readings and rereadings
When I was nine or ten I read Little Women so many times that I could open the book at any page, read a sentence and know by heart the sentence that came next. As an adult reader, I look back on that experience and realise how extraordinary it was – to be so close to a text that it becomes almost like one’s own thoughts, bubbling up delightfully and also comfortably. I could almost imagine that I had written Little Women myself, so familiar were its sentences and paragraphs and page-turns. I still have that copy, complete with underlinings and marginalia attesting to my attempts to turn it into a play that my sisters and I would perform for our parents.
I was interested when I noticed that reading Virginia Woolf prompted me to think about all this again. But why would Woolf in particular put me in mind of that childhood experience?
When I read Woolf something happens that doesn’t happen with any other writer. She provokes an alteration inside my brain so that when I lay down the book, my thoughts can’t stop arranging themselves in the shapes of her prose. For a few lovely minutes I feel as if I’m thinking Virginia Woolf’s sentences.
For example, I might look out the window at a tree and hear myself thinking and she looked and looked at the waving birch on which a few yellow leaves were flickering. Or I might wonder what to do about the mark on the carpet and hear myself thinking but was it not also true that the mark which was in the shape of a rather large snail would always remind her of how he had looked at the precise moment of spilling his wine, a look that she had never seen before or since.
Don’t think that I imagine I can write like Virginia Woolf. I certainly can’t. No one ever can. But there is something in Woolf’s sentences that means it takes me a while to unhitch myself, to uncouple my reading/thinking mind from her writing/thinking mind. Perhaps writing this blog will help me to find out what it is she’s doing. At the moment I’m thinking it may well have something to do with naturalness and/or with Woolf’s idea that writing sentences is essentially about rhythm.
The main thing about all this is that within a few moments of starting The Waves I knew that it would be a book like Little Women. I knew that I would want never to stop reading it. And I was right: when I arrived at p214 of my lovely Vintage Classics edition I could do nothing but turn immediately back to p1 and started all over again.
The waves broke on the shore (p214)
The sun had not yet risen (p1)
I wanted the book to be coming towards me for ever, as waves do – page after page after page rising and falling and hissing away into the sand. Like waves I wanted the sentences to be the same and different each time I read them. I wanted the book to be a tremendous endless ocean in which I could swim whenever I wanted. One day, a leisurely swim with time to stare up at the gulls. Another day, a short plunge from which I would emerge shivering but clarified.
Rippling small, rippling grey, innumerable waves spread beneath us. I touch nothing. I see nothing. We may sink and settle on the waves. The sea will drum in my ears. The white petals will be darkened with sea water. They will float for a moment and then sink. Rolling me over the waves shoulder me under. Everything falls in a tremendous shower, dissolving me.
names and namings
When I read Alexandra Harris’s exemplary study of Woolf I learned that The Waves was originally to have been called The Moths. Six characters moving around and bumping against a central source – a seventh person who is there at the beginning of the book and then goes away to India where he dies in an accident before he has even got going.
The six characters are Rhoda, Jinny, Susan, Neville, Bernard and Louis. They and the seventh play together in gardens as children. As grown-ups they always keep abreast of one another. They compare who they are, finding things to envy and deplore and admire in each other. If one bell rings, the other six can’t help humming back a note in return.
The seventh person is Percival who is the book’s abiding presence/absence. We don’t hear Percival’s own voice but the friends love and slightly worship him. We believe them, so we probably love and slightly worship him too.
(Talking of naming, Percival – or Perceval – was Galahad’s predecessor as the Knight of the Holy Grail. In Chrétien de Troye’s twelfth century account he is innocent and slightly blundering but singular, separated from the other knights by the purity of his Quest.)
I’m very interested that Woolf changed her title idea from moths to waves. Moths go round and round, they can’t help being drawn to the light and to their own damage. (I hate hearing that slight fizzing noise when a moth flies against a lit bulb.) There is something stupid about their frenzied patterns. They suffer and they cannot save themselves.
Waves are entirely different. Waves move forwards and backwards, inwards and outwards, breaking and then gathering themselves again. There is something tireless about the motion of waves, a soothingness that comes from knowing there will always be a next – that they will keep coming towards us because there is something they are seeking.
In Vanessa Bell’s cover illustration for The Waves, the wavy lines narrow into a gap near the bottom of the image. Or perhaps they widen into an opening at the top. Also near the bottom there is what may well be the ‘seven-sided carnation’ that stands in the vase on the table of the restaurant where the friends dine with Percival before he goes away. In Vanessa’s image there are two blooms, one resplendent, the other drooping and sorry. The wave shapes go up and down into little points which are steeper where the gap is narrower, as if they are being funnelled down into an estuary.
