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 for a moment that I might after all be able to get to the bottom of it.
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 so 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 essence 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:
‘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