I'm a huge Virginia Woolf fan, but if I really analyse it it's the 1920s Woolf I love: Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando (not so much Jacob's Room, admittedly), The Common Reader, A Room of One's Own - these are my favourites, these, I think, are her finest. 1910s Woolf (The Voyage Out and Night and Day being the two novels of that time) I enjoy, and I could never get into to 1930s Woolf as much. I loved Flush, it's hard not to, and there is The Common Reader Second Series from 1932, but Three Guineas, The Years, and The Waves are not favourites. And sadly Between the Acts, 1940s Woolf, was lost on me (though I was inspired to try again by this post by Simon Lavery).
That said, I think my second read of The Waves was a little more successful. It's Virginia Woolf's seventh novel (if you count Orlando as a novel: some count it a biography) and was published in 1931. It's her most 'experimental' - and yes, by that I also mean 'hard'.
There are nine parts to The Waves and in each part we see the characters mature and develop from infancy to old age. There are six characters - Bernard, Neville, and Louis, and three women - Rhoda, Susan, and Jinny. The characters tell their own story or they tell the story of the others - there is no authorial intervention, Woolf in that sense is absent but for the description of the waves which separates each of the nine parts: the sea ebbing and flowing, the sun rising and setting above it. We learn from them of their childhood, their adolescence, and adulthood - Louis and Bernard are businessmen, Susan a mother and wife of a farmer, Jinny the socialite, Neville the artist, and Rhoda, forever an outsider. In Woolf's earlier novels she used 'stream-of-consciousness' to express the inner lives of her characters, but in The Waves I wouldn't call it 'stream-of-consciousness' - the monologues of the characters are too structured and it is not one continuous flow. I think there's an element of it, but at the same time it's more self-conscious. This is one reason I didn't love it - it did feel highly unnatural, and I found it hard to settle into that. It is not the natural, meandering river-like thoughts of, say, Clarissa Dalloway - each thought has a purpose to it - these thoughts reveal an aspect of a character or the characters as a whole and it's supposed to - it's why it's there. It's contrived, in short, and feels contrived and artificial.
So The Waves left me divided. I loved reading it, and looked forward to reading it when I wasn't already, but though it's a very compelling novel I found it hard to love. It is hard to keep track of the characters: there are 'hooks' if you will - for example Louis is 'the Australian', and that little detail makes his character distinct from the others. However, the characters are also a single unit. I didn't find the style of each monologue terribly different from another; confusion quickly and frequently arises and this group of friends become one self. This I have no doubt was deliberate - each character struggles with their sense of identity and try and strike out as individuals, but this truly is a struggle. Their attempts of order, too, are thwarted, and they become tossed about as if in a wave.
The novel is almost dream-like. It has great beauty and sometimes eloquence, and Woolf communicates in this manner not only the idea of 'self' in each character, but also how it may be thwarted and undermined. There is no reality to it, which is why I found it hard - and the expression of the thoughts of each character is as I said highly unnatural and contrived. The poetry of The Waves and it's wonderful fluidity and motion makes it a beautiful read, and though it captures the essence of thought it is not representative. But does that matter? I don't suppose we're meant to actually identify with it, we're simply presented with six other individuals that bear no relation to our selves. It is, I do believe, a successful novel: by that I mean Woolf produced exactly what she wanted to produce; my not quite liking it is not down to something Woolf did wrong. She did nothing wrong - it's stunning, powerful, and memorable. I did thoroughly enjoy the challenge of the novel: I know I sound like I'm apologising for writing a bad review, but really I wasn't writing a bad review, just sharing some of my difficulties. I know this is a favourite of many Woolf fans, but for me, my heart lies with Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, and To the Lighthouse.