Has it really been seven years since I last read this book? The receipt is stuck in the back, and I don’t think I’ve read it since the first time, so yes. I bought it at the Borders in Tallahassee, two weeks after my birthday. That probably means that the Borders Rewards people sent me a 25% off coupon for turning twenty-eight. Now Borders is gone, Tallahassee is no longer part of my life, and my life is such that I would not then have recognized it as my future. But the books remain.

I’ve read some people say that The Waves most perfectly reflects Virginia Woolf’s ideas about fiction. That may be true; I can’t really speak to her nonfiction or meta-writing. I love Impressionism, as in the earlier Mrs Dalloway, but this one feels like it’s approaching the line of too much. I mean, if what’s happening in my room right now were happening in The Waves, she’d write the lyrics to the music I’m listening to instead of the words I’m writing. This book stays on the periphery and rarely approaches the center, the part of the story that we’re used to caring about. Seven years ago I was reading my first Woolf novel and enraptured with her language; this time around I was looking for a narrative and had a hard time figuring out what, if anything, was actually happening.

There are six narrators: Bernard, Louis, Neville, Jinny, Rhoda, and Susan. This isn’t some weird Faulknerian thing where you have to guess: Woolf makes sure the reader always knows who’s speaking. They’re not really friends, but their lives wind in and out of each other, and once or twice they put some effort into meeting. They begin the novel as very young children in the same school; then they go to their separate schools, finishing schools, universities, careers, lives, death. Throughout the novel there are short passages describing an idealized country house, which passes through different times of a day as the characters pass through different times in their lives. This voice sometimes sounds like Bernard, sometimes like Louis, sometimes Neville or Rhoda. Possibly Susan, but never Jinny, who I doubt would spend a great deal of time studying a house empty of people. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that at different times each of them sounds like it, because this voice is the most consistent.

There’s also Percival, who in some ways seems to be the center of the novel. As with all centers in this novel, his voice is missing. Even he sometimes vanishes from before our eyes. The six narrators get together to bid him goodbye as he leaves for India, and once he arrives the narration ignores him all through dinner until it’s time for him to leave the restaurant. Almost as soon as he gets to India he dies, leaving them all to grieve in their different ways. At one point someone wonders if they aren’t all really a single person, and if they are Percival is probably it.

Heavens! how they caught at me as I left the room, the fangs of that old pain! the desire for some one not there. For whom? I did not know at first; then remembered Percival. I had not thought of him for months. Now to laugh with him, to laugh with him at Neville – that was what I wanted, to walk off arm-in-arm together laughing. But he was not there. The place was empty.

It is strange how the dead leap out on us at street corners, or in dreams.

That first time I read this book I identified most strongly with Bernard. I sometimes feel like we should all bond with Bernard the most on a first read-through: he’s fascinated by stories, so he spends his childhood transforming experience into narrative, which is extremely helpful in a book full of stream-of-consciousness narrations. Bernard also narrates the most, primarily because the final chapter is his, and he rattles away like an old man for sixty pages. He seems to be trying to form some coherent whole out of six disparate lives, remembering his childhood from his advanced age.

But we were all different. The wax – the virginal wax that coats the spine melted in different patches for each of us. The growl of the boot-boy making love to the tweeny among the gooseberry bushes; the clothes blown out hard on the line; the dead man in the gutter; the apple tree, stark in the moonlight; the rat swarming with maggots; the lustre dripping blue – our white wax was streaked and stained by each of these differently. Louis was disgusted by the nature of human flesh; Rhoda by our cruelty; Susan could not share; Neville wanted order; Jinny love; and so on. We suffered terribly as we became separate bodies.

Though, realistically speaking, they always were.

I also felt a good deal of affinity with Louis, that first time of reading, because he is so perpetually an outsider. Even in his early youth he knew he was different than the others because of his Australian accent. It was also clear to him from an early age that his adult life was going to be different. Louis is the most clearly bound by economic necessity. His father, the banker at Brisbane, can’t afford to send him to the university with Neville and Bernard, so he goes to work at eighteen (ish?) even though he was a better student than anyone else. He works in an office and reads Latin poetry at lunch. He embraces this identity, and even after he becomes an economic success story, he still prefers to live in a little attic room with his books and his loneliness. I don’t really like him as an adult – he never seems really happy.

