Finally I come to a work by Virginia Woolf that I loved.
I loved the “play-poem” form in which it’s written, where the dialogue and thoughts of each character are almost free verse.
I loved Rhoda’s horror of Math:
Now the terror is beginning. Now taking her lump of chalk she draws figures, six, seven, eight, and then a cross and then a line on the blackboard. What is the answer? The others look; they look with understanding. Louis writes; Susan writes; Neville writes; Jinny writes; even Bernard has now begun to write. But I cannot write. I see only figures. The others are handing in their answers, one by one. “Now it is my turn. But I have no answer. The others are allowed to go. They slam the door. Miss Hudson goes. I am left alone to find an answer. The figures mean nothing now. (p. 21)
I loved Bernard, escaping to Rome after the death of Percival, and writing in his notebook little quotes which he can pull out later from their appropriate alphabetical heading:
These moments of escape are not to be despised. They come too seldom. Tahiti becomes possible. Leaning over this parapet I see far out a waste of water. A fin turns. This bare visual impression is unattached to any line of reason, it springs up as one might see the fin of a porpoise on the horizon. Visual impressions often communicate thus briefly statements that we shall in time to come uncover and coax into words. I note under F., therefore, ‘Fin in a waste of waters.’ I, who am perpetually making notes in the margin of my mind for some final statement, make this mark, waiting for some winter’s evening.” (p.189)
I loved the vocabulary, coming across words I don’t often see which hardly ever happens to me when I read authors of today:
- purlieus of the homestead
- oleaginous spots on the linoleum
- All here is false; all is meretricious.
- vinous, amorous light
- encaustic tiles
- breathes stertorously
- the tree was Byron’s tree, lachrymose
- they dive like guillemots
- a purple lady swelling, circumambient
- dancing like a flame, febrile
And, Catullus? The 1st century Roman poet is mentioned no less than five times before page 160 or so, putting me in mind that I need to read some poem by him before too long. (Perhaps for the Clover Bee and Reverie challenge?!)
I loved the reference to waves preceding each chapter, a clue as to what we’ll find within:
The wave paused, and then drew out again, sighing like a sleeper whose breath comes and goes unconsciously. (p.7)
The wind rose. The waves drummed on the shore, like turbaned warriors, like turbaned men with poisoned assegais who, whirling their arms on high, advance upon the feeding flocks, the white sheep. (p. 75)
Like a long wave, like a roll of heavy waters, he went over me, his devastating presence-dragging me open, laying bare the pebbles on the shore of my soul. It was humiliating; I was turned to small stones. (Bernard, p. 89)
Like a ribbon of weed I am flung far every time the door opens. The wave breaks. I am the foam that sweeps and fills the uttermost rims of the rocks with whiteness; I am also a girl, here in this room.” (Rhoda, p. 107)
The waves broke and spread their waters swiftly over the shore. One after another they massed themselves and fell; the spray tossed itself back with the energy of their fall. The waves were steeped deep-blue save for a pattern of diamond-pointed light on their backs which rippled as the backs of great horses ripple with muscles as they move. The waves fell; withdrew and fell again, like the thud of a great beast stamping. (p. 150)
Now the news of Percival’s death has come upon them, and then we find:
The waves massed themselves, curved their backs and crashed. Up spurted stones and shingle. They swept round the rocks, and the spray, leaping high, spattered the walls of a cave that had been dry before, and left pools inland, where some fish, stranded, lashed its tail as the wave drew back. (p. 166)
The waves no longer visited the further pools or reached the dotted black line which lay irregularly marked upon the beach. The sand was pearl white, smoothed and shining. (p. 182)
Erratically rays of light flashed and wandered, like signals from sunken islands, or darts shot through laurel groves by shameless, laughing boys. But the waves, as they neared the shore, were robbed of light, and fell in one long concussion, like a wall falling, a wall of grey stone, unpierced by any chink of light. (p. 207)
As if there were waves of darkness in the air, darkness moved on, covering houses, hills, trees, as waves of water wash round the sides of some sunken ship. (p. 237)
At the conclusion of the book we find this:
“And in me too the wave rises. It swells; it arches its back. I am aware once more of a new desire, something rising beneath me like the proud horse whose rider first spurs and then pulls him back. What enemy do we now perceive advancing against us, you whom I ride now, as we stand pawing this stretch of pavement? It is death. Death is the enemy. It is death against whom I ride with my spear couched and my hair flying back like a young man’s, like Percival’s, when he galloped in India. I strike spurs into my horse. Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!
The waves broke on the shore. (p. 297)
This was a fascinating read; as usual, Woolf gives her reader much to think about and absorb long after the final passage is read. (What, exactly, do the waves symbolize? Aren’t they in some places an illustration of death? Certainly they are something we have no power over.)
I want to thank Sarah, Emily, Francis, and Claire for opening my eyes to these four works this year. I’d not read anything by Virginia Woolf before, and after reading the books and reviews from Woolf in Winter, I feel that I now know an important author a bit more intimately than I did in December.
For more discussion of this work, visit Claire at Kiss A Cloud, as she is our lovely hostess for The Waves.