Well. That was… a thing.
My mum loaned me Michael Cunningham’s book several years ago. I’ve been putting off reading it becuase I knew it was going to require thinking, and possibly be quite depressing. I had seen the film when it came out, so I had a vague memory of the sorts of things that happen – and more particularly, the themes.
This year I’m aiming to read a bunch of the things I own but haven’t read. And so, I read this.
First things first: the prologue is Virginia Woolf’s suicide. So if that’s something you’re not in the place for, this is definitely not for you.
The book follows three women in different times and places. There’s Woolf, two decades before her death, as she starts to write Mrs Dalloway. There’s Laura, in 1949, starting to read Mrs Dalloway. And there’s Clarissa, sometime in the 90s I think, whose nickname is Mrs Dalloway.
Yes, this is a conscious parallel of Mrs Dalloway. Or … something. Aspects of the women’s lives match the novel, and the themes certainly do. The novel interrogates and sympathises and reverses and maybe celebrates? The earlier one. If you haven’t read Woolf’s novel, though, you will still be able to read this – it’s still a fascinating way of thinking about three days in three lives. But there is certainly more depth with knowledge of Mrs D; I had the enjoyment of my mother’s notes in the margins, too.
A dismissive reader would say nothing of substance happens. And the section on Woolf addresses this, reflecting how the “proper” subject of literature has ever been men and their doings like war… but perhaps a novel of a woman’s life can equally be a valid subject. And so, Mrs Dalloway.
Woolf writes, and is visited by her sister. Laura bakes a cake and reads a book. Clarissa buys flowers and organises a party. Yes, these seem banal. But Cunningham shows that within these everyday occurrences there is beauty, and tragedy, and intimations of death, and joy, and depression, and really everything that is Life. Because of course there’s more to their days than these actions: each woman’s interior life is explored, and that’s where the greatest tragedy and celebrations of life occur. Woolf is struggling desperately with mental illness and how that affects her writing. Laura is desperately unhappy in her role as suburban housewife and mother, although she’s not really consciously aware of that – she focuses on her failure to be perfect in those roles. And Clarissa worries about the party for her dying poet friend, sometimes feeling guilty for being so alive and enjoying life and even being a bit ordinary.
This is not an easy or fast book to read. It’s short, but like Mrs Dalloway it’s intense and dense. There’s a huge amount of description that brings to light the characters’ attitudes and illuminates the incredible beauty and fragility of The Ordinary. Each character’s passions and pains are presented sympathetically but without pathos; there were times when I had to stop after a chapter and just… sit … with the terror of not being able to write, or of not being the perfect housewife.
There’s a lot more to say about this book. I haven’t even touched on the issue of sexuality, which is hugely important although not made an especially big deal of. I was surprised Woolf’s bisexuality wasn’t made more of, to be honest; her sexuality is probably the least prominent; Laura shares sort-of kiss with a woman; Clarissa is lesbian, has had a sexual relationship with a man in the past, and I think is the most comfortable of all three with who show is, in this and everything else.
I’m not sure I love this book. But I’m pretty sure I’ll read it again.
My mother has been a bit vaguely sad at me for not having read this in the past, so I decided it was finally time to bite the bullet. I read and adored Orlando waaaay back in first year; I couldn’t get through To The Lighthouse. I have seen The Hours (and brought home the book, from my mother). So that was my context. Plus a vague suspicion that this was going to be depressing.
At least it’s better than James Joyce’s Ulysses. Which isn’t saying much, except the truth.
So yes. Depressing. With occasional glints of wait – is this actually as depressing as I think it is? Or is this just… life? With occasional regrets and obviously things that are difficult but hey, for Clarissa at least, this isn’t SO bad. (I’ll get to Septimus.) I was so conflicted and in need of debriefing that as soon as I finished reading it I had to call my mother, who was very amused by my reaction. Yes, dear, I think it is meant to be a bit depressing and horrifying. Oh good. She also pointed out to me just how obsessed the book is with TIME. I had noticed that Big Ben is almost a secondary character in its own right, but I hadn’t really clued into time being referenced EVERYwhere. Which makes the story even more poignant. And depressing.
Imagine, an entire novel about an upper class woman’s ordinary day! How absolutely extraordinary that must have been.
And of course, it’s not JUST about Clarissa Dalloway. Her daughter, her friends, all get a little bit of time for their own thoughts… almost always coming back to Mrs Dalloway. The one exception is Septimus, who is completely unconnected to Mrs Dalloway except that they are physically close by one another very briefly, and that his absolutely appalling doctor is a guest at Mrs Dalloway’s party. This was one of the most heartbreaking fictional descriptions of shell shock I’ve come across.
I vaguely remember the discussions about modernist literature and what it was trying to do (that class was a very long time ago). I find Woolf’s style intriguing – and so very different from what I normally read – so many semi colons! And it occurred to me that while this isn’t Joyce’s stream of consciousness – ugh; it’s unreadable – it’s very close to replicating thought patterns, and indeed speech patterns. It approaches verisimilitude and while I am absolutely certain Woolf sweated blood to produce it exactly as it is, it comes across as effortless. As simple and … naive is wrong. So is innocent. Unsophisticated, perhaps, where sophistication means cunning and artifice and tricksiness.
I liked it. I will read The Hours soon. I will probably reread this, now that I know what I’m in for regarding the plot – and I’ll pay more attention to the descriptions than I did this time.