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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Monday, April 10, 2017

Virginia Woolf's most "experimental" novel: What was she trying to prove?

Some say that Virginia Woolf's The Waves (1931) is her most "experimental" novel, and yes, I guess you could call it that, but what's she trying to prove? The Waves isn't a difficult novel to read, but I believe it would be a difficult novel to finish reading (I doubt I will - somehow I may have read this one a million years ago in grad school when I made my way through the complete works of various major authors - but I can't remember anything about this one). Woolf is obviously toying with the idea of narrative: It's one of the few novels with multiple (six, I think, 3 male, 3 female) narrators, but the narrative is especially odd (and challenging, not to say off-putting) because the narrators speak in sequences, one paragraph at a time. In the first section (each section is roughly 20 pp. I think) the narrators are children on some kind of estate - the relationship among them is never clear, but it seems they might be related - siblings? cousins? - or for a time I thought they may have been children evacuated from London during the war, but I don't know if they did that during the first WW - they describe various childhood games and perceptions of life in the country. In the 2nd section they're all away at boarding school, "public" school as the English so charmingly call it - obviously the girls are in one school, the boys in another. In this section we begin to see a bit of the personalities, especially of the boys - one's an athlete, another a would-be writer, one is of Australian parentage and feels like an outsider - but honestly it's very hard to understand their relationships to one another or what they life is like in school other than in snippets, a few images here and there. None of the narrators speaks/writes like a young person - they each sound like Va. Woolf in fact - and by the end of the 2nd section I'm wondering, as noted above, what she's trying to accomplish or show: Does this fractured narrative serve any purpose, does it make the world she's describing any more vivid, real, comprehensible, or credible to us, to her readers? It's possible that the story will gradually cohere, like a canvas being filled one brushstroke at a time, but it's also possible that this style will become increasingly tedious and mannered: If this was an experiment, it opened a pathway that few have followed (there are other books w/ multiple narrators - e.g., Sound and Fury - and, similarly, with 1st-person plural narrators, but none I can think of w/ narrator shifting after each paragraph, which to me does nothing but isolate and frustrate the reader).

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