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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.

6 Degrees From Fleishman to Women’s Rights

It’s time for #6degrees once more. Let’s hope I’m more successful this month than I was in January when I couldn’t get beyond book number 3 in the chain.

Guess what – yet again I’ve not read, nor even heard of the book with which we’re meant to be starting this month’s chain.

It’s  Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner.

When I saw the title initially my brain scrambled it with the Flashman series from the 1960s. So I started thinking of books featuring other rakes and rogues. I got halfway through the chain before I realised the mistake…..

Let’s start again shall we.

Taffy Brodesser-Ankner’s name happens to connect nicely to my home country. “Taffy’ is a ‘friendly’ generic description of a person from Wales (a bit like calling New Zealanders “kiwis”.) No-one really knows how the term Taffy came about – it might have been a mangling of the common Welsh name Dafydd but it could equally have originated with people who lived near the river Taff.

Whatever the origin it means I get the chance to promote an author from Wales.

I can’t do better than choose The Cove by Cynan Jones, not only because this is a superb novella but Cynan is a very Welsh first name (it’s the Welsh word for chief in case you’re interested). The Cove features a kayaker badly injured by lightening, clinging to the hope he can get back to safety and the woman he loves.

The watery setting links me very nicely to Life of Pi by Yann Martel. It’s a strange tale about a young boy called Pi who is adrift in a lifeboat in the middle of an ocean. Though he’s the sole human survivor of a shipwreck, he is sharing the lifeboat with a hyena and a male Bengal tiger.

The novel ends on a note of mystery because Pi gives two versions of how he managed to survive. It’s up the reader to decide which to believe.

As an arch deceiver, Pi could go head to head with the protagonist in my next linked book: Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle . Mary Katherine Blackwood (known as Merricat) is rather a minx, leading us a merry dance with her clues about how the members of her family ended up poisoned by arsenic. In true Gothic tradition this is a novel that takes place in a rambling ruin of a house.

Bly Manor, the setting  for Henry James’ The Turn of The Screw isn’t a ruin but just like the Castle, it’s a place of mystery. Shortly after a young governess arrives at the isolated country manor house, she begins to suspect that the two children in her care are tormented by ghosts. Or are they? We have only her word for it since no-one else in the house sees these figures and the one person to whom she confides her suspicions is highly sceptical.

The first readers of this short story viewed it purely as a spooky story but new interpretations began emerging in the 1930s. The question now is whether James wrote not a simple, but effective ghost story, but a far more complex and disturbing psychological tale of delusion and insanity.

Let’s stick with governesses who are misunderstood.

Is Jane Eyre a heart-warming novel of a poor governess who overcomes challenges and obstacles but finally finds happiness in the arms of Mr Rochester? Or is she the alter ego of mad Bertha, his first wife whom he locks up in the attic? Is Jane Eyre a sorry figure upon whom other people like to trample? Or is she, as feminist critics maintain, a champion for the rights of women to have a life of their own choosing?

Now I could take the easy path here and link to the author of a twentieth century landmark work of literary criticism. But as much as I appreciate Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, she was standing on the shoulders of another giant.

So let’s make the final link in my chain a much older yet still ground- breaking work of feminist literature.

Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in part as a reaction to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution, published in late 1790 which argued that religious and civil liberties were part of a man’s birth right.

Wollstonecraft went one step further, and, argued for women’s rights to be on the same footing as men’s.  Her work was discredited when, after her death, details emerged of her unorthodox lifestyle.

And so we’ve come to the end of the chain. I didn’t realise when I chose Wollstonecraft that there was any connection to Fleishman Is In Trouble. But now I see that it’s been called “a powerful feminist book”. The circle is complete…..

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf [book review]

room of ones own-1Virginia Woolf’s essay  A Room of One’s Own is a landmark text of feminist literary criticism and, as such, is required reading for students of literature around the world. But I was a student at a time when feminist criticism was not even in its infancy so though we studied Woolf’s fiction, no lecturer ever thought to direct us to her seminal non-fiction output. My experience of this essay has been fragmented as a consequence; I’ve mostly encountered it as references in other works such as Elizabeth Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own.

