    I loved that last quote you made note of. Actually, thinking of it’s context within the conversations of Woolf in Winter it actually made me laugh a little. I liked the exploration of how words can never quite capture what we’re thinking, and how all Bernard’s collected phrases couldn’t ever tell him what life and living was really about. Words build us up but can’t ever be everything for us.

  12. February 26, 2010 9:54 pm

    Count me among the fans of the final quote you selected. Count me also as someone who has had a visceral connection with Woolf’s writing. I love this book, truly, for its beautiful difficulty, but my true heart belongs to To the Lighthouse. And I’m fascinated by the fact that you have Vanessa & Virginia on your pile, too! We shall have to compare notes someday.

    As always, I’ve enjoyed and learned from your thoughts, Eva. Thank you.

    • February 28, 2010 8:00 pm

      Are you joining in the Not the TV Book Club? I don’t think I’d have picked Vanessa & Virginia up otherwise (fictional accounts of real people seem odd to me), so it should be interesting!

  13. February 26, 2010 11:19 pm

    I’ve got my review of the first half (started late and reading slowly) and would love to hear your thoughts. I’d also like to hear your thoughts on the rest of my blog, as I am further along and it’d be nice to have some readers! It’s nice to be reading a Woolf I’ve never read before as there’s something magical about an author’s work when it’s fresh (there’s a whole different magic to it when it’s an old favorite). Vanessa and Virginia is on my pile as well, and I need to finish up the biography of Virginia Woolf by H.Lee so I can return it to the library. Moments of Being will be read sometime by me in March or April (It’s the last Woolf I own and haven’t read). I’m contemplating getting Night and Day out from the library after that, because its description in the H.Lee biography intrigued me. Have you read either of those? I guess Woolf in Winter is turning into Woolf in Spring for me.

    • February 28, 2010 8:01 pm

      I’ll definitely pop by! It’s so hard in the early months of blogging, when you’re building things up. But stick with it-it’ll get better! :D Isn’t Lee’s bio of Woolf awesome?! I haven’t read Night & Day or Moments of Being…but I definitely want to.

  14. February 27, 2010 3:41 am

    I liked Bernard the best of all of the group. I haven’t read this for a while…really loved it.
    As soon as I make that first Library Loot run (semester starts next week) that VW bio by Hermoine Lee is MINE!!!

    • February 28, 2010 8:02 pm

      Really? Bernard amused me, but he wasn’t my favourite. His Byron antics were fun though! Yay for Library Loot and Lee’s biography. :D

  15. February 27, 2010 6:17 am

    You make me want to read more of Woolf’s books. I have to check some out from the library. Thanks Eva..

  16. February 27, 2010 7:50 am

    I keep meaning to pick up a Woolf again as I haven’t done so since my university days. This one always seems a bit scary though!

    • February 28, 2010 8:02 pm

      I have other books I consider scary, so I get where you’re coming from. :) I went into it not knowing anything about it, so my lack of preconceptions probably helped a lot.

  17. February 27, 2010 8:37 am

    When I was young, I loved all things Daphne DuMaurier. Reading Rebecca or Jamaica Inn…now I’m wanting to go back and reread them, as you said, to see if I would love them today.

    I think The Waves sounds fabulous!

    I read Vanessa and Virginia a few months ago. An intriguing story!

    I had started Mrs. Dalloway a few weeks ago, but for some reason, just couldn’t engage…maybe it was stuff going on in my life, but I will definitely try it again. But maybe I’ll check out The Waves first!

    • February 28, 2010 8:02 pm

      Ohh-I love Rebecca and Jamaica Inn! I think they’ll definitely stand up. :D

  18. February 27, 2010 12:30 pm

    *sigh* I wish she didn’t scare me so. But she does. I’m thoroughly convinced I’m simply not intelligent enough or perceptive enough or something else enough to “get her.” But I’ll never know for sure until I try, will I?

