Monday, February 22, 2010

Review: The Waves, by Virginia Woolf

I always come to the works of Virginia Woolf with a great deal of trepidation. This isn’t simply because of her high modernist style and all of the challenges that it entails. A Woolf novel has the tendency to wreck the curve for other books, other authors that I will read immediately after it. Such is the virtuosic power and precision that Woolf achieves in nearly every paragraph of her prose. The Waves is no exception. While not as strong as her incomparable Mrs. Dalloway, it does cement her place at the very top of modernist writers.

The Waves’ crowning achievement is the way it undermines the notion of character hierarchy. Instead of having a single protagonist and slew of secondary characters, Woolf instead gives us six main characters - Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny, and Louis – all of whom are given equal footing in the text, telling their stories in long, lyrical soliloquies.

There is a seventh character, Percival, who is not given his own voice in the novel and yet is just as real, just as immediate as the other six people in the text. When Percival dies halfway through the book, the sense of loss is abrupt and palpable.

Woolf is capable of utter magic on the page and I found myself swept up in the descriptions, allusions and metaphors that she weaves into her prose. While Woolf maintains a distinct consciousness for each of her characters, she is also playing with the idea of a shared consciousness that forms the backbone of this novel and a sense of life-long community between her six voices.

If I have one quibble, it’s with the edition I read and not with the novel itself. Molly Hite has written a lucid and illuminating introduction to the book, but I found her annotations to the text to be on the heavy-handed and intrusive side. While they do include helpful notes explaining, for example, Rhoda’s various references to the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley or how the basis for each character may correspond to people whom Woolf knew in her life, they also include basic definitions for words like moor, fulvous and censers – words you’d be able to find in any decent dictionary. In the case of these annotations, less would have definitely been more.

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