The waves

José Pancetti (1902-1958), “Navy”. Oil on canvas - signed - 49,8 x 38,7 cm. 1952.


Afterword to the newly edited translation of Virginia Woolf's book

the conception

The waves was published, in England, on October 8, 1931, by Hogarth Press, the publishing house owned by the Woolfs, and in the United States, on October 22 of the same year, by Harcourt, Brace and Co. To Virginia's own surprise, the book was a bestseller in England: the first printing of 7.000 copies sold out quickly, making it necessary, at the end of October of the same year, for a second printing of 4.000 copies. The success would be repeated in the United States, where the first printing of 10.000 copies sold out in less than a year.

The idea of ​​the book that would be published with the title of The waves judging by a passage in the writer's diary, it dates back to the end of 1926, when Virginia records: “We see a fin passing in the distance. What image can I use to convey what I want to say? […] I hazard a guess that this could be the impetus for another book”.

But, between that first and vague idea and its realization in The wavesthere was before to the lighthouse (1927) Orlando (1928) and A room of your own (1929). The dreamy and new book, which Virginia referred to with the title of The Moths (The Moths), was to remain for a long time in this embryonic form, with brief mentions here and there in the diary and letters. On February 21, 1927, a diary mention of the idea sketched out the previous year seems to accurately describe some of the central features that would define the as-yet-only-imagined book: "I think it must be something along these lines - though I still can't see what it is." . Far from the facts; free; however, concentrated; prose, yet poetry; a novel and a play”.

In a long and detailed description of the idea for the new book, in the diary entry of June 23, 1929, one can recognize some of the characteristics that would define The waves (here still referred to as The Moths): “However, I begin to see The Moths very clearly […]. I think it will start like this: aurora; the shells on a beach; […] rooster and nightingale voices; and then all the kids at a long table – lessons. The beginning. Well, all the characters will be there. Then the person at the table can call any one of them at any time; and develop, through that person, the atmosphere, tell a story […]. This will be Childhood; but it must not be my childhood; and boats on the lagoon; the feeling of children; unreality; things extraordinarily proportioned.”

The fullest description, however, of the genre of literature Virginia was trying to invent would be given in an essay published on August 14, 1927, in the journal New York Herald Tribune, with the title "Poetry, Fiction, and the Future” (reprinted in the anthology granite and rainbow, edited by Leonard Woolf and published in 1958 under the title “The Narrow Bridge of Art”). Describing something that was already in the making in those years and that would gain dimensions that even she could not foresee in the coming decades, she states: “That cannibal, the novel, which devoured so many forms of art, will then be devoured even more. We will be obliged to invent new names for the different books that will be disguised under this exclusive rubric”.

And, as if talking about the book she had in mind at that moment, The waves, she prophesies: “And possibly there will be, among the so-called novels, a kind of book which we scarcely know how to christen. It will be written in prose, but in prose that will have many of the characteristics of poetry. It will have something of the exaltation of poetry, but much of the banality of prose. […] But what name it will have is not a question of great importance. What is important is that this book that we see on the horizon can serve to express some of the feelings that seem at this moment to be purely and simply avoided by poetry [...]”.

Virginia began to work "in earnest," in her own right, on writing The waves on September 10, 1929. On February 7, 1931, she commemorated, in her diary, the completion of the manuscript: “Here, in the few minutes that remain, I must record, heavens be praised, the end of The waves. I wrote the words Oh Death fifteen minutes ago. […] Anyway, it's done; & I've been sitting here for 15 minutes in a state of glory & calm & a few tears, thinking of Thoby & whether I could write Julian Thoby Stephen 1881-1906 on the front page. I suppose not. How physical is the feeling of triumph & relief! […] but I want to say that I caught that fin in the net in the vast waters that appeared to me, over the marshes, from my window at Rodmell, when I was nearing the end of To the lighthouse.".

By the end of July 1931, she had finished revising the typewritten copy of the book, which was thus ready to proceed with typesetting and subsequent publication. Halfway to the end, on September 2, 1930, she records in her diary a sentence that summarizes the strategy adopted in writing this singular book: “This rhythm (I say that I am writing The waves according to a rhythm, not a plot) is in harmony with that of painters”.

The structure

The waves, which can be described as a modernist, experimental book, is undoubtedly a difficult book to read. There is nothing like “Mrs. Dalloway said she was going to buy the flowers herself.”, the opening sentence Mrs. Dalloway and which, together with the ones that follow, place us, without further ado, in the scenario in which the story will unfold. Or with “'Yes, of course, if the weather is fine tomorrow,' said Mrs. Ramsay. 'But they will have to wake up with the roosters', he added.'", at the beginning of to the lighthouse, which already gives us a clue as to how the story will be told. Or even opening jacob's room: “'So, naturally,' wrote Betty Flanders, digging her heels deeper into the sand, 'there was no way but to go.'” which allows us to guess at the kind of narrative that will follow.

In these narratives, although breaking with certain conventions of the typical novel of the time, the text follows a familiar scheme. The characters act, speak, look, think, meditate, feel, perceive, and all this is signaled, directly or indirectly, by the narrative voice, with the corresponding verbs and tenses. There is a plot, a plot, a story that one can easily follow.

None of this is present in the mode or narrative structure of The waves. For starters, there are something like two parallel narratives in the nine sections or “episodes” (apart from the last sentence of the book, which could be counted as a separate section), untitled and numbered, into which the book is divided. On one side, the segment that Virginia designated, in the diary, as “interlude”, a short text, between one and three pages, in italics. On the other, the segment called by the author “soliloquy”, of varying length, between ten and thirty pages. (But there are leaks between the two parts of each “episode”. Keep an eye out. Or listen.)

