I’ve just read a very peculiar novel, The Waves, by Virginia Woolf. As far as I know, all of her novels are peculiar; there are some I have not yet read. Woolf pushes narrative technique in all kinds of interesting directions. She writes sort of the way Impressionists paint. Bits of scenery, a half-seen face, the flash of a dress, an emotion, the sound of Big Ben floating across London – these are the daubs of paint Woolf uses to show us her vision of life.
The first Woolf novel I read was Mrs. Dalloway. It was for a college course, and it had to be read by that afternoon, and I had three hours in between classes to race through 300 pages. It was like watching a movie on fast-forward, and it was not a bad way to experience the book. The images flew past so quickly that there was no time to think about them, but it was as though there was a part of my mind which, over the course of the three-hour tour, acted as a canvas on which the novel’s brushstrokes accumulated into a portrait of Clarissa Dalloway’s day.
Cyril Connolly, with whom I so often disagree about literature, disparages Woolf’s early work but calls The Waves a ‘masterpiece,’ which is why I decided to look it up. Once again, we disagree. It’s a grand experiment though.
There are six characters who know each other from nursery to old age and death. The characters do not talk to each other, and there is no narrative.
“The leaf danced in the hedge without any one to blow it,” said Jinny.
“In the sun-baked corner,” said Louis, “the petals swam on depths of grass.”
“At Elvedon the gardeners swept and swept their great brooms, and the woman sat at a table writing,” said Bernard.
“From these close-furled balls of string we draw now every filament,” said Louis, “remembering, when we meet.”
Sometimes one of these bits is clearly a response to the one before, but still it is all far too stylized to be actual dialogue. Towards the end, Bernard seems to be telling his story to you, the reader, in the guise of someone he meets on a train, but this is only at the end, and to whom the other characters direct their thoughts is anyone’s guess.
There’s a lot of what Connolly calls her ‘ability to spin cocoons of language out of nothing,’ but there is also a lot of really fine observation and psychological insight. Unfortunately, for me anyway, it falls quite flat. Said Jinny, said Bernard, said Susan, said Neville; and they all say it with such detachment. It reminds me of Pointillism, which is interesting to look at but doesn’t have much emotional depth. Instead of being drawn into the painting, you examine the technique.
What the rest of us would do without experimenters like Virginia Woolf, I don’t know. Probably we’d still all be writing alliterative epic poetry, like Beowulf.