Virginia Woolf’s The Waves was our book for Readers’ Group this month. Here’s a summary: The author follows the lives of three women and three men from childhood to old-age. Interspersed between the voices of the characters, in italics (which I always find annoying), are rhapsodic passages about waves and the angle of the sun meant to symbolize the characters’ progression.
Of course that’s not all there is to it. Donna, who led the discussion, cackled delightedly at salacious humor that was so hidden beneath Words, Words, Words that none of the rest of us caught it. She spoke ecstatically of imagery and symbolism. Her eyes twinkled as she pointed out the experimental nature of the piece. Worshipful in tone, she called it a poem. I, too, thought the writing was brilliant and inspiring, though not flawless. The symbolism was heavy-handed and the reader is kept at a distance. Having said that, I read many phrases several times because genius should be savored. And how fun—I’ll attempt to relate my rather conflicted assessment in the style of Virginia Woolf:
The Words, lilting, moving, ponderous and feather-light; and light, too, in spectrum, an unblemished arc of luminous Words tracing life’s horizon from sun-birth to sun-demise. Rich Words, overflowing casks of Words more robust than red, more delicate than white, more perfect than perfection. A Word bouquet of jasmine-scented roses. Words and more glorious Wordsy Words exploding with flavor, curling around toes, laden with meaning and double-meaning and hidden meaning; and nestling like an exigent thorn in the guileless helpless souls of six women who, befuddled and daunted, attempt to decipher the Words, the extravagant never-ending profundity of Words.
Look at all those adjectives. No wonder Virginia Woolf killed herself.
When it was suggested that the six characters of The Waves were meant to represent the different aspects of a single person, well, I realized that I simply hadn’t given the book the time it deserved. Unlike Donna, I didn’t approach the work with appropriate gravitas—my two weeks of quick reading hadn’t gotten the job done. She read it twice and intends to read it again.
Some comments from the other readers:
Beth, a new member, says, “There’s so much here that you could study it for a whole semester at university.” In our one-to-ten rating system, she gave it a six. Judy, also new, comes from a journalism background. While she appreciated what Woolf was trying to accomplish, it was too vague to suit her taste. She likes sentences to sit up and behave. She gave it a five, as did Sharmila who felt that “Her (Woolf’s) writing was very rich, but a lot of work.” Kristen gave the book a seven. She recognized Woolf’s virtuosity, identified with the characters, and admired the use of detail in the descriptions, but admitted that she wouldn’t recommend it to a friend. I, too, gave it a seven. I liked it because Woolf’s originality and inimitability inspire me to stretch, to liberate instead of domesticate, to flow instead of craft; on the other hand, I couldn’t give her a higher rating because the subject was banal—follow six unexceptional people through their lives and echo it in the cycle of the waves? Weak, Virginia, and boring.
Our readers’ group is in its third year. Of the original dozen, only Sharmila, Kristen, and I are left. That’s the ex-pat lifestyle—people come and go. We get together at the end of every year and decide next year’s list, though some of us may not be here next year, in which case the new batch of readers will inherit our choices, possibly with trepidation, possibly with dismay. In the last couple of years we’ve read classics like Anna Karenina, East of Eden, House of Mirth, and Wives and Daughters. We’ve taken on modern literary works like An Artist of the Floating World, And the Mountains Echoed, House of Sand and Fog, and Wolf Hall. And we’ve had some easy reads, too—Gone Girl, The Devil in the White City, and The Burgess Boys. Outside of the selected reading, we all follow our own preferences and make recommendations to each other. Because of this group I’ve enjoyed Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Room, and Burial Rights—all excellent reads. As a writer I find it helpful to keep the Words churning through. Words, infinite and burgeoning, Words pregnant with nuance, dark green Words, Words of . . . Virginia, get out of my head!