    • February 28, 2010 8:03 pm

      I feel that way about Ulysses by James Joyce! Proust and Faulkner scare me too (except F’s short stories). So I get it. :) But you KNOW that I’m going to say about you ‘not being intelligent enough.’ :p

  19. February 27, 2010 1:32 pm

    These excerpts are so lovely, and I am still so intimidated by Virginia Woolf. :P

    • February 28, 2010 8:04 pm

      Break through the intimidation! lol Maybe try her nonfiction? Or The Voyage Out, which is much more traditional?

  20. February 27, 2010 4:13 pm

    This was my favorite of the four we read for Woolf in Winter, and you succinctly described all the reasons I felt as well. Jinny was one of my favorites, and Rhoda, too. Like you, I tell stories to myself during the day much like the characters did in this novel, and perhaps that’s one of the reasons I could enjoy it so much. The whole thing just seemed to make sense to me, whereas the others didn’t. (Most especially the ridiculous (to me) Orlando~!)

    • February 28, 2010 8:04 pm

      I’m glad you liked this one at least! :D

  21. February 27, 2010 5:08 pm

    I thought Woolf really showcased her brilliance here, and think it shines through people who appreciate it as much as you. I still prefer To the Lighthouse over this, as that resonated so much with me. I didn’t struggle with the understanding of The Waves as much as I struggled with my feelings towards it and the approach(es) I took to reading it. I found it gorgeous, but at the same time, tedious, in its unnaturalness and theatricality. Like I said in my post, I felt it didn’t mirror one’s thoughts, but rather one’s feelings. What an amazing writer, eh? I am going to continue with her earlier novels first. Will start with Jacob’s Room, and then possibly The Voyage Out and then Night and Day. And then will move onto her later novels. Then her nonfiction and biography and diaries and letters. Or maybe simultaneously. She is such a fascinating character in that rarely do I see a writer who elicits so much interest in her life.

    • February 27, 2010 5:09 pm

      P.S. I forgot to say thank you so much for reading along and for sharing your thoughts. It was a pleasure having you. :)

      • February 28, 2010 8:06 pm

        Thanks so much for hosting Claire! :) I guess my inner monologue is more theatrical than yours, since I resonated so much with how the characters interpreted their world. :D I had problems connected with To the Lighthouse, so I’m the opposite of you. ;) I think once I read Between the Acts, I want to read A Room of One’s Own and then Night and Day.

  22. February 27, 2010 6:00 pm

    Great review!! I can’t wait to read a Woolf!! I want to see why you love it! I’ll hopefully be picking one next month!

  23. February 28, 2010 1:33 am

    You really do love The Waves, and it shows! I wish I could have been more enthusiastic about it, but I guess we all have different tastes. I’m going to read it again though, slowly. If so many people got so much out of it, then I will have to dig deeper and try harder.

    • February 28, 2010 8:08 pm

      That’s a great attitude Violet. :) My reaction to people who love Dickens is more of “You’re crazy.” lol Perhaps try some of her nonfiction?

  24. February 28, 2010 1:42 pm

    This post is gushy in a wonderful way; I completely gained a sense of your love for this book. The Waves isn’t one of my favourite Woolf’s novels but, as you rightly point out, it is her most “cerebral”; I also had to host a seminar discussion on it so I didn’t sit down to devour and enjoy it. You have convinced me to reread it soon as I would approach it less academically and garner more enjoyment.

    • February 28, 2010 8:09 pm

      Thanks Claire! I imagine reading this for academia would be a completely different experience. And one that would probably diminish my love of the book. ;)

  25. March 3, 2010 9:04 am

    “But really, the whole book has an awareness of the oddness of consciousness, of the deep-down absurdity of how we experience and tell our lives.”

    Well-said! That’s Woolf in a nutshell, isn’t it? I love how Woolf describes the strangeness of being alive, and for me, that’s normally the best part of whatever work of hers I’m reading. Maybe that’s why I loved A Room of One’s Own so much — no characters, just Woolf telling us about female writers and how she views the world :)

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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