viernes, 26 de febrero de 2010

The Waves

The Waves (Harcourt, 2006)
by Virginia Woolf
England, 1931

While one or two of the Woolf fanatics in my blogging inner circle will hopefully be chuffed to learn that Virginia and I are back on speaking terms once again after the disastrous blind date that was Orlando, I'm afraid that they may well be unchuffed/not chuffed/dischuffed/less than chuffed (blimey, somebody help me out with this British English already!) to hear that The Waves didn't exactly do it for me either.  Not that I thought it completely sucked or anything.  On the plus side, I admired Woolf's willingness to experiment with narrative structure--the central conceit here being a novel that unfolds without dialogue in a series of soliloquies by six characters speaking in turn.  I also enjoyed her ability to handle a variety of traditional downer themes--death, loss, our looming mortality--in a way that felt fresh and true to the spirit of the distinct characters involved (both those with speaking roles and those like Percival who only come alive through the refracted memories of the others).  It should go without saying that there were any number of quotable passages and truly poetic images bobbing among the 220 pages of text.  On the minus side, though, I found The Waves to be much more ambitious than exhilarating in terms of the reading experience delivered.  The writing's incredibly mannered and artificial, and reading it often reminded me of when I had to sit through church as a little kid when I would have rather been watching football or playing outside or doing almost anything else instead.  It didn't help that the italicized interludes that help frame the soliloquy segments were so dull, but they were.  I suspect that I would have been at least somewhat more receptive to The Waves' cerebral charms if I had read it with more time in between it and the atrocious Orlando, but I'm certain that all that overly "stagey," Greek chorus-like heavyhanded theatricality of the prose would have bothered me at any point in time regardless.  Meh.  (

Thanks to Woolfies Sarah, Frances, Emily, and today's discussion host Claire for throwing the Woolf in Winter party and to those of you who visited here during the different pub crawls (below) along the way.

22 comentarios:

  1. I'm kind of mixed about it too, Richard. I don't enjoy the prose as much, nor do I relate to the vision of human interactions it presents as much as I do with Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and many of the essays. As you articulate so well, I admire its ambition more than I enjoy it viscerally, and while I think that certain aspects of the experiment worked very well indeed, others fall flat, and still others appeal subjectively to different readers depending on personal experience. (I must admit, as a gossipy personal aside, that the Bernard character reminds me strongly of an ex of mine who drove me UP THE WALL, which hinders my ability to accept his fictional counterpart.)

    Thank you, though, for reading along! I think a book every two weeks was fairly intense for everyone involved, so you're a trouper for sticking with it. Personally, I'm moving on to some REALIST literature, after my Toomer/Cortazar/Woolf orgy of experimentalism!

  2. I had an opposite reaction, Richard. I liked the mannered writing, the artificiality, although I couldn't have gotten through it if I hadn't read the previous three Woolf novels. I especially liked the italicized bits--although I could never quite get those dark bars between the waves; some of VW's visual imagery just didn't work. It was a very mental book, something like a finely tooled engine; I thought it just hummed along.

    It was the downer themes that got to me, especially death, or VW's strange ideas about death, and a corresponding yawning-abyss, nothingness, soullessness that underlies everything. The idea that the forces of life that roll on endlessly, like waves, are real, but human beings are more like whiffs of vapor, not real, not solid. That bothered me.

  3. I avoided this one as its meant to be the hardest.

    Instead in order to keep in with the spirit of things I had a rather delightful journey with some of Woolf's short stories.

  4. I continue to admire your brutal honesty, and I smile at the experience you had with Orlando which completely mimics mine. Anything was a better read after laying that book down, and so I cam to The Waves able to appreciate it better had I not suffered through Orlando.

  5. It is not my favorite either, Richard. So self-conscious. Feel as if I see the process before the story. But still, to me there is no bad Woolf. Just lesser Woolfs.

    Blessedly, I have no dating story to share like you and Emily. No horrid boyfriends in my past showing up in these pages. No nightmare blind date like Orlando. And must you persist with the Orlando bashing? And the bad blind date thing? Really? How many transgender blind dates have you had? Don't answer, Mr. Edgy.

    Looking forward to Williams next month!