This time around, I connected with Rhoda a little better. She tends to efface herself, so it’s easy to forget that you read from her if you’re in a good place in your life. Now that I’ve been through a great deal of suffering, including suicidal ideation, I can understand her better. Rhoda sees the beauty of the world a little more clearly than the others, but she also sees its horror. The beauty and the horror cross and recross themselves in her mind until running out to buy stockings becomes a tale of Gothic terror.

This is Oxford Street. Here are hate, jealousy, hurry, and indifference frothed into the wild semblance of life. These are our companions. Consider the friends with whom we sit and eat. I think of Louis, reading the sporting column of an evening newspaper, afraid of ridicule; a snob. He says, looking at the people passing, he will shepherd us if we will follow. If we submit he will reduce us to order. Thus he will smooth out the death of Percival to his satisfaction, looking fixedly over the cruet, past the houses at the sky. Bernard, meanwhile, flops red-eyed into some arm-chair. He will have out his notebook; under D, he will enter ‘Phrases to be used on the deaths of friends.’ Jinny, pirouetting across the room, will perch on the arm of his chair and ask, ‘Did he love me?’ ‘More than he loved Susan?’ Susan, engaged to her farmer in the country, will stand for a second with the telegram before her, holding a plate; and then, with a kick of her heel, slam to the oven door. Neville, after staring at the window through his tears will see through his tears, and ask, ‘Who passes the window?’ – ‘What lovely boy?’ This is my tribute to Percival; withered violets, blackened violets.

Percival’s death strikes Rhoda harder than it does most of the others; indeed, everything strikes Rhoda harder than it does other people. She’s so retiring because she is so sensitive. I don’t feel that I know her well yet, but I intend to gain a great deal more of experience and maturity before I die. There will be time for Rhoda and me.

This time around I felt closest to Neville; one of the things this means is that I don’t really identify myself primarily by my isolation and poverty any more. Sexual preference has become more important. Of our narrators, Neville is the one most in love with Percival, and has been since they were hitting puberty.

Now I will lean sideways as if to scratch my thigh. So I shall see Percival. There he sits, upright among the smaller fry. He breathes through his straight nose rather heavily. His blue, and oddly inexpressive eyes, are fixed with pagan indifference upon the pillar opposite. […] He sees nothing; he hears nothing. He is remote from us all in a pagan universe. But look – he flicks his hand to the back of his neck. For such gestures one falls hopelessly in love for a lifetime. Dalton, Jones, Edgar and Bateman flick their hands to the backs of their necks likewise. But they do not succeed.

Percival was a cricketer, and Neville was literary. I’m also stuck rubbing against the edges of words, fascinated by the men who use their bodies in more physical ways.

But I cannot stand all day in the sun with my eyes on the ball; I cannot feel the flight of the ball through my body and think only of the ball. I shall be a clinger to the outsides of words all my life. Yet I could not live with him and suffer his stupidity. He will coarsen and snore. He will marry and there will be scenes of tenderness at breakfast. But now he is young. Not a thread, not a sheet of paper lies between him and the sun, between him and the rain, between him and the moon as he lies naked, tumbled, hot, on his bed. Now as they drive along the high-road in their brake his face is mottled red and yellow. He will throw off his coat and stand with his legs apart, with his hands ready, watching the wicket. And he will pray, ‘Lord, let us win’; he will think of one thing only, that they should win.

Maybe Neville becomes a don at the uni or something; it’s not clear, and not important. Regardless, as he grows up, he wants the same sort of thing that I want.

I want this fire, I want this chair. I want some one to sit beside after the day’s pursuit and all its anguish, after its listenings, and its waitings, and its suspicions. After quarrelling and reconciliation I need privacy – to be alone with you, to set this hubbub in order.

