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The Hours by Michael Cunningham: Absolute Perfection

Is there a more exquisite novel than The Hours by Michael Cunningham? Its premise is ingenious, the prose beautifully nuanced and its trio of female characters deftly and cleverly intertwined. I loved the film version but to say I adored the book is an understatement.

In The Hours, Cunningham weaves together the lives of three women separated by decades and geography, telling their story through the events of just one day for each person.

In June 1923, Virginia Woolf wrestles with the opening of her new novel. Her working title is The Hours ( it will be published as Mrs Dalloway.) She persuades her husband that her feelings of depression will be eased by relinquishing their Richmond country life for the hubbub of London. 

In 1949, Sally Brown, a young wife and mother fights her own feelings of despair at the monotony of her life in a Los Angeles suburb. She makes a cake for her husband’s birthday, leaves her son with a childminder and escapes to a hotel to read Mrs Dalloway. 

On a summer’s day in 1990, Clarissa Vaughan steps out of her Greenwich village apartment. She “has flowers to buy and a party to give.” It will be a celebration for her ex lover Richard who has won a prestigious poetry prize. 

Party. Flowers. Clarissa. Sound familiar? 

We are of course in the realm of Mrs Dalloway with a re-enactment of its famous opening line: 

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

Cunningham’s section on Virginia Woolf in fact comes to an end with Woolf writing that very sentence. And its how he begins the section focused on Mrs Brown as she lies on her bed reading, what else but Mrs Dalloway. 

This is one of the many connections Cunningham makes to Woolf’s novel and to its author. If you know the original book, you could easily spend a few hours picking up on the references.

As an example. Woolf has her character startled by the sound of a car backfiring as she walks through the streets of London. She thinks she spots someone famous in the car: “Was it the Prince of Wales’s, the Queen’s, the Prime Minister’s?” In The Hours, Clarissa (who by the way is nicknamed Mrs Dalloway by Richard) is distracted by a loud noise from a film set. And then she spots someone famous emerging from a trailer “Meryl Streep? Vanessa Redgrave?”

Homage to Virginia Woolf

Recognising these allusions is great fun but Cunningham isn’t using them simply to show off his intimate knowledge with the text of Mrs Dalloway. His book isn’t a re-creation of the earlier work but more of a homage to Woolf’s examination of one woman and how she questions her capacity for to be happy.

The inter-textuality is impressive but so too is the use of imagery and metaphor throughout The Hours. The yellow flowers Virginia Woolf places around the grave of a small bird, are echoed in the yellow flowers Laura Brown ices onto her cake and the blossoms bought by Clarissa’s lover.

Throughout the book we’re treated to some beautifully nuanced and unforgettable scenes. Laura’s afternoon escape to a Los Angeles hotel; Virginia’s ritual burial of a small bird and Clarissa’s anguish when she witnesses Richard’s death.

Struggle to Find Meaning

Every woman’s life is delicately examined, showing them striving to find meaning in their lives. If I had to pick a favourite it would be Laura Brown, a woman torn between her deep love for her son and her resentment against the confining nature of motherhood and marriage. She tries hard to be the perfect wife, putting on a false face of happiness in front of her son, but deep down is is desperately unhappy.

Reading for her is not about losing herself or escaping from her reality, but about discovering her true nature. She knows she should be getting started with her daily chores but instead she settles back against the pillows.

One more page, she decides, just one more. … She will permit herself another minute here, in bed, before entering the day. She will allow herself just a little more time. She is taken by a wave of feeling, a sea-swell, that rises from under her breast and buoys her, floats her gently, as if she were a sea creature thrown back from the sand where it had beached itself – as if she had been returned from a realm of crushing gravity to her true medium, the suck and swell of saltwater, that weightless brilliance.

Isn’t this a tremendous illustration of the transformative power of reading?

I could go on at length about the multiple ways in which I was enthralled by The Hours. But I don’t want to bore you all so I’ll just say that this is fiction at its best, a story of humanity related insightfully and sensitively. Simply superb.

Topping up my library

Some of the smaller libraries in my area are being converted to ‘community libraries’ which means that local people have to fund them. It’s a trend that’s happening all over the UK sadly. It’s meant to be a way of helping the local authorities to meet their budget targets but in effect it means that I, as a local contributor to their funds, end up paying twice. Once through what in the UK we call council tax (a yearly payment to fund local services, the level of which is determined by the size of your home) and then through local fundraising. The library in my village is one of those targeted to be a community library and despite significant opposition from local residents and two court cases, it’s likely to be in place within a month.

It’s going to be a big challenge to get the money needed for even basic things like heating and lighting of the libraries. In the interests of seeing what other community libraries are doing to raise funds, I toddled off to a book sale run by one of them yesterday. All in the interests of market research you understand – I had no intention of buying anything 🙂

Well of course you all know what happens in these events. It was inevitable I came away with something. It was all in a good cause anyway – the new library gets a much needed boost to its coffers and I get to enrich my private library. A win-win…  Here’s what I bought.

book-purchases

I’ve never read anything by George Meredith so this rather pristine copy of The Egoist called to me as a way of enhancing my knowledge of Victorian writers.  Looking at the back cover I see it’s considered “the most dazzlingly intellectual of all his novels” in which he turns the spotlight on the pretentiousness of a powerful social class. Virginia Woolf rated him highly apparently.  Maybe the fact that this copy looks as if its hardly been opened tells me that the previous owner was not of a mind with dear Virginia.

Elizabeth von Arnim is someone whose name has cropped up recently as a result of HeavenAli’s review of her novel Love which triggered many comments recommending another of her works – The Enchanted April. The copy I snaffled is a Virago modern classic, number 222, though sadly not in the green livery of other Viragos I have on my shelf. I guess I have to live with the fact that this new purchase spoils the colour scheme of my bookshelf.

Molly Keane is a newish discovery for me though not for people who are avid Virago readers. This summer I read Devoted Ladies which she wrote under her other pen name of M.J. Farrell and while not wowed by it, I enjoyed it enough to want to try her again. Good Behaviour is the first novel published after a writing break triggered by the death of her husband and was the first time she used her real name. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1981.

What can I say about Michael Cunningham’s The Hours other than I don’t know why its taken me so long to get a copy. The film adaptation starring Meryl Streep is superb but I’m told by those who know such things, that the book itself is even better.

How could I resist anything by Anita Brookner, especially a hardback in such good condition as A Private View. Its focus is George Bland, a 65-year-old bachelor who has just retired from a worthy job in a dull office. Into his rather lacklustre life storms Katy, a young squatter who takes up residence in a flat opposite. She’s abrasive, self-assured and into crystal therapy and other New Agey kinds of things. She awakens some strange sensations in George.

And finally, one I needed to buy to help me reach the finishing line in my Booker Prize project. Vernon God Little by D. C Pierre caused a hoopla when it won the Booker in 2003 because it contains a high proportion of profanities and because the author is a former drug addict. Neither of those are showstoppers for me – if the profanities are an integral part of the story and how it needs to be told I can live with that, its the gratuitous use by authors who think they are being ‘hip’ that irritates me. As for the author’s background, I don’t see how that has a bearing on whether he is a good writer.  Will Vernon Good Little be worth reading? Only time will tell..

Given the low prices I think I was remarkably restrained with this little collection. Have you read any of these or plan to in the future?

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