  6. "Not that I thought it completely sucked or anything." I'm remembering a great line one of your past commenters used on Orlando, where he/she said, something to the effect of, "I love it when you hate books." Yes, unfortunately for you Richard, but fortunately for those of us who enjoy your reviews, it is more than amusing to read these posts.
    I never quite finished The Waves, but I definitely fell for it's "cerebral charms." I still hope to finish it this weekend.

  7. *Emily: It's been fascinating for me to see how you and Claire, both staunch advocates of The Waves overall, also share some reservations about it, although my lukewarm reaction to the novel seems to be the most negative one posted from the readalong group so far (judging by the comments anyway). And although I enjoyed To the Lighthouse quite a bit, Mrs. Dalloway is the only title of the four I can see wanting to revisit at some point. Even if it doesn't have an ex-boyfriend story from you attached, ha ha! Cheers! P.S. I too, like a good geek, am looking forward to selecting my next read!!

    *Julia: I can understand the downer themes getting to you in a really negative way, and I should clarify that I thought that their treatment was fresh, honest, and compelling even though Woolf's desolate "message" was unsettling to me as well. Interesting to hear that you liked the italicized bits so much, though--I knew why they were there, but they reminded me of stage directions in a play since they seemed so colorlessly written! In any event, great to have you over here for a visit and I look forward to reading your post before too long.

  8. Indeed I am chuffed! (Just kidding.)

    I love this one. I think the mannered, "artificial" style actually worked for it, given the abstract concepts it tackled. It's like the prose and the ideas balanced each other out. Does that make any sense?

    (I asked that question in my comment on Emily's blog too. I totally agree with Frances: this book is so hard to articulate!)

  9. *Simon: I'd also heard that The Waves was supposed to be super complicated, but it really wasn't tough to get through at all except for the often-awkward language (i.e. it wasn't my style, but it wasn't complicated). Look forward to hearing more about your Woolf short stories experience, my friend!

    *Dolcebellezza: I think it's hilarious that you didn't care for Orlando either because almost everybody else wouldn't stop talking about how clever and funny it was. Give me a break! I agree that it was a lot easier to relate to The Waves after a letdown like that, though. I look forward to visiting your blog again soon to check out your review.

  10. That reading The Waves reminded you of being in church cracked me up! Reminds me of Bernard and the headmaster at the boys school - 'I love tremendous and sonorous words. But his words are too hearty to be true. Yet he is by this time convinced of their truth.' Not totally similar to Woolf and her extremely 'crafted' work, but close. I liked this better than Orlando, better maybe than To the Lighthouse, but something about it is definitely unsettling. It's the first of my Woolf reads to make me feel unhappy (and Frances' comments on her post about the manufactured quality of these emotions keeps bugging me, since it might be true...and like her I dislike that.) A challenging read for sure.

  11. *Frances: I think the Orlando-bashing has prob. run its course, but I make no promises about that just in case anyone tries to bait me down the road! I understand you feeling that "there is no bad Woolf...just lesser Woolfs" as a fan, but are you surprised at all that the response to her in the readalong has been so overwhelmingly positive? Other than my own (!), I've seen very few negative reviews from readalong folks since the initial complaints about Mrs. Dalloway's "plotlessness." A little odd for such a "difficult" writer, no? P.S. I bought the Tn. Williams last night and am very much looking forward to it myself!

    *Lourdes: Ha! I think Isabella from Magnificent Octopus was the one who came up with that classic comment, which DELIGHTED me because I hate it when book bloggers pull their punches and get too nice when they're talking about a book they didn't like at all. Anyway, glad to hear you're amused by the negative as well as the positive reviews here--and I'll be on the lookout for your own post on The Waves whenever you finish (I'm sure Claire will be happy to add your link whether you get done this weekend or not). P.S. The Woolf in Winter ladies and I will be hosting some more readalongs March thru December. I'll be posting about this within the next few days or so here (Frances and Sarah [aka Tuulenhaiven] already have posts about it up at their own blogs), but I invite you to join us if any of the book selections appeal to you!

