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One more page, she decides; just one more. She isn’t ready yet; the tasks that lie ahead (putting on her robe, brushing her hair, going down to the kitchen) are still too thin, too elusive. She will permit herself another minute here, in bed, before entering the day. She will allow herself just a little more time.
Johann Goethe is credited with having inspired the dolorous Romantic movement that followed the publication of his work The Sorrow of Young Werther. The German author would later disown Werther, for inspiring what he felt was a ‘sick’, morbid melancholy, a fascination with the act of suicide itself. “It must be bad, if not everybody was to have a time in his life, when he felt as though Werther had been written exclusively for him.” I wonder if Virginia Woolf were to have lived to see the publication of The Hours might she have expressed similar regrets.
The Hours tells the story of three women fascinated by the story of Mrs Dalloway. It begins with the suicide of Virginia Woolf herself, before returning to the period during which she conceived the novel. This is intentional, as her work, for better or worse, will forever be defined by the manner of her death in the minds of her readers.
We then skip forward to the present day, where a Clarissa Vaughan, much like her namesake, is feverishly planning a celebratory party for her old friend Richard, who has won a prestigious literary award. She is also caring for her friend, who is dying of AIDS and is rapidly losing his grip on reality.
Finally we meet Laura Brown, a pregnant housewife who is obsessed with Virginia Woolf and her novel Mrs Dalloway. She feels trapped by her marriage to her war hero husband, petrified by the responsibility of being a mother to her young son Richard, while all she wants to do is retreat into a book and hide from the world.
The parallels between the lives of these three women and the novel Mrs Dalloway are teased out by author Michael Cunningham. Obviously in the case of Virginia Woolf we see how events in her own life inspire the characters and situations introduced into her writing. Where she is offhand to her servants, Clarissa Dalloway will be caring and considerate. Her feelings of depression inspire the character of Septimus Warren Smith. Laura Brown takes inspiration from Woolf in reflecting about her own life, whereas Clarissa is mocked by Richard with the nickname ‘Mrs Dalloway’.
As well as focusing on the importance of Woolf’s writing, this is also a book about how the challenges faced by homosexuals have changed by the end of the 20th century. In Woolf’s time gay men and women conducted their lives in secret (speaking of which, gamahuche is my favourite euphemism – ever!). Now gay lifestyles are more visible, yet the bigoted view that AIDS is somehow a ‘gay disease’ is expressed openly by homophobes. These are important issues and I am glad that writers like Cunningham are unafraid to deal with them.
So why do I find this such a trite book?
In part it is the aping of Woolf’s style. While I found the language of Mrs Dalloway flowed and sang with a natural rhythm of its own, the imitation attempted by Cunningham feels like purple prose. This is also quite a humourless book, full of doomed characters reflecting on self-slaughter. When Tom Stoppard wrote the script to Shakespeare in Love he wisely avoided hammy portentousness and self-indulgence, throwing in digs at the expense of England’s Greatest Writer ™ (I had that Christopher Marlowe in my boat once). Cunningham has Virginia and her husband casually discussing “Tom’s mistakes”, presumably a reference to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, which they published under the imprint Hogarth Press.
This attempt at levity comes off as pretentious name-dropping. It gets worse when Clarissa in the present day is amazed at the sight of Meryl Streep entering her trailer on a New York street. Perhaps in an attempt at po-mo humour Stephen Daldry cast the actress as Clarissa in the film version of The Hours. Both she and Laura are overly enamoured with famous actresses in the book, making their profundity strangely trivial.
This tiresome book is Twilight for New York literary salons, little more than turgid and pretentious fanfiction.
She would not say of anyone in the world now that they were this or were that. She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on. She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxicabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to life even one day.
Anthony Lane’s collection of criticism Nobody’s Perfect includes his review of Stephen Daldry’s The Hours. Throughout he spends more time discussing the book that lies at the heart of the film, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, than he does talking about the picture itself.
Now I understand why. This is a delightful book, one that I had the pleasure of reading, well under my day limit, in a single sitting. The language flows like poetry and infuses the experimental, modernist style of Woolf’s writing with a carefully controlled fluency of expression.
In short, this is a more refined, upper-class and terribly English version of Joyce’s Ulysses. Yes, even down to a fettered stream of consciousness that skips backwards in time during a single day in London.
Clarissa Dalloway herself is a study in late-life smouldering passion. The opening sequence has her wander through a London described with a degree of vibrancy and detail usually reserved for countryside scenes. The modernist ideal is quickly sketched of man-made cities possessing just as much beauty as the natural world.
As she walks the streets we meet the other voices contained with this book. The tragic World War I veteran Septimus, traumatized by the deaths he has witnessed. His Italian wife Rezia, who cannot understand why her much decorated husband is suddenly given over to suicidal mutterings and what she perceives as cowardice. Clarissa’s former suitor Peter Walsh, returned from India and an unhappy marriage, with rumours dogging him of an affair with the wife of a British officer. Woolf also has passing strangers, servants, relations and partners speak to the reader, offering ever more rounded perspectives on each of the characters. Individual paragraphs can contain multiple takes on the one event and a day in London continues to stretch to contain this multiplicity of lives.
‘We all have our moments of depression,’
Woolf twins Septimus and Clarissa in their increasing sense of being trapped. The former has endured the horrors of war and emerged haunted by the memory of his comrade-in-arms Evans, whose death he was unable to mourn. He retreats further and further into his mind, becoming obsessed with symbols and abstract ideas, resenting his wife’s attempts to draw him back into the world. Clarissa made the sensible choice in marrying Richard Dalloway and becoming a mother. Through her reminiscence we learn how a conventional life was the furthest thing from her mind as a younger woman, tempted by the thought of a relationship with the passionate yet unfocused Peter, or her close friendship with Sally Seton, the subject of much fevered speculation as to a lesbian subtext to the novel. In fact the library book I read had long passages underlined in red pen, with a note on the page’s margin LESBIANISM.
Well, everyone has different priorities I guess.
While Septimus speaks openly of suicide and a life already over, Clarissa reflects on what might have been, what may have been lost. Her thoughts on Peter and Sally focus constantly on how important they were to her. It is interesting that the novel is closing moments are given to her husband and daughter, their regard for her a product of a real relationship, based in the here and now.
Once again I have stumbled onto a book I would rather have enjoyed to read over a couple of days. I will certainly be returning to it at a later date. Delicate and filled with a quietly observed sense of despair, an unreserved treat.