The Waves is Virginia Woolf’s most difficult book. It is a difficult book by any standards, and its difficulty and its greatness are intertwined. Part of the difficulty is inherent in the form; there are six narrative voices, long sections separated by pure descriptions of the ocean, but only the loosest of narratives. It requires an attentiveness of reading that is sometimes exhausting. This is because The Waves is saturated by Woolf’s own relentless observation, the quality of her seeing, the pure lyric intensity that drenches every sentence. The soil of this book is entirely porous; there are no dry spots that the mind’s feet can skate or slide over. We must be with her at every moment, riding alongside her on the galloping horse of her rhythms, as Bernard gallops at the end, his lance couched, defying death. “It is all written against a background of death and the sea,” Woolf says of this book in her diary. Death and the sea provide the background, but the subject is life, or life seen as consciousness.

The doubleness of anguish and exaltation is the body’s own. For The Waves suggests that we learn who we are and what life is through the body. In his last soliloquy, Bernard, the summer up, recalls a moment from a childhood bath. “Mrs. Constable raised the sponge above her head, squeezed it, and out shot, right and left, all down the spine, arrows of sensation. And so, as long as we draw breath, for the rest of time, if we knock against a chair, a table, or a woman, we are pierced with arrows of sensation. Sometimes indeed when I pass a cottage with a light in the window where a child has been born, I could implore them not to squeeze the sponge over that new body.” Sensation, consciousness bring gifts and also desolation when the gifts are taken back or so far obscured as to be inaccessible. “It seems we go on living,” Rhoda notes. It is an exhausting and dangerous prospect, this living, taking place as it does against the backdrop of death. But there are moments of great beauty, great value, some of them in the company of friends. “We have proved, sitting eating, sitting talking, that we can add to the treasury of moments,” Bernard says.

If we compare The Waves to two other great first-person narratives, Notes from Underground and À la recherche du temps perdu, we find in Woolf glimpses not only of joy but of life’s goodness that the other writers nowhere provide. Certainly, Proust grants us moments of aesthetic bliss: the hawthorns, the sea at Balbec, the sonatas of Vinteul, the charms of Odette. But for Proust, human connection is a snare, a distraction from the important work of contemplation, apprehension, and creation. Dostoevsky’s underground man finds the possibility of friendship risible to the point of nausea. Woolf, on the other hand, by the very nature of her structure, insists on the possibilities of human connection and indeed interpenetration. Bernard, who speaks for the other characters, is not sure whether he is himself or an entity made up of himself and his friends. A six-sided flower, as he calls it. Singularity may be a chimera; it is moments of union, moments only to be sure, that strike the spine with the piercing and enlivening arrows of sensation. And yet, for some like the character Rhoda, like Woolf herself, a suicide, these moments are not strong enough to make up for the ordeal, the horror of living.

In her diary, Woolf refers to the form of this novel as a “poemplay.” If it is a play, it is a play with six characters: Bernard, Jinny, Neville, Susan, Rhoda, and Louis. Or perhaps it is a play with only one character having six sides. The plot is a series of variations of the story “This is who I am.” As a poem (and it is important that it includes the entire text of one of the greatest English poems, “O Western Wind”), The Waves relies on images, images repeated, images with changes wrung upon them, as an essential way the I knows itself as the I. Each of the six characters bears within him– or herself an image that he or she carries from childhood through old age: for Bernard it is words that bubble up from the bottom of a saucepan, for Louis it is the great beast on the shore that stamps and stamps, for Jinny it is the body that puts forth a frill, for Susan the hard thing, her grief, her anger, that she screws up into a pocket handkerchief, for Neville it is the path of the Latin language throughout the sand, and boys eating bananas out of a paper sack, for Rhoda the petals that she rocks in her brown basin and the swallow who dips his wings in a pool at the end of the world. There are sentences in The Waves that have the lapidary quality of great lines of blank verse, sentences that lodge forever in the memory. I often find myself repeating sentences from The Waves at moments of stress. I hear Neville’s “The reign of chaos is over, knives cut” when I have found my lost keys or discovered I have not in fact run out of toilet paper. Or all too often, in circumstances too obvious to be gone into, I hear Susan’s words: “I shall be debased and hidebound by the bestial and beautiful passion of maternity. I shall push the fortunes of my children unscrupulously. I shall hate those who see their faults. I shall lie basely to help them.” And there are passages whose beauty stops the heart: “The gold has faded between the trees and a slice of green lies behind them, elongated like the blade of a knife seen in dreams or some tapering island on which nobody sets foot.”

In The Waves, Virginia Woolf came closest to fulfilling her aesthetic ideal. This ideal is a fiction in which the stuff of realistic fiction—money, class, social placement, the details of family connection—is notable for its absence, and attention is paid only to that which reveals the inner life. In her essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” in which she asserts that the inner life of the ordinary woman on the train, Mrs. Brown, is the true business of the modern novelist, she asserts her creed. “I was strongly tempted,” she disingenuously says, “to manufacture a three-volume novel about the old lady’s son and his adventures crossing the Atlantic and her daughter and how she keeps a milliner’s shop in Westminster…though such stories seem to me the most dreary, irrelevant and humbugging affairs in the world. But if I had done that, I should have escaped the appalling effort of saying what I meant. And to have got at what I meant I would have had to go back and back, to experiment with one thing and another, to try this sentence and that, referring each sentence to my vision.” This decision, of course, deprives the reader of many of the pleasures of fiction, even the experimental. We have none of Proust’s delicious biting satire; we miss Dostoevsky’s speculations about the nature of moral choice. But in focusing so intently upon the task of The Waves, Virginia Woolf triumphantly realized the goal she had set for herself in the privacy of her diary. “I want,” she said, “to tell the truth and create something of beauty.”