The colours don’t remotely conjure up the sea. They are green and brown – unmistakably earthy. And I’ve only just noticed that the wave shapes look like the W in the word Waves and the W in the word Woolf.
Vanessa has written the book’s title with a narrow paint brush. The title is in fact not The Waves but the Waves so that what we see is the word Waves and what we feel is the idea of waves. The Waves (capital T) would have to be particular waves, and we might find ourselves wondering which.
If you hold the image a little further away, you see that the waves are moving between two humanish figures, which are possibly male and female. The male seems to be dancing or walking and waving (yes, waving!) while the female sits with an arm across herself as if she is thinking. The wavy lines and the carnation are between the two figures – they are what connect them and what hold them at a slight distance from each other. The two people don’t appear to be looking at each other, one faces the waves and the other looks away from them.
No, I don’t think moths would have done at all. Moths cannot be symphonic and The Waves is a symphonic novel. Moths are too individual and discrete. Each creature is busy with itself. Waves may try briefly to lift themselves above the sea but they must always subside into it again. Waves can do nothing but be drawn back down into the vast heavingness of the whole.
“And we ourselves, walking six abreast, what do we oppose, with this random flicker of light in us that we call brain and feeling, how can we do battle against this flood; what has permanence? Our lives too stream away, down the unlighted avenues, past the strip of time, unidentified.”
© Katharine Towers
picturing pictures of the sea
I have promised myself not to read any ‘criticism’ of Woolf while writing this blog. I want everything I say to spring out of my own mind and so am permitting myself only VW’s A Writer’s Diary (as edited by Leonard) and bits and pieces I might remember from Alexandra Harris’s study which I read before I started all this. Of course, I must therefore court the danger of stating the obvious or the already-often-stated. But that will have to be. If I say things that have already been said it it may well be because they are true.
I want to write about what Woolf in her Diary calls the ‘interludes’ – the in-between passages which are in italics in my Vintage Classics edition and which interrupt the character soliloquies with mentions of the sea or gardens or of birds singing. Woolf writes in the Diary that she wants the ‘interludes’ to be instead of Chapter breaks:
“Suppose I could run all the scenes together more – by rhythms chiefly. So as to avoid those cuts; so as to make the blood run like a torrent from beginning to end – I don’t want the waste that the breaks give; (but)…. a saturated unchopped completeness… done without spilling a drop.”
So the interludes are her way of catching her breath without stopping – like a runner who walks in order to rest rather than standing still. If you stand still your muscles start to cool and when you try to run again your legs are heavy and sluggish and awkward and running suddenly seems the most peculiar business.
Now, is this just me or does the prose of the interludes keep sounding like the Book of Genesis? Here’s what I mean:
Bible: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said ‘let there be light’ and there was light… And there was evening and there was morning – the first day.
First interlude: The sun had not yet risen. The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it. Gradually as the sky lightened a dark line lay on the horizon dividing the sea from the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes moving, one after another, beneath the surface, following each other, pursuing each other, perpetually.
In both, something miraculous is going on. In the Bible it’s the fashioning of the first day. Woolf’s new day dawning also has something of the same this-has-never-happened-beforeness. What is afoot in both is light/dark and water moving. Both partake of the same unsurprised (almost deadpan) tone. What could be more ordinary than the first sentence of the Bible? God created the heavens and the earth. What’s happening is so unremarkable as to be blindlingly obvious, therefore unarguable.
Woolf is no less unfazed as she describes the dawn. Her language is limited and repetitive. The same ordinary colours: grey, white, green, yellow, blue, red. Almost a child’s colouring book. And the adverbs are all rather similar: gradually, slowly, gradually, slowly and a single ‘perpetually’ – how Biblical! In one of the other interludes there is a glorious ‘lovelily’. There are here only one or two metaphors – the arm of a woman raising a lamp (which is the sun) or the sky as an old wine bottle (in which the horizon is the sediment). But even these are terribly literal – metaphors that have been forged to explain to us exactly how things are, rather than to operate in any embellishing literary fashion.
I’m reminded of the last sentence of Mrs Dalloway: For there she was. For Woolf the most extraordinary and incomprehensible idea is that things exist. A woman standing in a doorway. A chair with the light falling across it. What could be more ordinary, or more mysterious.
The Waves has nine ‘interludes’ and each opens with the sun:
The sun had not yet risen.
The sun rose higher.
The sun rose.
The sun risen… bared its face…
The sun had risen to its full height.
The sun no longer stood in the middle.
The sun had now sunk lower in the sky.
The sun was sinking.
Now the sun had sunk.