In the interludes, a narrative voice describes, in a poetic and metaphorical way, the successive positions of the sun throughout the day, the movement of the waves and the changes of season throughout the year, which are implicitly linked to the lives of the six characters. (Bernard, Jinny, Louis, Neville, Rhoda, Susan) and also with the passing of the seasons. Also described, in these preludes, are the changes caused by natural forces in the behavior of birds, in the development of plants and in the appearance of elements of human construction (a house, with its windows and curtains, its furniture and other objects; a garden, with its your plants, snails, slugs).

The soliloquies reproduce the “speech” of the six characters throughout their lives, in their different phases, from childhood to old age, invariably introduced by the third person singular of the perfect participle of the verb “dizer” and always in quotation marks. A seventh “character”, Percival, although he does not “speak” in the novel, functions as a kind of pivot around which the affections and admiration of the other six revolve. He has no voice in the narrative, except for a wisp of a sentence, in a letter to Neville, mentioned in Soliloquy 5 (S5).

There are at least two oddities here. In the first place, although the narrative verb is reduced to “to say” (said so-and-so, said so-and-so), the lines actually reproduce what could be called the thoughts of the characters; not what they say but what they are thinking, not their speech but their conscience. In some passages they address another character or, like Bernard in the last soliloquy, a stranger, but always imaginatively. To further complicate matters, sometimes there is a thought within a thought, as in Jinny's S1 line: “I thought, 'It's a bird in the nest'.” (In this case, the verb is in the past tense, and not in the present tense, used in the core of the soliloquies.) And, sometimes, the lines of the characters are linked together as if they were part of a dialogue in a traditional novel, as, for example, , in the middle of S8 (“In this silence,” said Susan, “one has the impression that not a leaf will ever fall nor a bird, fly.” / “As if the miracle had happened”, said Jinny, “and the life had stopped here and now.” / “And we,” said Rhoda, “didn’t have to live anymore.”)

Secondly, the language used does not vary from character to character, nor according to their age. They all express themselves in a way that cannot simply be described as the cultured variant of the English language, but as an elevated, elliptical, literary language, full of images, metaphors, wordplay. It is also difficult to see it as the expression of thought, interior monologue, internal ruminations, which, in contrast to the structured style of soliloquies by The waves, is fractured, disorganized, loose, like Molly Bloom's language in the last chapter of Odysseus, by James Joyce. Compare also the elevated style of speech of the characters in The waves with Stephen's opening speech in A portrait of the artist as a young man: “Once upon a time there was a very happy cow that came down the road and that cow […]”.

But the difficulties of reading the book do not end there. They are many, as demonstrated by the vast critical literature accumulated since its publication in 1931. The complexity of the narrative format of The waves it was noticed by its first reader, Leonard Woolf, as Virginia records in her diary on July 19, 1931: “'It is a masterpiece,' said L. […] this morning. 'And the best of her books.' […], adding that she thinks 'the first 100 pages are extremely difficult, & it's doubtful that an average reader will get very far'.” (Leonard's exaggeration. Don't give up on the first soliloquy; once you get the hang of it, it gets easier.)

As the narrative voice, in soliloquies, is limited to registering the characters' speeches, introduced by the verb “said”, and the characters themselves do not locate themselves in time and space, except indirectly, we do not know precisely the time in which the "action" takes place, and we are only vaguely informed of the locations where it takes place (London, Hampton Court, East Coast). In fact, this vagueness and imprecision are part of the narrative fabric thought by the author, as described by herself in her diary, on May 28, 1929: “I will also eliminate the exact place and time.”.

This erasure, especially of time, of the era, leads to certain inconsistencies, as observed by David Bradshaw, in a note to the Oxford edition of The Waves, by highlighting a passage in the book in which the time implicit in the narrative does not match the real time. In soliloquy 1, Jinny, then a boarding student at an infant school, says: "I will have a teacher, in an east coast school, who sits under a portrait of Queen Alexandra." In Bradshaw's words, the "mention of a portrait of Alexandra in the role of queen at this point in the novel is chronologically problematic, as Bernard and the other characters are described as 'elderly' at the end of the novel published in 1931", i.e. , just twenty-one years after the end of the reign of her husband, Edward VII (1901-1910).

But there are certain references, albeit few, that place the narrative in space. For example, the girls' school in S2 is loosely located on the east coast, as we've seen previously, although in Bernard's recap of S9, the location is even more imprecise: "They were educated on the east coast or the south coast." . In S3, Bernard and Neville's statements suggest that they are studying at Cambridge University and, more precisely, at Trinity College, as David Bradshaw points out in the aforementioned edition. Streets and other locations in London are mentioned throughout the book: Bond Street, Hampton Court, Shaftesbury Avenue, Fleet Street. Susan's home is in Lincolnshire, a county located in the east of England.

Structurally, the first eight soliloquies focus on the speeches of the six characters in successive periods of life, from childhood to old age. In S9, only Bernard's “voice” can be heard, making a sort of summary of the group's life trajectory. Although the book follows a sequence, marked by the age of the characters, the soliloquies, internally, do not unfold over a specific period of time (day, month, year). One can describe them more as snapshots, as fragments, as clippings, than as a continuous, whole, sequential flow.

The language of The waves it is far from being a brief language, “like the one used by lovers”, but it is a rhythmic, poetic, musical language. A language, perhaps, more to be heard (with the mind's ear) than read, a language that is, after all, paradoxically, the language of (silent) reading.

*Tomaz Tadeu is a literary translator.


Virginia Woolf. The waves. Translation: Tomaz Tadeu. Belo Horizonte, Autêntica, 2021, 254 pages.

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