  12. Richard, have you visited Violet's post on The Waves? I'd say it's at least as negative as yours. Honestly, I felt like mine was fairly negative, for a Woolf post! :-)

    That said, I for one am VERY surprised at such a large number of positive reviews for this novel, after a relatively high percentage of negative ones for Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse (but then, I'm just showing my biases). And I don't know, I don't feel necessarily like a staunch defender, more like a bemused spectator with this novel. I probably do like it more than you. But I have many reservations about it.

    PS - Working on the captcha issue. It pains me to be subjecting people to Blair Witch type ordeals merely to comment!

  13. *E.L. Fay: I can see what you mean about the artificial prose and the abstract ideas balancing each other out, but for me I felt like I was being forcefed "art on a pedestal" that was just too precious for words at times. In any event, I thought Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse were way more organic and arresting in terms of the mesh of message and style. However, I'm chuffed that you were chuffed regardless of whether you were kidding about my new vocab or not!

    *Sarah: I imagine you saw her remark already, but Julia also commented on what a depressing read this was in certain ways (I'm guessing that's what you meant by feeling unhappy?). I might have been more "moved," probably not a good thing given how dark the work was in this regard, if Woolf's use of language in The Waves hadn't annoyed me so, but I still appreciated certain aspects of the work. Can't ever imagine rereading the novel for "fun," though, hence the church crack! Cheers!

  14. Richard! You are always making me laugh! But that bit about the church and wanting to go out and play mirrored my own feelings while reading. I had wanted to discontinue it at some points because it felt like a chore. Still, I did love it in terms of the overall picture. I loved its depth and vastness. Its density. I loved it AFTER having deliberated it over in my head, not so much during. There was a comment in my post that she didn't like the process of reading VW as much as she liked thinking about her writing. This was what happened with me here in The Waves. Still, I am not gushing over it as I did with To the Lighthouse, which really resonated with me out of all these. And, stop with the Orlando bashing now because it's my second fave!

    But anyway, I'm supposing the reason for the very few negative reactions to VW was because most of the ones who didn't enjoy Mrs Dalloway dropped out from the rest of the read-along. And also, the others who might've tried reading the last three and didn't like it might've discontinued. Which brings us to the conclusion that those reading along are the people who deliberately chose to move on because they like VW's style (except for you, of course, you chose to move on because you had to for us! :D).

    I also was bothered with the theatrical and unnatural narrative here, which is why I insist it's not stream of consciousness, rather than exaggerated articulations of feelings.

    The weight of this novel bogged me down, and I was wanting to have something tangible to hold onto. The absence of physicality really did not help. I mostly like serious, sad books but I thought this one needed balance to become more likeable.

    Anyway, thanks so much for the input and the laughs, as always! Excited to read T. Williams and Perec!!

  15. Huh. I'll have to think about what the difference between 'depressed' and 'unhappy' means to me, since it's never really meant the same thing... In regards to The Waves, I was left feeling sad because the characters were so lost, so unfulfilled, and I recognized more fully a view of life from Woolf that I couldn't relate to at all. It wasn't a depressing read for me though (and I really do need to decipher what I mean when I say 'depressing', since I just finished The Road by Cormac McCarthy and contrary to a few of my friends warnings, didn't find it depressing at all!)

  16. *Emily: Thanks for sending me the link to Violet's post, which I hope to visit a little later (I tend to space these things out, I'm afraid). And I went back to reread your own "fairly negative" post since even though I remembered you bringing up a few sore spots with this work, I also remembered you saying The Waves was "fascinating" with "beautifully rendered" and "eloquent" prose. You and Frances (see her reply to me on her post) are quite tricky to pin down at times, my friends! In any event, I stand corrected on both counts.

    Claire: Glad you, too, got a kick out of my church-like confinement syndrome! And thanks for your thorough explanation about your own reaction to The Waves, which helps me sort a couple of things out. What you say about liking The Waves more after thinking about it than during reading it makes total sense to me, at least in the sense that I've had similar reactions to certain books myself in the past (while no reactions that extreme that I can think of). However, since I find it hard to embrace something that feels like a chore when you're reading it, I'm still a little mystified by some of the rapturous reviews I've seen of The Waves's writing given how unpleasant it was for me to read at times. It puzzles me that more people gobbled up Woolf's prose hook, line and sinker here than talked about how "stylized" it was (in the limited number of reviews I've seen so far), and I do wonder whether a new author without Woolf's cultural cachet would have gotten the same warm and fuzzy reaction from the readalong group. Lest this seem like a rant-in-the-making, I do realize that a lot of what puzzles me on the topic can be chalked up to differences in taste. Speaking of which, what you say about dropouts creating a higher approval rate for Woolf on the subsequent novels is probably right on the money. We saw the same thing in your 2666 readalong only with a last-minute, unforeseeable "conversion" from Jackie as well, ha ha! P.S. I'm also really looking forward to the Perec and Williams...

