Novel * Virginia Woolf * Impressions of Modernity * 1931
Grad school was a bit of a blur for me. If I had to guess, it’s a blur for a lot of students but I made the critical error of keeping a full time job while studying, so I’m going to guess my experience was even blurrier. I read so many articles culled from scholarly journals from various critics about all kinds of things over that period, most of which had to do with Modernism because of course that’s my jam. I don’t remember the vast majority of them. One that stuck out was an article with the title: “Is Virginia Woolf a Snob?” Without even reading it, my answer was “obviously.” Now, nearly ten years later and having forgotten every single point the author of that article made, my answer is the same. Yes, of course, look who we’re talking about here. Is Virginia Woolf a better writer than you? Always and forever. She pushed the form of the novel in ways you take for granted now, and she was synonymous with Modernism as a literary movement. She’s a goddamn icon. And of course she knew it. Woolf had her own exclusive little club, after all, and what else would you call the Bloomsbury group if not snobbish? Considering her output and her influence, Virginia Woolf earned the right.
Now that respect has been paid, Christ but sometimes her prose is just exhaustingly pretentious. I have previously read only two of her novels, Mrs. Dalloway and Jacob’s Room, both of which are clearly masterpieces, but at least they had some kind of narrative attached to the style. In both of those instances, Woolf was tinkering with narrative form and characterization and perspective, but for lack of a more graceful term, they had a point. I’m not entirely sure that The Waves does. Look, I will hastily admit that she’s the genius and I’m just some goober who likes writing about things he reads, but the entire time I was reading this thing I couldn’t wait to not be reading it. That’s probably a bad way to consume literature. It’s one thing to appreciate artistic experimentation, it’s quite another to enjoy it. It’s not impossible to like reading The Waves, but I think genuine enjoyment would have been more of a pleasant side effect than anything. Woolf was clearly not terribly interested in the reader experience. Being Virginia Woolf, that is entirely her prerogative, but if you’re going to choose one of her novels to read for funsies, look elsewhere.
I don’t want to set The Waves up as a difficult book, along the lines of something like Ulysses. It’s not that. The language is clear, and despite a few, ah, snobbishly obscure words the prose is easy enough to follow. There’s even a rough framework which is easy enough to make out. The Waves is about a group of friends and the narrative, such as it is, follows them from primary school through adulthood. It’s ostensibly about their relationships and how they navigated life differently despite beginning in roughly the same place. Nothing fancy. The experimentation comes in how the novel is presented. I think it’s best described as a series of impressionistic soliloquies. The prose is flowery and descriptive, focused on immediate experience and prone to drift. It’s not quite stream-of-consciousness, but there are elements reminiscent of that style. The narrative (which is a strong word for what is actually here) shifts continually between various viewpoints with little warning, often without any transition whatsoever, so that can be jarring. There were many times when I’d had to roll back a few paragraphs to figure out just who the hell was speaking. There’s no real conflict to speak of, no real ending. It’s just not that kind of book.
The question quickly becomes: “well, what kind of book is it then?” I don’t have a great answer. One you finish and go, “huh.” The Waves is probably best read by those interested in Virginia Woolf as a literary figure, those interested in Modernism in general, and those aspiring writers who appreciate the deft use of language. If you’re looking for a good story, take a hard pass. Because the novel is organized as a series of soliloquies given by the various characters, I had a recurring image that kept popping into my head. I envisioned this novel as a highly pretentious off-Broadway production. Empty set, and the six primary characters standing in a line across the stage. Each actor has a spotlight directly above them, and every time the perspective shifts, that light clunks on and the character gives their little speech. As soon as they’re done, their light clunks off and the next one comes on. If that sounds like the most dire, dull night of theatre you’ve ever feared being dragged to, well, I feel you. There’s just something about this level of raw pretention that is severely off-putting.
Okay, there needs to be an example of what I’m talking about. This is a snippet of a soliloquy given by Rhoda, a character who is rather detached from her friends and humanity in general and never quite figures out how to properly socialize. That much should be clear given what she says:
“’Now I will walk down Oxford Street envisaging a world rent by lightning; I will look at oaks cracked asunder and red where the flowering branch has fallen. I will go to Oxford Street and buy stockings for a party. I will do the usual things under the lightening flash. On the bare ground I will pick violets and bind them together and offer them to Percival, something given him by me. Look now what Percival has given me. Look at the street now that Percival is dead. The houses are lightly founded to be puffed over by a breath of air. Reckless and random the cars race and roar and hunt us to death like bloodhounds. I am alone in a hostile world. The human face is hideous. This is to my liking. I want publicity and violence and to be dashed like a stone on the rocks. I like factory chimneys and cranes and lorries. I like the passing of face and face and face, deformed, indifferent. I am sick of prettiness; I am sick of privacy. I ride rough waters and shall sink with no one to save me.’”
See what I mean? That passage encapsulates the entirety of The Waves, for better and for worse. The language and imagery is lovely, that’s plain to see. Some of the usual themes of Modernism is interwoven throughout, which of course I appreciate. The dread enticement of technology running rampant over nature and humanity is right there, and like nearly all literature from this period The Waves is dealing with the apocalyptic nature of the early 20th century. “Reckless and random the cars race and roar and hunt us to death like bloodhounds.” That’s so fucking good! What’s even better are the staccato sentences that follow which hammer home the disaffection and paradoxical enjoyment of the discontents of civilization. Where it all falls apart for me is that this is it. The character perspectives change, and while they all view the world differently they all describe it in the same kind of way. Impressionistic and fragmented, the vast majority of the novel is a blur of images and thoughts. Even if you put the work in to decipher what is happening to who and when, there just isn’t much here. There’s an aloofness to the text which renders any narrative you can cobble together a moot point. There’s no connection possible, and while that might be very Modern, it does a disservice to both the reader and the text.