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 would be nice to think it’s 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 of 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.”

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 in her first interlude. Her language is limited, almost 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, such as 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 sideline the reader – it doesn’t matter whether we are there are not.  Sometimes we arrive too early and sometimes 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”.

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 a 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 interludes where everything is usually as simple and aloof as in the Bible.

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 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 all the way back to before it was made. 

© Katharine Towers, December 2020

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