I’d like a quiet, comfortable life with someone I love – someone with whom I feel as if I’ve found privacy when he’s still there. Someone who helps me to rest from the private tortures of a too-sensitive life in public.

I have never really identified with Jinny, and I don’t think I ever will. She’s privileged by being both wealthy and beautiful. At nineteen she achieves everything that she’s ever wanted in her life, and she manages to hold onto it for the rest of her life. She never settles down with one man, but she doesn’t need to either.

All this I see, I always see, as I pass the looking-glass on the landing, with Jinny in front and Rhoda lagging behind. Jinny dances. Jinny always dances in the hall on the ugly, the encaustic tiles; she turns cartwheels in the playground; she picks some flower forbiddenly, and sticks it behind her ear so that Miss Perry’s dark eyes smoulder with admiration, for Jinny, not me. Miss Perry loves Jinny; and I could have loved her, but now love no one, except my father, my doves and the squirrel whom I left in the cage at home for the boy to look after.

Despite this passage from Susan’s unhappy years at school, neither she nor Jinny is a lesbian that we can see. Jinny loves to be admired, and she doesn’t get too picky about who’s doing the admiring. First it’s everyone, then primarily men, then she hangs onto the admiration of much younger men as she ages (apparently she ages very well). Jinny is the perfect personality for the community she lives in; unlike everyone else, she always definitely belongs.

Susan is the type of person that I have always respected, even admired, but that I can somehow never become close to. She loves nature and the country; while everyone else is gravitating toward London, she runs as far from it as she can. Like Louis, Susan knows from childhood what she will be as an adult: a farmer’s wife. She knows that it will be a hard life, but she chooses it and never willingly deviates from it. Her parents send her to a finishing school in Switzerland, which I tend to think of as the acme of stupidity, that sort of finish being the opposite of what Susan actually wants in her life. Susan hits her peak later than Jinny, but I think of her life – with children, a long-term relationship, a close relationship with animals, crops, and soil – as the more rewarding of the two, possibly the most rewarding of the six.

But who am I, who lean on this gate and watch my setter nose in a circle? I think sometimes (I am not twenty yet) I am not a woman, but the light that falls on this gate, on this ground. I am the seasons, I think sometimes, January, May, November; the mud, the mist, the dawn. I cannot be tossed about, or float gently, or mix with other people. Yet now leaning here, till the gate prints my arm, I feel the weight that has formed itself in my side. Something has formed, at school, in Switzerland, some hard thing. Not sighs and laughter; not circling and ingenious phrases; not Rhoda’s strange communications when she looks past us, over our shoulders; nor Jinny’s pirouetting, all of a piece, limbs and body. What I give is fell. I cannot float gently, mixing with other people. I like best the stare of shepherds met in the road; the stare of gipsy women beside a cart in a ditch suckling their children as I shall suckle my children. For soon in the hot mid-day when the bees hum round the hollyhocks my lover will come. He will stand under the cedar tree. To his one word I shall answer my one word. What has formed in me I shall give him. I shall have children; I shall have maids in aprons; men with pitchforks; a kitchen where they bring the ailing lambs to warm in baskets, where the hams hang and the onions glisten. I shall be like my mother, silent in a blue apron locking up the cupboards.

I believe that Susan has a blessing that has always been denied me: she forms a lifelong plan and carries it through. Part of my problem is the reluctance to make plans so far in advance; part is the certainty that forces beyond my control disrupt every plan that I make, so the planning itself often seems pointless. When I do look forward, I seldom see things that I want. I can warn myself away from some forms of future misery, but I can’t lead myself to future fulfillment as unerringly as Susan does.

A businessman, a recluse, a homosexual, a city girl, a country girl, and a family man: perhaps it’s not Percival who is made up of these disparate elements; it’s probably Woolf herself. And in uniting all of these pieces, she makes me feel as if it might be me too. It’s like seeing The Breakfast Club fifty years early. Each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basketcase, a princess, and a criminal, Bernard, Neville, Louis, Jinny, Susan, Rhoda.

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