  17. If one is not chuffed, one is dischuffed, according to several usage dictionaries and as appearing in no less an authority than The Economist. The real conundrum, however, is whether it is Virginia Woolf who is inducing you to resort to the vocabulary of the non-intelligentsia (unintelligentsia/not intelligentsia/disintelligentsia/less than intelligent) or if you have finally decided to descend (condescend/unascend/disascend) to the baser level of some of your faithful grilled-cheese-eating readers!

  18. *Sarah: Thanks, all clear now. I felt much the same way at times, but the awkward prose really grated on me to the point I might have lost some empathy for the characters. Eagerly looking forward to your review of The Road, and I'm glad you mentioned that b/c I wanted to read some McCarthy this year and had already forgotten about that. What a doofus!

    *Jill: Ha ha ha, "dischuffed," excellent! Brownie points for the vocabulary assistance have already been placed in your grilled cheese eating account, thanks! To explain the conundrum, though, I actually saw the term "chuffed" on Simon from Savidge Reads' blog recently and was so tickled by the new terminology that I decided to use it in reaction to Woolf's occasionally snooty style. Since Simon's a bright guy who was using the term chuffed to express his pleasure at being asked to provide a blurb for the back of a book, I hope you'll understand that I was trying to promote it as a hipster term across the pond rather than as a form of class warfare. Thanks for a funny and very educational comment, though, that's great!

  19. That's true; I do think those positive things. I guess I feel more disappointed when I don't LOVE a Woolf work than when I don't love a book by somebody else, so my feelings have more negativity in them despite a positive/mixed review. If I wrote the same review about another author, it would mean I was leaving the book with a pretty positive balance of feelings, whereas in this case the subjective balance is tipped more toward the negative because I expect such great things from Woolf. Does that make any sense? I know it's not fair to judge a book by it's author's other work, which is why I tried to quash some of the negativity & look at it in a more "objective" light.

  20. Emily, very interesting reply, and yeah it makes a lot of sense explained in that way. It's really cool that you and Claire and Frances took the time to share your mixed reactions to The Waves with me either here or on your own blogs because the novel does seem like it was harder to write about in some ways than the other ones read for Woolf in Winter. In any event, thanks for the clarification!

  21. On the minus side, though, I found The Waves to be much more ambitious than exhilarating in terms of the reading experience delivered. The writing's incredibly mannered and artificial, and reading it often reminded me of when I had to sit through church as a little kid when I would have rather been watching football or playing outside or doing almost anything else instead. It didn't help that the italicized interludes that help frame the soliloquy segments were so dull, but they were.

    Could not agree more. That's why I referred to it myself as so explicitly "experimental." I have a funny relationship with books like that, I suppose. I discount them somewhat for the mannered writing, and like Frances end up thinking about process. But I'm willing to suspend a lot of judgment and let the writer do her thing.

    But here I think there was a lot of ambition and somewhat less success. It was good, but not great (and yes, good Woolf is still better than great most-other-things).

    Oh, and the nature passages really were dull, weren't they? I fairly hated getting to them after the first couple.

  22. Woolf kind of wore out her welcome with me in the second half of the readalong, Nicole, but it's been interesting seeing where her hardcore fans were willing to make allowances for her and where they weren't so much. I think I might have had more patience for The Waves had I read it at another time, but I saw enough to understand why people like you, Emily and Frances might feel like "lesser" Woolf was better than no Woolf at all (without actually necessarily feeling the same myself). Anyway, thanks for the visit--I'll be returning the favor soon at your blog, where I see you are deep in the middle of 2666, my fave book from last year. Cheers!