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 realised 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 saying 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 saying 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.
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 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 and 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.