September 27, 2019 | Arts and Culture
a last ripple of the wave
caught in the pull of virginia woolf
“The sun has not yet risen.”
High school has just ended. Hoping to fill my final summer before college with some kind of intellectual stimulation, I find myself on a Google hunt for “most poetic novels.” There’s not much to do on Long Island, you see, so my “fun time” for the past four years has been mostly confined to reading books. I settle on Inferno by Eileen Myles (which still sits on my bookshelf at home, only partially read) and The Waves by Virginia Woolf. What they don’t tell you about Virginia Woolf when you’re eighteen and you think you’re some kind of prodigal hot shot is that her books are difficult, and The Waves may just be her most mystifying book of all. I set out on my journey, Barnes & Noble behind me as I merge onto the Meadowbrook Parkway.
I spend this summer frustrated, working at a day camp where my superiors undervalue me and a co-worker wastes twelve futile weeks attempting to court me. Worse than anything else, it’s Virginia Woolf who disheartens me. Wholly baffled by what to make of her elegiac and elusive style, I find myself thrust into the impenetrable worlds of narrators Bernard, Jinny, Neville, Rhoda, Susan, and Louis, who begin the novel as children and grow older as it progresses. Reading has lost its calming power; every time I invite The Waves into my evenings, I’m tasked with solving a thousand-piece puzzle without knowing what the final image is supposed to look like. I only read about five pages per week, but in spite of this, the meditative way Woolf captures the world begins to seep into my daily thoughts. I catch myself wondering in the quiet moments of the day how Woolf would novelize my daily drive to work with my best friend, the sunsets over Jones Beach, and the quiet ways I will miss this place when I’m gone.
“The sun rose higher.”
I devote the month of January to finishing The Waves, reading it on the Amtrak ride back to my hometown, in the soft blue light of my bedroom, and from the comfort of my best friend’s couch while we watch Chopped. When Bernard exhales his final breath at the end of the novel, I sigh of relief, excited to pick up a new book for class and finally set Virginia to rest. I had followed the beats of the novel but could not get the atmosphere to cohere—the puzzle pieces never came together. Percival dies halfway through, Neville is heartbroken, Bernard is engaged to be married, Jinny is a socialite, Susan is a mother, Rhoda is depressed and eventually commits suicide, Louis is Australian, and I am left with nothing but vague impressions of the whole thing. I award it a three on the book-ranking site Goodreads and wash my hands of it. My memories of the rest of winter break are fuzzy; I celebrate New Year’s Eve at a friend’s house and fall asleep dreaming of Providence.
“The sun had risen to its full height…The waves fell; withdrew and fell again…”
The second summer I pick up The Waves, I have two years of college under my belt, I have read and enjoyed the slightly more accessible To the Lighthouse, and I have spent much of my time wondering why this book I disliked has still not left my mind. Two years before, the six characters had not felt quite real to me; finding myself trying to piece together the plot and failing, I had not left any room to enjoy the elegance of Woolf’s words or the purity of the emotions displayed through the characters. Now, knowing the basics of the plot, I can simply enjoy the process of putting the picture together, and I begin to see myself on every page. Neville’s ruminations about the hope of lasting love sing to me in my boyfriend’s eyes, Rhoda’s inward anxieties become mine as I navigate Brown’s social web, and Bernard’s story-telling aspirations feel, for the first time ever, tangible. Freshman year, Woolf had invited me to discover the beauty in the banalities of my own life, and I had ignored her. I would not make the same mistake again.
This summer, I am back in New York, back in the world I have known my whole life, but the air feels different. I tiptoe around my house, suffocated by the alarm system that goes off every time I open a door or a window. I take the train into the city every morning and slowly fall asleep to the rumble of the tracks. On lunch breaks I sink into a Diet Coke and The Waves, finally understanding Woolf’s words of love and loss. I weep for Percival. I call Rhoda back to life in my mind. As I read the final section, I want Bernard’s soliloquy to continue forever. The Waves feels more like home than falling asleep in my childhood twin mattress every night, yearning for the northern city where I learned to love the small things.
“Now the sun had sunk. Sky and sea were indistinguishable.”
When I picture myself graduating in May, I see myself in cap and gown, The Waves tucked under my arm. Perhaps it is my penchant for tradition, but after I graduate I want to spend the summer revisiting the characters I now carry with me as friends. With luck, this will be the first summer I experience Percival’s death from somewhere other than Long Island; I have outgrown its shorelines and different highways call my name these days. Woolf will have to follow me wherever the wind takes me. Until then, in Virginia’s words, I will “abolish the ticking of time’s clock with one blow” as I fall in love again and again with the Providence skyline.
“The waves broke on the shore.”