I should have spent the past week’s early mornings gathering ideas for this editor’s note, but instead I had another deadline in mind. I knew I’d never get to London to see Woolf Works, a recent Royal Ballet production, but I had plans to see it in an HD broadcast in Albany, not three hours’ drive from here. To be prepared I wanted to listen to Max Richter’s score, and at the same time to reread The Waves, one of the three Virginia Woolf novels the ballet derives from, and the one I either loved or hated the most, I wasn’t sure anymore.
I once thought I would reread The Waves every year of my life, but each time I picked it up I read a few lines and changed my mind. I was afraid it would disappoint me, and that I might discover that my initial response to it had been more about my own naïveté and pretentiousness than about the book’s own power. I was afraid to learn that indeed Woolf had gone “too far” in The Waves, and to finally confirm for myself that her better books were the ones with a little plot at least, a firmer setting, like To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway. The only person I urged to read The Waves after my initial infatuation wore off was my husband-to-be. It was a sort of prenuptial agreement.
I spent several mornings in the past week, then, rereading the book that had once been my anthem, while listening to Richter’s music. Once I learned which parts of the score I needed to skip, the repetitive electronics and gorgeous strings contributed not only to my concentration but to the emotional intensity of the book. The combination was rapturous, and the book was even better than I remembered. Because it was so familiar I didn’t need any time to get oriented, and because I was older more of it felt true. I recognized the uncanny sense I had so many years before that this book was able to express something I already knew but knew too deeply to possibly articulate. I felt almost as if I had written it myself. Reading it gave me the same exhilaration as those rare moments when writing goes well, only in reading The Waves I had a guide to the underworld and did not have to face an empty page alone.
But then the characters, such as they are, grow old. When I was twenty the last part of the book left less of an impression, whereas now, at forty-eight, I was stricken. The Waves has no conventional plot, character, or setting, which allows it to go straight to the essence of things, but in the end this also makes it the emptiest of books, the most disembodied, and the most desolate. And then the book is over, and the waves break on the shore.
Later that day, I turned to a critical guide to find out what others had said, maybe to find some comfort there. William Empson puts it well, saying, “her images, glittering and searching as they are, give one just that sense of waste that is given by life itself.” And, “if only these dissolved units of understanding had been co-ordinated into a system, if only, perhaps, there was an index . . . how much safer one would feel.” Others criticize the smallness, the tea-room sensibility. To me it was just that fussiness, her being a product of a particular colonialist, middle-class British society, that allowed me to think it was not only okay to write something myself, but imperative. Now it may be that this same sense of imperative has contributed to my desolation. I haven’t written my own Waves, and here I am, Bernard’s age at the end of the book, and there is Bernard, his hold on life loosening, his passion flaming out. “I waited. I listened. Nothing came, nothing.”
I never did get to the Woolf Works broadcast. A snowstorm hit the east coast that Tuesday in March, a cathartic and blinding blizzard that forced us to shut down for a day. But I did manage to finish this editor’s note, and now my early mornings are clear again for reading and writing something new. Then again, I haven’t read Orlando in a while, and I hear they’re showing Woolf Works next in Montreal.
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