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. 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 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.