The Years. By Virginia Woolf. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.50.
Most great novelists illuminate life: they have something to tell us about existence and they help us understand our fellow men more fully and more sympathetically than otherwise we should. But Mrs. Woolf writes to tell us that we know nothing about this world and the people in it. Her theme is not only that we live a riddle, but that we shall never solve the mystery. She is cutting off the flow of fiction at its source.
“The Years” covers a period in time from 1880 to the present day and considers three generations in the lives of the Pargiter family, one of those English families of innumerable brothers, sisters, and cousins, spread out across the Empire and occupied with everything from scholarship at Oxford to farming in Africa. The narrative aspect of the novel holds the large number of characters together in the interwoven arrangement of family affairs, indicating— obliquely rather than directly—the inevitable necrology, the change from youth to age, the milestones on the time-road the Pargiters travel. This is all done with the utmost technical brilliance. Located in what we choose to call reality, we watch Time in the calendar sense go its strange journey.
But the years unfold not to tell a story but to furnish Mrs. Woolf an opportunity for posing the central problem: how can we know anyone? In her previous novels she has already approached this question through the theory that each individual is only a separate embodiment of “life itself,” common to all of us, and that this embodiment, contrary to old-school novelists, does not develop but repeats itself endlessly. In “The Years” she continues to elucidate this idea. Each of the characters who survive the whole length of the book thinks and behaves at the middle and the end in much the same way he did at the beginning. The point is that an individual life, to Mrs. Woolf, is a pattern which in various ways and with only surface changes circles around itself from beginning to end.
Readers of Mrs. Woolf’s earlier novels will see that “The Years” re-states a concept already presented. The new element here is a more deeply puzzled attitude toward the understanding of the meaning of human lives. The recurrent pattern can be discerned, but once detected does it reveal any significance? For reply, Mrs. Woolf chiefly employs Eleanor Pargiter, whose life spans the whole novel, and her nephew North, who serves as a focal point in the last section. Eleanor realizes that the meaning of her own life, in so far as there is any, exists for her alone in a complex of Time, in which the past is forever re-entering the present in such a way that any given moment in the Now is made up of associations with what lies behind. This is reminiscent of a similar treatment in “To the Lighthouse” and “The Waves”; but whereas in the earlier books memory served to vitalize the present, here Eleanor concludes that though she wanted “to enclose the present moment; fill it fuller and fuller, with the past, the present, and the future until it shone deep with understanding,” she fails. It is useless. “We know nothing, even about ourselves.” And therefore it follows that if we cannot know ourselves, no one else can be expected to. One suspects that Eleanor is a transcript of Mrs. Woolf’s own mind, always seeking meaning and never finding it except in mystery.
North is of the post-war generation. He is less anchored than his elders, more cynical. Since the War he has been in Africa and is now suddenly flung into the midst of the fam-| ily, where he finds himself more separated from them than when he was thousands of miles away. He hears their speech, but can’t understand their meaning. “There’s a gap between the word and the reality.” As his Aunt Rose had said earlier, “Talk is the only way of knowing people”; but all he hears is nonsense to him. He is in revolt against the older group because it seems to him that “it treads out the round of its familiar thoughts” and is always afraid of breaking the pattern. But if one cannot understand one’s self, how can another, of a later day, be expected to do so? This split between the two age-groups is at the very end in a technical trick of great skill made final by the introduction of two small children, aliens to the Pargiters, who sing a song in a language utterly incomprehensible to the auditors.
To write a novel demonstrating that there is no chance of understanding ourselves or our neighbors is almost perverse. And yet Mrs. Woolf manages with the greatest subtlety to make the mystery of our existence the one real and valid thing about us. The lyric beauty of the prose-poems with which each section opens; the phrases and catchwords that repeat themselves in delicate cadence in the minds and speech of the characters; the surprising but always convincing play of associated ideas—all of these weave a rhythmic design that we recognize as true in its very strangeness. The dialogue teases. What are these people saying? What are they talking about? Often a sentence breaks off in the middle. Where was the thought going? We never know exactly, partly because often some hidden current from the past breaks into the mind and re-directs the processes of communication, partly because the speaker himself is often on the brink of a discovery that is never made. It is the triumph of Mrs. Woolf’s art that she can give substance to the theme that the one thing known is that we can never know.