Woolf’s tenses are all over the place. The sun rose. The sun was sinking. Now the sun had sunk. Sometimes we are watching something as it happens. Sometimes we arrive just after the event. Sometimes it all happens so quickly that we almost miss it (‘the sun rose’). The effect of the tense-jumble is somehow to side-line the reader – it doesn’t matter whether we are there are not. We arrive too early or we arrive too late but we are not really the point.
On occasions the interludes move into a garden and sometimes indoors. We enter someone’s house and this happens because the light goes in and falls upon objects. In the seventh interlude our gaze touches pieces of furniture at the exact moment the light does:
“Here it browned a cabinet, there reddened a chair, here it made the window waver in the side of the green jar.”
Just as before, the colours are workaday – childishly primary and as simple as the Bible. The light does not discriminate but falls where it must and its effect is to make each thing more like itself. A brown cabinet is made more brown, a red chair more red. There is one wobble when the reflection of a straight square window curves on the side of a jar. Woolf tells us that “all for a moment wavered and bent in uncertainty and ambiguity.” But it is only for a moment.
Many of the interludes end with waves. Most striking perhaps is the last sentence of the fifth:
“The waves fell; withdrew and fell again, like the thud of a great beast stamping.”
Louis (the poet) has his own great beast. Near the beginning of the novel he hears the “sullen thud” of the waves on the beach and it is to him the sound of a “chained beast” which “stamps on the beach. It stamps and stamps”. Perhaps this is a premonition.
The great beast at the end of the fifth interlude may or may not be the one belonging to Louis but it tips us directly into the novel’s worst happening. Percival falls from another great beast – a horse that trips. We are not told if he is stamped on, but we can’t help making the horrid association. These two sentences sit beside each other.
“The waves fell; withdrew and fell again, like the thud of a great beast stamping.
‘He is dead,’ said Neville. ‘He fell. His horse tripped.’”
The thud of the great beast stamping is also the thud of Percival hitting the ground in India. The thud of death. The thud of sudden loss and of absence ever-after. The event is so dreadful that it contaminates the remotely impassive world of the interlude where everything is usually as simple and aloof as in the Bible.
Together the nine interludes move us through time, from sunrise to sunset and darkness. There is a sense of the hours passing. The character soliloquies locate us in the vivid present of the mind – the baroque now of thought and feeling. Perhaps it is simply the case that between sunrise and sunset we all have a few great moments – moments when a beast stamps or when something happens lovelily.
The last interlude ends with girls sitting on verandahs as the sun disappears: Them, too, darkness covered. The world, by which I mean the book, is going back to a time before it was made.
© Katharine Towers
Not a thought but a mind thinking
It’s true that I promised myself not to read any ‘criticism’ while thinking about The Waves but I don’t believe Rachel Genn’s essay “Only by taking leave of our senses can we plunge into reverie” will count against me*. I read it just as I was starting to want to write about the intricate machine that is Woolf’s prose (although machine is of course exactly the wrong word). The essay gave me a little inkling of a way in, and made me imagine that I might after all be able to get to the bottom of it (to which I now reply to myself, dream on).
In her essay Genn tosses and turns the state of reverie, beautifully observing that:
“In rêverie we are propped open while the world has a sniff around.”
This made me sit up because it seems to describe exactly the state of being in which the characters in The Waves exist. All are extraordinarily thin-skinned: they have no armour against the assaults and reversals of the moment. Everything enters them equally and they register everything with equal fervour. In a way they show us (by which I mean Woolf’s sentences show us) how unbearable it would be to be 100% alive and cognisant/sentient all the time.
I don’t think this way of being is a characteristic as much as it is a condition. Woolf wants to bring to us human beings who are acutely alive in ways that not many of us manage to be. I also happen to think that Woolf herself was thus.
All this also calls to mind a phrase that has stuck in my mind ever since the first time I read it many years ago. In a letter, Elizabeth Bishop associates the poetic quality of timeliness with a definition of the baroque as ‘not a thought but a mind thinking’. What she covets is the ‘ardour’ and drama / immediacy of an idea as it forms in the mind. Timeliness means catching a thought on the hoof – as it bubbles up and in all the excitement of its unfinishedness. I think it would be reasonable to say that Woolf’s prose is the very height of baroque.
This enhanced (painful) hyper-state is the fuel for the whirring purring engine of Woolf’s sentences. She throws her characters open, which means that she must throw herself open if she is to tell us about them. She must make her sentences raw and unmediated and, yes, natural. She must make it seem as if each one comes straight at/to us without any meddling on her part. None of which means it might not take her hours to write one of them.
The work of making it seem that there is no work etc.
