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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.

Who has not battled a fleeting shudder, a secret dread and anxiety upon boarding a Venetian gondola for the first time or after a prolonged absence? That strange conveyance, coming down to us unaltered from the days of the ballads and so distinctively black, black as only coffins can be – it conjures up hush-hush criminal adventures in the rippling night and, even more, death itself: the bier, the obscure obsequies, the final, silent journey.

Luchino Visconti’s film of Death in Venice was always a favourite of mine, with its use of Mahler and beautiful Venetian scenes. I never got round to reading source material though, Thomas Mann’s classic novel about artistic frustration and obsession. Now I realize Visconti conflated elements of two of the German writer’s books – Death in Venice and Doctor Faustus – changing the main character’s profession of writer to music composer, presumably as the themes of the novel are more easily translated to film if the subject is music and not literature.

Gustav von Aschenbach is a celebrated author who has received commendations from his king, his writing selected as class texts for school children and now in his fifties, enjoys a high level of fame and privilege. One day as he takes an afternoon constitutional through his home town he sees a strange man who catches his quizzical gaze and embarrasses Aschenbach by glaring back at him. Caught up in these feelings of embarrassment and shame, the writer’s calm is thrown off-balance and he is suddenly seized by a desire to travel. His orderly existence is too predictable and tiring, he needs a holiday to refresh himself. Some weeks later he sets off, eventually arriving in Venice in the grip of an unpleasant heatwave.

With the city’s canals rising and the humidity pressing upon Aschenbach’s delicate constitution, he decides to leave shortly after checking into his hotel. However, he happens to see a family of Poles dine in the hotel and is amazed by the startling appearance of a fourteen year old boy in the group. While the boy’s three sisters are dressed conservatively and obediently follow their governess, their sibling has long golden hair, wears less formal clothing and seems to be the most spoiled of the children, the constant centre of attention. Aschenbach learns that the boy’s name is Tadzio and begins to find excuses to spend his days down at the beach to watch the his object of obsession at play, even choosing to have his meals at the same time in the hotel. Even as the city’s climate continues to become more oppressive, with officials ordering restrictions that no one seems able, or willing, to explain, the celebrated German author ignores his suspicions, allowing his new obsession to take over.

Thomas Mann commented that this story was an effort to discuss the ‘dignity of the artist’, and the current translation by Michael Henry Heim contains an interesting introduction by Michael Cunningham that argues all books are in effect translations, attempts to capture the idea dreamt up by the writer’s mind with the written word. Aschenbach is troubled by the thought that he has become conventional. He enjoys his fame and national renown, but underneath he is aware that it is a poor recognition of his desire to achieve perfection in his art. He is obsessed with abstractions, ideal forms and “particulars”, becoming more divorced from life by his philosophical musings.

Mann introduces several odd individuals who are very particular indeed, robbing the author of his philosophical poise. First there is the stranger visiting his home-town, who inspires his sudden feelings of wanderlust. Then there is a fellow passenger on the boat to Venice, an aging dandy, whose face is heavily made-up. Then the cartoonish musician, with the mocking uncontrollable laughter that may in fact parody the effects of the pestilence the Venetian authorities are covering up. I would argue that Tadzio is yet another of this group, a ‘particular’, that Aschenbach’s philosophy cannot reduce to theses or antitheses. His sudden admission of ‘I Love You’, is a complete loss of self-control, a statement that is made with no one else present to witness it.

Death in Venice is a book about love, or rather desire. Aschenbach abandons all his hard-won professorial airs and has a barber dye his hair and plaster his face like the dandy on the boat. All to make himself look young enough for Tadzio.

A beautiful, tragic fable.

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