It is one of the greatest acts of literary audacity that I can think of not only to write as Virginia Woolf, but to write Virginia Woolf herself. One of the essential modernist writers who reconceived the novel, her prose is instantly identifiable with its rivers of breathless clauses. Of course she is also infamous for her struggles with what appears to have been bipolar disorder, and finally ended her life midway through the second world war. So it is safe to say writing as Virginia Woolf and writing Virginia Woolf herself requires an enormous amount of talent, research and audacity. And in my humble opinion, Michael Cunningham pulls it off beautifully.
Before I sat down with The Hours, I spent the time rereading Mrs. Dalloway, which was my first Woolf in my second year of university, and I don’t think I really grasped it. On a second reading I appreciated it much more (though still less than The Waves or To the Lighthouse). In any case, for those who wish to read The Hours, your appreciation of it will increase significantly with Mrs. Dalloway fresh in your mind.
There are three stories in The Hours. The first is Mrs. Dalloway almost three quarters of a century later, where Clarissa Vaughn is having a party to celebrate her’s friend Richard’s prestigious poetry award. Don’t be mislead by the name, for this Richard is much more Septimus than Clarissa’s husband, yet he also replaces Peter Walsh in Clarissa’s early love triangle. This is a Septimus not broken by war, but by the ravages of AIDS, and like Septimus he has gathered (in the words of Eliot) “fragments I have shored against my ruins.” And while this narrative follows Woolf’s pattern closely while modernizing it (the Queen in the car is replaced by a modern movie star, Miss Kilman goes from religious fantatic to ardent lesbian feminist), departures such as the one with Richard/Septimus are what really demonstrate Cunningham’s understanding of the original text.
The second narrative is that of Virginia herself, starting with her suicide, which with a lesser writer I would suspect was a ploy for shock value, but here it not only anchors the novel in Woolf, but casts the spectre of death over the remaining stories as each of the women fight routine, but precarious battles. The narrative then goes back to the writing of Mrs. Dalloway and Woolf fighting her demonic headaches that threaten to undo her. We witness a visit by her also-celebrated sister, Vanessa Bell, and her children. Having read portions of Woolf’s extensive journals, it was a pleasure to be in Woolf’s head again, and to see it done so well. Cunningham integrates many of the main image patterns from her journals (of water, of a shark fin emerging, etc) and preserves the rhythms of her writing.
The third story provides a temporal (and eventually a narrative) link between the two previously mentioned stories. Mrs. Brown is a housewife in a suburb of LA in the 1950s. Her story, for me, was the most painful to read, and I approached each new section with dread as she struggles with each moment of being the perfect wife and mother, and wanting nothing more to run away. She is riddled with guilt at the dissonance between who she is and who she should be: “She herself is trapped here forever, posing as a wife. She must get through this night, and then tomorrow, and then another night here, in these rooms, with nowhere else to go. She must please; she must continue.”
In each of these narratives we see three women trying desperately to make, as Mrs. Dalloway says in the original, “an offering.” A book, a party, a cake. Some physical object to assert their right to existence, their contributions to the world. Like Septimus, they struggle with “proportion,” and these undertakings carry much more weight than perhaps the should. They live for the moments when their aspirations and reality meet: “She is herself and she is the perfect picture of herself; there is no difference.” Yet these times of perfect convergence happen so rarely, and they must live through the intervening hours.
And The Hours is a brilliant title, evoking not only the insistence of Big Ben’s chimes in Mrs. Dalloway, but also the endless march of time, of hour after hour of tiny battles which need to be continually fought – the battle to be a good wife and mother, to fight the darkness of mental illness, to support those we love on the brink of despair. As Mrs. Brown says it well: “Think of how wonderful it might be to no longer worry, or struggle, or fail.” It is also fighting the claustrophobia of modern life that Woolf evokes so well at Clarissa’s party and on the crowded streets, finding pauses without forsaking crucial ties to other people.
Cunningham not only manages to evoke Woolf’s themes and images, but also distills her language wonderfully, making it less overwhelming but maintaining its original rhythms. Take this passage of the narrative of Mrs. Woolf, which, fittingly, Woolf herself could have written [She remembers a kiss with her sister, Vanessa]:
“It will serve as this afternoon’s manifestation of the central mystery itself, the elusive brightness that shines from the edges of certain dreams; the brightness which, when we awaken, is already fading from our minds, and which we rise in the hope of finding, perhaps today, this new day, in which anything might happen, anything at all.”
It gives me shivers, as much of this novel did. Its writing is luminous, shining through the dark menace that it also creates. It is complex, intelligent, and unbelievably sensitive. This is essential reading for any Woolf fan, but also recommended to whom the hours echo too loudly.
And because the movie is also incredible, and because, having seen the it first, I was certainly picturing these actresses as I read, here’s the trailer [though I hate this Hollywood action movie treatment of it, I couldn't find a better one in English]:
Read Full Post »