And so to the sentences themselves which I am slightly afraid to approach in the way that I would be afraid to approach any hero. I cannot be original in noticing that all the characters in The Waves think / feel in the same kind of language. If I open the book and start to read there is no way of telling whether I am hearing Jinny or Louis or Susan or Bernard. They all sound the same, although Susan is likely to wonder about the farm and Neville can’t stop thinking about Percival. The thoughts sometimes differ but the shapes and rhythms of the prose do not.
This similarity leads to what I will call a disembodiedness, which oddly does not go against an intensely vivid aliveness. What we are reading is the sound human beings make as they think and feel – a sound that is as unmistakeable as the racket of a dog barking.
Each stretch of prose is enclosed in single speech marks, which we might perhaps call thought marks. We need them so we know when one character stops thinking and another starts, but they also form a cautious little membrane between us and the words on the page. It is like a small veil of modesty or tact – as if Woolf wishes to remind us gently that we are in fact reading someone’s mind.
Here’s a short passage picked almost at random. This is Susan (p.136):
‘I ask now, standing with my scissors among my flowers, Where can the shadow enter? What shock can loosen my laboriously gathered, relentlessly pressed down life? Yet sometimes I am sick of natural happiness, and fruit growing, and children scattering the house with oars, guns, skulls, books won for prizes and other trophies.’
Susan is standing in her garden among flowers which are hollyhocks. She is holding scissors. We see her vividly and she sees herself with the acute vividness of self-doubt. She is probably standing stock-still, so she almost becomes a painting. She is frozen in a moment of what we might call angst or existential anxiety.
The passage opens with a seeming redundancy. I ask now… Susan doesn’t need to tell herself that she is thinking, or indeed that she is standing in her garden choosing which flowers to cut. The I ask now tells us that she is noticing her own thoughts as they form and that she is taking stock of them. I ask now also tells us that she is watching herself in the same way that we are watching her. It is almost as if she knows we are there.
There is a staginess here, as there is in the slightly declarative repetitions: where can the shadow…? / what shock can loosen? Susan’s thoughts assume a rather formal shape because she is thinking about herself thinking them. Then there is laboriously gathered, relentlessly pressed – a lovely patterning of adverb + verb which feels no less theatrical. If Susan is being a little melodramatic it is because she is afraid that her life may be stagnating. The sentences (which are so highly patterned as to be close to poetry) mimic the very thing she is afraid of: being set in her ways, set in her life’s ways.
The passage also demonstrates one of the glories of Woolf’s sentences – the quality of being both stately and slightly hurtling. Yet sometimes is again a little stagey. Natural happiness is mentioned without qualification as if we should know what it is, so it makes us pause. Then comes the hurtling: and fruit growing, and children scattering the house with oars, guns, skulls, books won for prizes and other trophies.
Susan’s mind summons up her children’s paraphernalia, although not until we have been slightly (mis)led into thinking she is fed up of natural happiness, and fruit growing and children per se; Susan corrects herself into complaining about the mess children make. The prose is on the hoof as much as the mind – baroquely so.
And so back we’re back with rêverie which is not a dreamy listlessness but an acutely alive alertness – just as an impressionist painting is not at all vague but a detailed & intricately rendered choreography of dots and dabs and smears.
I’m still not sure that I’ve got any closer to understanding what it is that makes Woolf’s sentences take up residence in my mind like pigeons in a loft. After writing this, I read again for a little while. Each sentence flies in and settles, slightly ruffling its feathers. Then the next and the next until soon they are all lined up together, jostling slightly, the same but different – and always unmistakeably pigeons. There they are – and part of their delight is that they are alive and so will never keep still.
©Katharine Towers January 2021
The Susan-ness of Susan
I know very little about Jungian archetypes and the collective unconscious etc., but thinking about The Waves gave me an idea that made me want to dig a little deeper into Jungian territories. My starting point was reading again Woolf’s interludes and feeling there was something more I wanted to say but having only the vaguest inkling as to what it was.
But it started something like this… When Woolf says ‘the sea‘ which sea does she have in mind? Does she hold in her head a particular beloved place in Sussex or Cornwall? Or is she ‘just’ imagining sea?
I read that Jungian archetypes are based in part on Plato’s ‘Forms’. According to Plato there are two worlds – our visible world of objects which we can see, hear, touch, smell etc and another elsewhere world of unseen Forms which we apprehend using reason. Forms are perfect and timeless and changeless. A particular chair (and Woolf is rather fond of chairs) can only ever participate in and be an instance of chair-ness (or is it Chair-ness)?
