Though my growing book collection is strictly non-fiction, my favorite novel is “The Hours” by Michael Cunningham.
The language is like a symphony of collective suffering and misplacement, passion and poetry. The agony of being alive. The exquisiteness of existence. The story follows three women in three eras; Virginia Woolf writing “Mrs Dalloway”, Laura Brown reading “Mrs Dalloway”, and Clarissa Vaughn becoming Mrs Dalloway.
I’ve read “The Hours” several times, and once followed it immediately with Woolf’s “Mrs Dalloway”. Mrs Clarissa Dalloway is to host a party, and the novel follows the day in which the festivities are executed. But as she buys flowers and runs small errands, her memory travels all over the place. And you have got to watch each of Woolf’s lines like a hawk. This ain’t a book for the beach–look away mid-sentence, and then look back at the page–you have no idea where you are and where you’ve been. This book is beloved, revered, it’s on Time Magazine’s list of top 100 best English novels since 1923. For me, it’s pretty impossible to sit casually with her work. I once suffered through “In the Lighthouse” in a women’s literature course, and I swear, I was foaming from the mouth with frustration, I couldn’t deal with the text. Woolf is someone I like to read about, but not read.
What I did like is how Cunningham took the source material, studied Woolf’s life and letters, and wove this beautiful story, stretching the work across three generations and tying it all together in a heartbreaking bow. There are minute details that link both texts, and reflections of characters in a new context. (Also, Woolf’s original title for “Mrs Dalloway” was “The Hours”). Woolf, who suffered from depression, committed suicide at the age of 59. She filled her overcoat pockets with stones and drifted into a river. She feared that she was going mad and could not stop the torrent heading towards her. I wonder about Woolf’s reasoning; if her thought patterns were anything like her writing, it would be hard to live with, hard to make sense of. And this desperate act, Woolf’s last minutes is how “The Hours” begins.
There is one passage about Woolf that fills me with so much emotion, that the page is dog-eared, and the words are underlined. There’s a copy of it on the cork board above my desk, the most poetic rendition of writer’s block.
This is one of the singular experiences, waking on what feels like a good day, preparing to work but not yet actually embarked. At this moment there are infinite possibilities, whole hours ahead. Her mind hums. This morning she may penetrate the obfuscation, the clogged pipes, to reach the gold. She can feel it inside her, an all but indescribable second self, or rather a parallel, purer self…It is more than the sum of her experiences, though it runs like veins of brilliant metal through all three. It is an inner faculty that recognizes the animating mysteries of the world because it is made of the same substance. and when she is very fortunate she is able to that faculty. Writing in that state is the most profound satisfaction she knows, but her access to it comes and goes without warning. She may pick up her pen and follow it with her hand as it moves across paper; she may pick up her pen and find she’s merely herself, a woman in a housecoat, holding a pen, afraid and uncertain, only mildly competent with no idea about where to begin or what to write.
And when this pin up picks her pen up, there is a memory of feeling that way. But I don’t anymore…and it feels like stones pulling pulled from my pockets.
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