I actually intended this post to be The Years by Virginia Woolf. I had The Years on my 1001 books pile to read (coming in at 12 books) as opposed to my regular books to read pile (21). (Then there’s my non fiction pile coming in at five and my kids book pile at four.) And I started reading it and it was great and I was making mental notes about what I wanted to say about it. Then I went to look it up in 1001 Books and it WASN’T THERE. OH NOES, I READ A BOOK BY MY FAVOURITE AUTHOR BY ACCIDENT.
Can I talk about The Years for a bit? It is apparently Virginia Woolf’s most popular novel, after all… The thing about it is it’s just so super researched! There are lots of tiny references to historical events and locations that went COMPLETELY over my head, but the throwaway nature of the lines gives a real sense of time. I mean people in the past weren’t constantly explaining themselves to others because they had the same points of reference so it feels real that Woolf doesn’t explain all her little bits and pieces. (Sidebar: as my first year lit tutor once told me, never read the endnotes on your first reading. I would definitely endorse that for this version of The Years because it’s super endnotey and I feel like the general gist of the book is ruined by the interruption if you read them all.) I think my favourite thing about The Years was the very human way its characters treated the passing of time, from wondering where it went to constantly asserting that they were in their prime, focussing on themselves and their age at the expense of everything else, and sentimentalising other generations. I wish it was on the list so I could talk about it more! But onto The Waves.
There are a lot of parallels between the two books actually. The Waves follows the lives of Susan, Bernard, Jinny, Rhoda, Louis and Neville who are variously intense, dreamy, charismatic, intelligent, shy, self-conscious and everything else that people are. We see them growing into their destinies and their characters, interacting with each other to create different selves, hoping for the best and dreading the worst and basically just living. It is a completely accurate study into how we see ourselves, how we see others, what we hide and what we give away without even meaning to.
The Waves is probably the most beautiful book ever written. Ever. Each of the characters is captured in alternating monologues that are half concrete, half abstract, half interactional and half internal. You’re never really sure what they’re saying out loud because they seem to bounce of each other but also remain entirely separate. But this mix of solid and intangible mis together in a sort of train-of-thought narrative to completely capture trains of thought. It’s the most incisive and genuine insight into human nature that I’ve ever read . You read these people and you know them because they are you and they are your friends and they are how you hope you seem to others and what you’re afraid they really see. It’s the love and hate and pride and shame that comes from being, you know, a person who has to deal with other people. I could go on forever because it is THE MOST BEAUTIFUL BOOK EVER WRITTEN. I take back the probably, it just is.
UPDATE: after thinking about it some more I just wanted to add that I don’t think I thought it was the best book ever written the first time. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it, but RE-reading it was even better. It freed me up from worrying about where everything was going and from thinking I needed to get everything. Some of it (especially Rhoda) is pretty opaque so I think it helped to know that going in, and to feel free not to worry about understanding every thought at the expense of flow. This is one of the many reasons I love re-reading. That is all, just thought I would share.