If we go to a friend’s house we recognise chairs and know that we may sit down on one of them. We recognise the four-legged object with its plush cushion because we have seen many others. We might on occasion say “what a lovely chair” because we think this one a particularly beautiful example.
But I can’t imagine what we would say if we went to the other elsewhere world and met chair-ness in its ideal perfect form. Would it be like meeting God perhaps? We would most likely be speechless.
All of which brings me back to Woolf’s sea / waves. Is her sea an instance of the sea or is it sea / sea-ness in its ideal, changeless Form? In other words, does she want her sea to be somewhere we might actually go and paddle, or is it a more abstract / abstracted place that she wants to make exist primarily in the imagination (which might, after all, have something to do with that other elsewhere world).
So I re-read very carefully all the interludes and made notes in columns to find out exactly how Woolf writes about the sea and waves. It didn’t take long for my lists to reveal that her sea spends far more time doing than being. In fact, I could find less than ten instances of the sea being (ie ‘the sea was/is + adjective’). On the first page it is a grey cloth and it is like a sleeper. Somewhere else it is indistinguishable from the sky.
But most of the time the sea is very busy. It becomes barred, its waves sweep and fan, they fall with a regular thud, with the concussion of horses’ hooves, they drum like turbaned men, their spray rises like the tossing of lances and assegais, they draw in and out with the muscularity of an engine, they fall like a wall, like a stone wall, like a great beast stamping, they leave a black rim of twigs. It might be more accurate to say that Woolf’s sea is most of the time busy doing what waves do. The sea does not exist simply by being there.
And so to Susan who is an exemplar of how Woolf draws all the characters in The Waves. (I love Susan but I promise I will also write about other characters soon.) We have no idea what she looks like, although we do know that her nails are bitten. We may occasionally see her from the outside – as when Neville sits in the restaurant impatient for Percival to arrive, observing the manner of arrival of each of the friends who is not Percival. Bernard thinks she has eyes like lumps of crystal. Louis thinks that to be loved by Susan would be to be impaled by a bird’s sharp beak.
These are not descriptions that help us to imagine what Susan looks like. We may learn how a particular character stands or smooths their hair or that they are wearing the wrong clothes. But as for brown eyes, blue eyes, fatness or thinness or height we are left to make it up for ourselves.
Mostly we experience Susan from the inside out. We learn which words and phrases she keeps returning to when she is thinking, the ways in which she describes herself to herself, the things she chooses to remember and the things she can’t forget, the way she regards the others, the way she believes they regard her, the things that make her suffer or delight. And so forth. Susan’s mind is always in motion, always engrossed in the business of thinking. All this is extraordinarily vivid, to the point of being almost unbearable.
Which brings me very close to using the word Susan-ness. Susan is not an archetype, but neither is she quite a mere person. We understand certain things about her, all of which seem important: that she loves her father and her setters, that she enjoys the stare of shepherds met in the road, that she knows she does not dress well like Rhoda or Jinny. Susan accepts that she will become like her mother:
“silent in a blue apron locking up the cupboards.”
(Yes, I know there is an adjective here – but I would argue that the ‘silent’ is the silence of someone who is engrossed in being busy.)
So we understand what is essential to Susan and what is essentially her. Rather than being a character, might she perhaps be a figure (which brings me even closer to using the word Form)? What Woolf gives us is the tough, inalienable essence of Susan, which is expressed by the things Susan thinks and does rather than by telling the reader what she is like. Show don’t tell. Susan is unarguable and adamantine.
Or, Susan is like the sea. She enacts her Susan-ness in the same way as the sea enacts its sea-ness using its waves. Each does the things that make it itself. There is something unarguable about this way of being. (We might disagree about whether or not a friend is a patient person, but we cannot dispute the fact that they waited for a year to buy a puppy.)
Put differently, we might say that Woolf is never content to simply let things be… All must be perpetually set into motion, spun and spun around again to the point of shimmeringness.
Stillness as inexistence.
Woolf was thus in her own life, flickering and flaring at every moment so as to register a change in the light on the Downs, a quirk of syntax in an admired writer or an unkind remark from a friend. Often all this would become too much for her.
What she asks over and again in The Waves is what makes the sea the sea, what makes Susan Susan. And her answers do not live in adjectives but in verbs. And in verbs are contained the changeless timeless essence of the Form.
Virginia Woolf’s Children
Famously she had none. But she loved them, for example her sister Vanessa’s. There is a beautiful photograph of Virginia and Angelica sitting outdoors, side by side. Virginia holds something in her hand and looks at the camera. Angelica looks down; she may be reading or making a daisy chain. Virginia’s face, half-shadowed by the wide brim of her hat, seems to be expressing something to the camera along the lines of Look at this child. How absorbed and separate she is. How little she needs or wants me.
