Virginia Woolf – The Waves

For this particular novel I cannot write a review like I usually do. This is because The Waves (1931) by Virginia Woolf can be classified as an experimental novel. I can only compare it to James Joyce‘s Ulysses. The Waves might have found some inspiration from that novel because it is a representation of inner thoughts. The difference is that there are six main characters from whom their thought are described. ‘Described’ is the best word for it. In my view Woolf does not really want to present realistic and actual thoughts. If she would have done it the same way as Joyce that might have made The Waves a tough book to read. This is not the case. Woolf interprets the inner thoughts of her main characters in her own way and transforms it into a lyrical prose that follows a certain kind of rhythm. This lyrical prose is quite similar for all main characters. So what distinguishes them are their topics which, like inner thoughts, are not extremely coherent and follow a variety of patterns. By regularly switching between characters she prevents getting longwinded and providing a certain progression in the story. This as the six main characters are close friends and thus their different thoughts complement each other as the thoughts are not just inward focused but also outward. They tell what they see and how they experience it. So most of these thoughts are actually unsubconcious thoughts. Woolf writes what the thoughts would be during the behavior of the character. So at times it seems like a first person narrative with the exception that there is no dialogue. It actually feels like a collection of inner monologues, a combination of narrative, inner and unsubconcious thoughts.

It is hard to describe how this book is written so I have this gives some idea. Earlier I wrote that the prose is written to a certain rhythm. I discovered this while playing music while reading. At a certain point I found the right kind of music that fit with the rhythm of the prose. Suddenly the words became livelier and reading easier. Not that Woolf’s prose is hard. Her writing style is quite beautiful. Lyrical prose does have the risk that it is not easy to read as the author often falls into the trap of using too many obscure or over-stylized words. Woolf manages to keep it sufficiently in check. Anyways, what kind of music would fit I think is a personal thing, so I won’t tell what worked for me.

There is pretty much nothing to say about plot or characterization. The Waves is about a group of friends and follows them during a long period of years. Woolf selected a number of moments, mostly when the were together. This means that their thoughts are mainly focused on each other and not on their personal background. We learn some about each character based on their thoughts of themselves and on their thoughts or narratives on the other characters. As such I did feel a certain attachment to each character. What it exactly was I cannot tell. Woolf didn’t go deep. Instead she gave her own impression of what they were. The best way to describe this book is that it is a collection of paintings with the same central characters. She used her words to pain the canvas. The painting also follow a grand theme which is the title of the novel. Waves and its derivatives form a theme in the prose and thoughts of the novel. It is done in a very natural way and created a greater harmony, just like a theme is supposed to work.

The Waves provides a remarkable reading experience. I think Woolf’s intent worked really well. As the first author attempting to write a novel this way she put the bar really high. For another writer trying to write a story in a similar way it would easily feel like a copy. It could only work if he made it his own. Nevertheless I do not think that novels should be written like this more often. It is an experiment. Authors should explorer formats and styles and see what possibilities can lead to great and unique works. I would recommend The Waves to those readers who enjoy lyrical prose and challenging novels.

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