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.