In December 1927 Virginia went to Nessa’s house for a party and watched the children performing in a play. She wrote in her diary:
“Angelica so mature and composed; all grey and silver; such an epitome of all womanliness;”
Wanting to write about the children in The Waves but not knowing where or how to start, this little description of Angelica gave me a clue. When Woolf describes Angelica as “all grey and silver” and as “an epitome of all womanliness” it’s as if she sees her as already complete – not a child on the way to being grown-up but already containing and exemplifying her adult self.
I wonder if Woolf thinks that a child doesn’t transform into an adult – as a caterpillar turns into a butterfly or an acorn into an oak tree. Perhaps she thinks it’s more like Russian dolls: the netsuke-like inner doll accruing layers but persisting unchanged at the heart.
The characters in The Waves are children at the beginning. By the end they are grown-up. But there is nothing in the language to signal this. Susan the child who leaves home for boarding school thinks, feels and speaks in exactly the same way as Susan the mother who rocks her baby in the kitchen and wonders if her life has lost its shape.
One of the (many) extraordinary things about The Waves is the image-making. It’s something that we notice from the very first page and it’s there on the second page when the children appear. All six children say the most remarkable and unlikely things that it might take a poet to think of. Nevertheless, we don’t balk when Susan says:
“the leaves are gathered round the window like pointed ears”
or when Bernard says:
“the cock crows like a spurt of hard, red water”
or when Rhoda says:
“islands of light are swimming on the grass .”
Or when Louis says something that he continues to say/think throughout the novel:
“I hear something stamping. A great beast’s foot is chained. It stamps, and stamps, and stamps.”
These are the first words we hear from the children who are up early; it is before lessons and there is a sense that the world they are taking stock of hasn’t yet been impinged upon by adults. The children are gathering impressions of a spring morning – noticing leaves, light, insects, birds singing, the occasional domestic noise as the house wakes up. They are seeing as if for the first time and it’s almost as if the world has been created especially for them.
I’m not sure why they are noticing these particular things – there’s a randomness. There is also an unarguableness. The observations have something of the force of poetry – by which I mean that we believe what is being said not because it is true but because it has never been said in this way before.
I’m also not sure whether the children are speaking their observations aloud to each other or whether these are private thoughts. The scene could be one in which they are excitedly comparing notes, or one in which each child is vividly lost in their own Angelica-like reverie.
In fact, this is of no concern. Woolf isn’t remotely bothered about creating convincing scenarios. We are looking down the telescope from the other end.
When she was thinking about the opening pages of The Waves, Woolf wrote:
“… this shall be childhood; but it must not be my childhood”
She goes on to refer to a “sense of children” and to “unreality; things oddly proportioned.”
The children’s thoughts/utterances are a thousand miles away from being real. No living child would ever speak or think like this. And yet … the childlikeness of what is being said is what strikes us again and again. Each and every utterance flashes with conviction and freedom and vividness.
The effect of this clamour of voices at the beginning of the novel seems to me to be to capture the essence of childlike-ness. Everything in this opening movement makes us feel and live what it’s like to be a child – airily bypassing literalness and realism in the way that music does.
The children move through a series of childish experiences: going away to school, returning home for holidays, meeting/liking/disliking/admiring teachers, playing cricket. Neville’s first sighting of Old Crane the headmaster goes like this:
“Behold the headmaster. Alas, that he should excite my ridicule. He is too sleek, he is altogether too shiny and black, like some statue in a public garden. And on the left of his waistcoat, his taut, his drum-like waistcoat, hangs a crucifix.”
Behold! Alas! I don’t think we even notice how unlikely the vocabulary is! Meanwhile, for Bernard:
“Old Crane, the headmaster, has a nose like a mountain at sunset, and a blue cleft in his chin like a wooded ravine.”
One of the ‘Martian’ poets might have come up with the nose like a mountain with its strange/funny/naive imaginative leap. It is the sort of thing that a child might conceivably say but would never actually say.
After this, Bernard’s outlandish similes subside into a plain statement of sad fact:
“This is our first night at school, apart from our sisters.”
It’s if all the impressions (which have been like as dazzling and distracting as a firework display) suddenly melt away in the harsh light of what is simply the case.
The words lie down quietly on the page and there is nothing more to be said.
The puddle and the tree
In January 1906 Virginia Woolf went to a dance and sat in a dim corner reading Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’. As the gay dancers turned and floated about her she had her nose in a book, gripped by one of the greatest of all Victorian poems about death and monumental grief.
