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Thursday, August 9, 2012

How do we ever manage to tell our own stories: Virginia Woolf's The Waves


Since the death of my mother, I feel as if I have a different relationship to my past.  It is as if not having parents to worry about and not having their difficult, ambivalent relationship to puzzle over has broken some log-jam of memory.  So that in unexpected moments of my days, memories drop like ripe fruit from a tree when there is no set harvest season, in their own time and rhythm.  Sometimes when a day has been full of these moments, I write lists in my diary.  They might read something like this:
Prom dresses.  Draped apricot chiffon with covered buttons.  The green metallic one I made myself and beaded around the neck.  The way the metallic seams felt against my skin.
My sleepovers with Cherie Van Oostendorp.  Some time before tenth grade?
My mother and father dancing in their kitchen in Florida--the only smooth floor in their house.
My Dr. Kildare shirt and the disastrous perm my mother gave me for school pictures.

How do we ever make stories of such moments?  Or, if Robertson Davies sent a recording angel to us on our deathbeds and we were forced to utter a memoir or autobiography (subtly different genres, those), how would we find in the long, causal narrative sweep of our lives the space for those moments that drop into consciousness with such physical and emotional presence?  Narrative logic, whether of the memoir or the autobiography, requires movement through time, yet these memories seem to exist in their own timelessness, as if contained in a blown glass ball you hang in your window to catch the sunlight.  How is it that "experience" is not the same as "narrative"?  Narrative has its causes and its effects.  I could certainly tell the recording angel the story of my divorce or of my relationship with Bill.  But how, in that context, could I convey the fact that for some of the most important moments of my mind there has been no one, though a cat probably lurked around the edges.  The winter morning when, driving to work, I saw the geese on Wascana Lake, all their heads tucked under their wings, so that they looked like stones floating on water.  Listening to Faure's Requiem after my father's death, my own private funeral service sung to the music he loved, containing all the ambivalence I felt about him in a musical whole.

Virginia Woolf's The Waves is making me ask these questions.  It is Woolf's most abstract, avant-garde, and difficult work, one you must read over and over if you want to get past the poetry of experience and understand the characters and Woolf's purpose.  Six characters recite soliloquies, rarely speaking to one another, that record their experience in the chronological order of grade school, boarding school or finishing school, university or (for the women) the quest for a partner.  Insofar as there is any causality (As in "gentleman A had an automobile accident and so met lady B"), it is that of the characters' relationships to the world as it is shaped by their characters.  Tying all this together is a series of prose poems that describe, first, the pre-dawn light, then the sun's appearance, noon, late afternoon, dusk; each of these appropriately accompanies the parallel phase in the characters' lives.  Sometimes, when Woolf is describing the sextet's days at school, for example, each phase of that experience is assigned to a different character.  Bernard tells us about leaving home to go to school, Neville tells us about the train trip, Susan records her last day at school ever, so it is almost as if the novel is a biography of a generation.  And since Woolf had just written Orlando, biography was very much on her mind.   There is one character, Percival, who never speaks, and who is conventional, labelled a "hero," the fellow who goes off to colonial India and dies when his horse trips.  If any of the characters comes close to being a conventional hero, it's certainly Percival, but he's merely glimpsed by the other characters. 

I've come to see this novel as an inside-out, upside-down Bildungsroman, a novel where one character's ironized heroism and bald narrative was played out against the dense, intense experience (not narrative) of characters who, unlike the Bildungsheld, (which is a fancy German word for the hero of a novel of development) don't feel falsely confident and sure about their role in the world, but rather who are outsiders, characters who are making themselves up on a daily basis, just like you and I do.  So I was delighted to learn, as I rootled around in the library, that the Bildungsroman went fairly ironic in the early part of the twentieth century.  (Think Ulysses.) Whew!  I've got a theory and it seems, as I re-read the novel, to hold water.  Also, the modernist Bildungsroman went back to its classical, eighteenth-century roots, so that the bildungsheld's aesthetic education was more important than the social conformity that would allow him to return, comfortably and profitably, to his community.  So through exploring the treatment of Bernard, the failed artist, I will be able to tie form and aesthetics together again, as I have been doing in the previous chapters.

But Woolf makes it so hard for the reader.  Only the most dogged of readers take notes on each of the characters' foibles and perspectives can read this novel with any small amount of satisfaction.  And if I'm writing about Woolf's use of form, that's a question I have to ask:  Why does she make it so hard?

Perhaps, I have thought, as my own memories fall through the boughs of apple and plum trees, as a moment in a current relationship will trigger a memory--plus all the layers of affect, from a time twenty years ago--straightforward narrative is only one way to tell who we are.  Better, perhaps, a handful of poems (which was what I did with the geese), the ashes of one's cats, a worn sweater that captures exactly the way you put your left elbow on the table to rest your cheek, a letter to your daughter or son.  How, though, do you capture a kiss?

1 comment:

  1. Glad you're talking about The Waves. I sweated through most of it and then set it aside.

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