Friday, April 19, 2013

A 1931 Review of The Waves

I was excited to read a review of The Waves from when it was first published, to get a taste of the responses Woolf herself might have read from contemporaries. While I found this review by Louis Kronenberger to be in many ways insightful and congruent with my own opinions, I also disagreed with his ultimate conclusion. Kronenberger praises Woolf’s imagist poetry, even titling the article “Poetic Brilliance in the New Novel by Mrs. Woolf,” but ends with the claim that the novel is “a very far cry…from greatness.” Despite its unique form, he argues that the novel’s themes are conventional and that “it is simply a marvelous description, it is not quite vision.”

This critique functions on a distinction between form and content, with content being of primary value. However, I do not believe the two are quite as distinct as Kronenberger makes them out to be. Her form is part of the content, communicating an essence, a mood, an emotion, a state of being. Take for instance her description of Rhoda’s terror in the first section of the novel:

“The others look; they look with understanding. Louis writes; Susan writes; Neville writes; Jinny writes; even Bernard has now begun to write. But I cannot write. I see only figures. The others are handing in their answers, one by one. Now it is my turn. But I have no answer. The others are allowed to go. They slam the door.”

The simplicity, the step by step description of this passage, brilliantly captures the slow, steady weight of being trapped in fear, confusion and humiliation in a classroom. It immediately brought me back to my days in kindergarten, left struggling over math problems when the rest of the class had finished and gone to recess. The ability to perfectly capture such an experience, seemingly mundane though it may be, is to me a feat of greatness.

Kronenberger claims that Woolf “is not really concerned in The Waves with people, she is hardly concerned in the prosaic sense with humanity: she is only concerned with the symbols, the poetic symbols, of life--the changing seasons, day and night, bread and wine, fire and cold, time and space, birth and death and change.”  When I first read this comment, I felt it to be entirely accurate, but upon further reflection I feel that while The Waves is indeed concerned with “the poetic symbols of life,” it is through these symbols that she does capture humanity. He complains that “it is always sensibility [Woolf] has, never passion; we never get, in a mystical flash, the universe.” But of course, in a novel titled The Waves, there is no flash; for Woolf, life is not a flash. We do, however, get a deeply moving and carefully paced portrait of the tides of life, a macro image of the passage of time.

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