Death is a cataclysm that can prove resistant to language. This is the case in life. It is also the case (to a lesser extent) in The Waves. Rhoda, Susan, Jinny, Louis, Bernard and Neville are largely dumbfounded when the news about Percival arrives. Death evokes an enormous silence, as if a stone has dropped out of the sky. What is there to say? Nothing.
Woolf encountered death very early in her life. Her mother Julia Stephen died of rheumatic fever in 1895 when she was in her 40s and Virginia was only 13. Two years later her half-sister Stella succumbed to an illness contracted on her honeymoon. But the death that really haunts the writing of The Waves is that of her beloved older brother Thoby who died of typhoid in 1906 when he was only 29. When Woolf set down her pen after writing the final paragraph of the novel she wrote in her Diary:
“Anyhow, it is done; and I have been sitting here these 15 minutes in a state of glory, and calm, and some tears, thinking of Thoby and if I could write Julian Thoby Stephen 1881 – 1906 in the first page. I suppose not.”
Again and again death crashed into Virginia’s young life – to use the verb that Bernard uses in his ‘summing up’ at the end of the novel:
“into this crashed death – Percival’s”
This was Bernard’s about-to-begin-life which he had imagined spreading serenely beyond London’s rooftops and chimneys on the day his first child was born.
It is rare to come across such a thing as a ‘plot device’ in The Waves but here the writer’s hand fleetingly appears. I find this birth /death confluence a tiny bit disappointing and as I write I am still trying to account for it and find in it Woolf’s characteristic glancing / dancing lightness.
Bernard continues his ‘summing up’ by reflecting that “for pain words are lacking.” There it is again – that twinkle of disappointment. This is probably the least surprising statement in the entire novel. Bernard is saying something so terribly obvious.
Why would Woolf allow him to lapse into such ordinariness? I am trying very hard not to say that death makes us all ordinary, as I don’t imagine Woolf can have believed it to be so.
Earlier in the novel when Bernard receives the news he walks downstairs reflecting on all the things that should be happening:
“there should be cries, cracks, fissures, whiteness passing over chintz covers, interference with the sense of time, of space; the sense also of extreme fixity in passing objects; and sounds very remote and then very close…”
It strikes me that a clue to Woolf’s aesthetic when it comes to writing about death may lie in that word fixity. Elsewhere in this blog I’ve talked about her devotion to movement and flowingness, to things doing rather than merely being. But death doesn’t move or shimmer or float or rise and fall. It stands there and it won’t budge. And because it won’t budge there is little to say about it.
If we go back to the pages where Neville and Rhoda hear that Percival has died, we find that both are suddenly arrested by an everyday object that becomes insuperable.
“There stands the tree which I cannot pass.”
while for Rhoda:
“There is the puddle and I cannot cross it.”
The tree and the puddle become adamantine, which is perhaps why they have the definite article. Rhoda really means a puddle but death turns it into the puddle – into something monumental. (Perhaps this one puddle is all puddles in the way that according to Louis “one death is all deaths.”)
The tree and the puddle are in the way. Rhoda and Neville must stand still before them. This is what death does – it makes things stop. I think that the tree and the puddle speak far more compellingly than any abstract musings about time and space.
Something else is interesting. Woolf recounts in her Diary a journey to Richmond in Yorkshire to see the total eclipse of 1927. Her description of the sense of stoppage is suddenly very familiar:
“… the light went out. We had fallen. It was extinct. There was no colour… How can I express the darkness? It was a sudden plunge, when one did not expect it; being at the mercy of the sky;”
Percival goes from being gone away (to India) to being dead two pages later. Neville says:
“The lights of the world have gone out.”
Then he says:
“Oh, to crumple this telegram in my fingers – to let the light of the world flood back.”
Seeing an eclipse is to experience the world extinguished. Perhaps it is also like seeing death.
In her Diary, Woolf writes that she would like to give her works of fiction another name – to call them something other than novels. She wonders whether elegies might be the right word. If this were the case it would make every novel an act of commemoration.
Would it be far-fetched to suggest that for Woolf a work of fiction is the effort of movement and flowingness to overcome fixity and stasis? If she cannot write very much about death is it because what energises her mind is its opposite – those things that flutter and flicker and that seem intent on escaping our notice? These are what must be seized and commemorated by language lest they vanish.
The last words of Bernard’s summative soliloquy and almost the last words of the novel are ‘O, Death!’. But if you let your eyes travel to the bottom of the page you come to this short sentence:
‘The waves broke on the shore.’
It’s easy to miss, what with the large O and the capital D and the exclamation mark. The waves are in italics. There they slant, rolling onward across the page and refusing to be still.
