January 16, 2018

Virginia Woolf, The Waves

On this day in 1931 Virginia Woolf's The Waves was published. She was just forty-nine, and she would live and write for another decade, but this was the last of her major works -- a series of six books over nine years that would change the face of modern fiction. A journal entry from eight months earlier, written on the morning that she finished the last chapter, shows that Woolf had some sense of her latest accomplishment:
    Here in the few minutes that remain, I must record, heaven be praised, the end of The Waves. I wrote the words O Death fifteen minutes ago, having reeled across the last ten pages with some moments of such intensity and intoxication that I seemed only to stumble after my own voice, or almost, after some sort of speaker (as when I was mad). I was almost afraid, remembering the voices that used to fly ahead. Anyhow, it is done; and I have been sitting these 15 minutes in a state of glory, and calm.... How physical the sense of triumph and relief is!... I have netted the fin in the waste of water which appeared to me over the marshes out of my window at Rodmell when I was coming to an end of To the Lighthouse.
In his biography, nephew Quentin Bell writes, "If, as many critics assert, The Waves was Virginia's masterpiece, then that [journal moment] may be accounted the culminating point in her career as an artist."

Woolf's allusion to madness was not made lightly. Earlier journal entries express her anguish over the psychological and narrative problems which she encountered during the writing of The Waves. It must certainly have occurred to her that a book which tries to voice the lives and sensibilities of six fragmented characters might not be healthy for a writer with her psychological history, one who feels how "difficult it is to collect oneself into one Virginia; even though the special Virginia in whose body I live for the moment is violently susceptible to all sorts of separate feelings." The central event of the book required her to once again revisit the trauma of her brother Thoby's premature death -- some critics say the trauma of her own sexual abuse, also. There were constant waves of illness and health, despair and buoyancy, and resolve: "One will not perhaps go to the writing table & write the simple & profound paper upon suicide which I see myself leaving for my friends" and "The only way I keep afloat is by working" and "If I never felt these extraordinarily pervasive strains -- of unrest, or rest, or happiness, or discomfort -- I should float down into acquiescence. Here is something to fight: & when I wake early I say to myself, Fight, fight. If I could catch the feeling, I would: the feeling of the singing of the real world."

The following passage is from the very end of the novel. The italicized lines are on a plaque which Leonard Woolf put beneath a sculpture of his wife in the garden of their Rodmell, Sussex; her ashes were scattered there after her suicide in 1941:
    "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.

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