“Now let us issue from the darkness of solitude,” said Louis.
“Now let us say, brutally and directly, what is in our minds,” said Neville. “Our isolation, our preparation, is over. The furtive days of secrecy and hiding, the revelations on staircases, moments of terror and ecstasy.”
As a story of friendship, especially between among a group, The Waves is unparalleled in my experience. This almost serves to make it alienating: this group of six people is knit impossibly together; are my relationships really this intense? Are they woven so tightly that one day, like Bernard, I will ask how we are even separated, when there is no obstacle between us?
But it’s this intense relationship that gives rise to the form of The Waves, which interests me more: the alternating soliloquies of six characters, along with a (superficially) unrelated third-person narrative. The novel is a kind of literary cubism whose effect is described at one point by Bernard:
We have come together (from the North, from the South, from Susan’s farm, from Louis’s house of business) to make one thing, not enduring—for what endures?—but seen by many eyes simultaneously. There is a red carnation in that vase. A single flower as we sat here waiting, but now a seven-sided flower, many-petalled, red, puce, purple-shaded, stiff with silver-tinted leaves—a whole flower to which every eye brings its own contribution.
This is really experimental; it’s just “said Bernard,” “said Susan,” “said Rhoda,” “said Neville,” “said Jinny,” “said Louis,” “said Bernard,” jarring and disorienting the reader, making him work. Who are these voices speaking to, if they are speaking at all? To the narrator? Who is the audience? But one thing is clear: even if there is no listener, even if the characters are silent, they are speaking, at least in their own heads. These are not the thoughts laid bare of Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse. The statements in The Waves are performative, confessional, self-aware. And we find out from quotes like that above that at least some of the time, the friends are talking, and some of the time they are talking to each other.
This speaking brutally, directly, freely does not happen only among friends. In fact, despite Neville’s command, Bernard hints at the beginning of his climactic 60-page monologue that it happens best between strangers: “Since we do not know each other (though I met you once I think on board a ship going to Africa) we can talk freely.” He proceeds to do so, at length, stretching the form of the novel back to something much less avant-garde* but at the same time deepening the emotional and psychological content to a breaking point. When Bernard is given more than a few paragraphs at a time to examine and confess himself, he digs through layers I cannot penetrate. Woolf’s poetic emotional imagery, so effective earlier in the novel with six voices buffeting the reader, fails for me here, and for a moment I almost feel she has been self-indulgent. I read Bernard’s confession of the joys and horrors of human existence and think, yes, but wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.** Of course, that’s exactly what Woolf is trying to fight against with this seven-sided red carnation of a novel. It was a lifelong and a noble battle.
Although I think this reaches too far, or at least to a place I can’t follow, Woolf’s genius is clearly still at work. She meticulously plants dozens of motifs that will work through the threads of all the characters lives. Idle predictions come true, childhood memories resurface, moments in time and thought are distilled into magical phrases. There are great crests and troughs of joy and pain, each character telling of it in his own personal wave imagery. Right now I take as especially wonderful Louis and Rhoda, who “trust only in solitude and the violence of death,” and while much of Bernard eludes me, not all: “No fin breaks the waste of this immeasurable sea.”
The Waves marks the last of Woolf in Winter. Visit Claire at Kiss a Cloud, who is hosting this week’s installment, for more on The Waves. Thanks, Claire!
*This soliloquy, along with the intercalary chapters of more traditional narration, make the whole form a bit more traditional. There is no plot, there is no story, but there is; Bernard desperately wants to tell a story and he gets a lot of space to try. Even though Woolf may be at the height of her innovation here, Bernard does note:
After all, one cannot find fault with the biographic style if one begins letters ‘Dear Sir,’ ends them ‘yours faithfully'; one cannot despise these phrases laid like Roman roads across the tumult of our lives, since they compel us to walk in step like civilised people with the slow and measured tread of policemen though one may be humming any nonsense under one’s breath at the same time…
**”What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” (Ludwig Wittgenstein)