Smoke rings & bubbles
Thoughts are round like bubbles, or at least certain thoughts in The Waves are. The thoughts that go into this shape are the ones where something is knowingly being put into words. This might sound an odd thing to say – surely the whole novel is people doing just that? What I mean is that there are particular characters who cannot notice something without wanting to turn it into a literary artefact to be kept safe in a notebook.
Early in the novel there’s a scene where the children are looking around the garden in the morning and reporting what they see using the most extraordinary images (leaves like pointed ears etc.). These observations are the spontaneous and ‘naturally’ poetic outpourings of children – not sought after and unlikely to be remembered. I don’t think this is an example of bubbles. What I am thinking of are the moments where finding the right words is an altogether more conscious (even literary) event.
Bernard is the character who most ardently and assiduously wants to write. Over and again, he describes the images his mind offers him as bubbles or smoke rings. From a young age he notices this happening – for example on page 34:
“The bubbles are rising like the silver bubbles from the floor of a saucepan, image on top of image.”
In fact, The Waves contains far more than the average quota of writerly characters. There is also Louis the banker who is always reading and is also slightly obsessed with trying to write the perfect poem: “one poem on a page, and then die.” He reads and rereads the medieval lyric ‘O Westron Wind’ as if by immersing himself in a single poem he might learn how to write just one. He is always returning to his attempt.
Then there is Neville whose fantasies of being a great poet are far more as-and-when. We find him as a young man lounging beside a river and coming up with the line “the falling fountains of the pendant trees”. Soon he is rejoicing at his own literariness. But it is only a matter of moments before he feels the image overheat and hiss away: “it foams, it becomes artificial, insincere.” And that seems to be that.
It’s significant that Bernard’s bubbles and smoke rings are not only apparent to him. Neville knows what Bernard is like and describes his storytelling as ‘burbling.’ More compellingly, this is how he describes listening to one of Bernard’s ‘foolish comparisons’:
“One floats, too, as if one were that bubble; one is freed; I have escaped, one feels.”
Later in the book Bernard reassures himself in similar terms:
“The little boys used to feel “That’s a good one, that’s a good one” as the phrases bubbled up from my lips under the elm trees in the playing-fields. They too bubbled up; they also escaped with my phrases.”
Of course, a bubble is only a bubble if everyone agrees it to be so. In the same way, a metaphor or simile cannot be pleasing only to the writer. Bubbles of that sort don’t float up but sink down to the ground with a piteous clatter. Perfect bubbles make it as exciting to read as to write. A perfect bubble carries away its idea, along with the mind.
What might it be about bubbles and round things that makes them so akin to metaphors or similes (or vice versa)? Why would Woolf make this such a loud leit-motiv in the novel’s symphony?
The quality of bubbles is to be both strong and fragile. They have no weight. Bubbles escape us, moving away and up into the air. They are held intact by a surface tension that is all or nothing. If you poke a bubble it will pop and disappear. Either it is perfect or it does not exist at all.
I would love to think that this is Woolf’s own idea of a perfectly-made image: something that is whole and pure, sealed into itself and so unarguable. Something that is exact and true, that is there but that has no need of us.
And, of course, bubbles can never be still. They have the airy fleetingness that is so important to Woolf’s own aesthetic. A bubble will leave us stuck to the earth as it flies away to find its own private life.
Bernard’s bubbles / smoke-rings only arise when he is in the world. Solitude is his undoing, he tells himself. He requires the stimulus of seeing and listening to jolt his mind into aliveness:
“If I find myself in company with other people, words at once make smoke rings – see how phrases at once begin to wreathe off my lips… Then how lovely the smoke of my phrases is, rising and falling, flaunting and falling…”
Being in the world is to be in hot pursuit of the words and phrases that make it real. Being alive means putting things into words and thinking about doing so. Not writing is a sort of non-existence.
Towards the end of the novel Bernard experiences a bleakly terrifying episode when language deserts him. It’s a kind of worldless death (or deathly worldlessness). He leans on a gate looking over fields and sees a self that has nothing to say. This self is dissociated into a he who ‘attempted no phrase’ while the I listens and waits.
By the bottom of the page, Bernard has become “a man without a self”:
“But how describe the world seen without a self? There are no words.”
This passage is so mysterious and beautiful and perplexing. I hesitate to use the term ‘existential crisis’ because it sounds too modern / glib. I’m not even entirely sure what has let Bernard down – is it the world or is it words? And which would be worse? What is clear is that each hinges upon the other – the world is not there if it cannot be put into words, and Bernard is not there if he can’t find words for the world.
This is not mere ‘writer’s block’ but a profound moment of non-existence, of non-ness. A man looks at a field and the field looks back and offers him no language. Life has destroyed him.
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