The re-issue of these four books in handsome bindings answers no urgent need; three of them are already available in less expensive editions. Nevertheless, it is an occasion to reread several of Mrs. Woolf’s books at the same time. Inevitably, I found the spell of the old enchantment considerably diminished. Inevitable, in part, because we are at that awkward distance which prevents either a fresh reading of her work of an impersonal detachment. In so far as our disaffection is caused by a temporary impatience with the elaborate, the playful, the idiosyncratic, we are the losers.
Orlando has always seemed to me embarrassingly frivolous. Of course, it is a very ingenious joke, very “literary” and scholarly, and the frivolity mocks itself, as when, after exercising a few lines in an archaic manner, the author breaks off: “(and so on for six pages if you will, but the style is tedious and may well be dropped).” It would have been delightful as one of her shorter, light pieces, but in this form the joke is stretched beyond the fun in it, and the fun was always more for the writer than for the reader.
The Waves is a serious novel, of course, about six children who are brought up together and whose lives are interwoven until the book leaves them in middle age. They reveal themselves (and one another) in alternating interior monologues. Never has Mrs. Woolf (or any other writer, for that matter, in quite this way) employed this technique so exclusively. It is not an attempt to imitate the processes of the unconscious or of involuntary association, but a determined concentration on the self, expressed in a formal poetic style: “’Now let me try,’ said Louis, ‘before we rise, before we go to tea, to fix the moment in one supreme endeavor. This will endure.’”
In this sort of fixity, consciousness is a continual surrender to a stream of sense-impressions and related memories. It is an end in itself; sensitivity is the supreme value. The result is often very lovely; nevertheless, the rhythm of monologue is finally monotonous and the characters of the novel are apt to fade into the anonymity of mere sensitized plates. Any continuity or interrelation of their reveries is too frequently only a trick of composition. The Waves (like most of its author’s work) has been compared to music—a useful simile, as it suggests a thematic structure unusual in English fiction. But literature is no more music than music is literature, and the obtrusion of a formal scheme risks the chilling or even paralysis of a novel.
Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse are Virginia Woolf’s most successful novels. The former is brilliant; it originates on the surface of things—“the silver, the chairs”; “there was a beating, a stirring of galloping ponies, tapping of cricket bats”—and the impulse of these impressions to the reflective mind constructs the sense of “life; London; this moment in June.” Appropriately in this world of surfaces, “the supreme mystery . . . was simply this: here was one room, there another.” It is a rare creative stroke that recognizes the mood, despite the flash and gayety, as one of ineffable sadness and futility: “This late age of the world’s experience had bred in them all, all men and women, a well of tears.” The most Clarissa Dalloway can do is give a party.
So far, the work is a triumph of the visual imagination; the following reference to Clarissa’s courageous and inane high-mindedness is another matter: “Not for a moment did she believe in God; but all the more, she thought, . . . must one repay in daily life to servants, yes, to dogs and canaries, above all to Richard her husband, who was the foundation of it.” And again: “Thank you, thank you, she went on saying in gratitude to her servants generally for helping her to be like this, to be what she wanted, gentle, generous-hearted.” There is here, at the very least, an ambiguity; at most, a failure of the ironic intelligence. How can one judge the passages quoted above? There are too few clues. This failure, if it is failure, is all the more baffling because it is intermittent; Sir William Bradshaw and Hugh Whitbread are disposed of swiftly and keenly.
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