Now I’ve read the essay in its entirety I could better appreciate the full impact of Woolf’s assessment of the difficulties and obstacles facing women writers and how they have risen above those challenges.

The first challenge Woolf identifies is one of attitude. Woolf dramatises this through her narrator’s experience of undertaking research at one of the Oxford colleges. First she is told in no uncertain terms that it is forbidden to walk on their grass (is there a fear she might contaminate them?) and then that as a woman she has no right of entry to the college – such hallowed halls of education are reserved for male students only.  After a day at the British Library perusing the scholarship on women, she discovers that little has been documented about the everyday lives of women; what does exist has come from men who seemed to have been writing in anger.

What I find deplorable … is that nothing is known about women before the eighteenth century. I have no model in my mind to turn about this way and that. … I am not sure how they were educated; whether they were taught to write; whether they had sitting rooms to themselves; … what in short they did from eight in the morning till eight at night.

The second issue is one of practicality. Reflecting on the different educational experiences available to men and women as well as on more material differences in their lives, she concludes that women were kept from writing because they had no money of their own. Significantly Woolf is writing at a time when the law had only recently been changed to allow married women to own any money they earned.   Without money of their own, and without any space of their own (out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble), their creativity is stifled she argues. And she points to the Romantic poets and those of the nineteenth century for evidence – all but three of them were university men and of those three it was only Keats who was not well to do. Poverty and poetry were impossible bed fellows.

“Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from what the beginning of time . . Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves.”

In Woolf’s view the lack of money and lack of privacy influence also what women wrote. Women turned to the novel form ( considered  a very poor second to the art of poetry) because it was easier to put down and pick up again without loss of imagination. If you had to do your writing in a public space like a drawing room rather than in the private male space of a study or library, then you would have to contend with frequent interruptions. And learn, as did Jane Austen, to hide her manuscripts and cover them with blotting paper when anyone approached her corner of the communal sitting room.

Woolf seemed to then suggest that the quality of what women writers produced was somehow inferior to that of male writers. Having highlighted people like Austen, George Eliot and the Bronte sisters ( Woolf rated Emily as superior to Charlotte) she ponders how much better their work could have been if their experience of life had not confined to house and hearth. How enormously their genius would have benefited if only they could have travelled or gone to a war as did Tolstoy. In Woolf’s mind, War and Peace could not have materialised if Tolstoy had spent his life in domestic seclusion. Well clearly not – it would have been nigh on impossible to write so vividly of battles if he hadn’t witnessed them at first hand during the Crimea war.

There were a few points in Woolf’s argument I found myself challenging. One was the premise that these leading female writers seldom moved beyond the house yet Charlotte’s portrayal of the plight of Victorian governesses is all the more real because it came from her own experience. I doubt Tolstoy could have written so astutely about the position of a woman who was on close intimate terms with a family yet not regarded as one of them or as a servant. Nor does it allow for the role of the imagination – Wuthering Heights owes much of its power to the evocation of the wild moorland Emily Bronte knew well but the portrait of evil and malice in Heathcliff came from her imagination, not knowledge.

Then there is the idea that the challenging conditions under which such novels were created gave rise to a style of sentence alien to women’s nature..

“To begin with, there is a technical difficulty -so simple, apparently; in reality, so baffling- that the very form of the sentence does not fit her [the woman]. It is a sentence made by men; it is too loose, too heavy, too pompous for a woman’s use.”

Instead of trying to ape male writers, Woolf encouraged her sisters to turn their exclusion from the opportunities afforded men to their benefit – by learning to write what she calls “a woman’s sentence.”

It’s a point which I found hard to grasp because Woolf never really gives any examples of what she means. Jane Austen’s work as a guideline (but which one of Austen’s sentences we want to ask!) What is more clear for Woolf is what a woman’s sentence is not: it is not the same as a man’s sentence.

Im confident that I have merely scratched the surface in trying to understand Woolf’s essay and to fully do so I would need to spend many hours taking it apart point by point ( it gets convoluted many times as she wrestles with her own thoughts). But she ends strongly by positioning fiction by women as on the verge of something unprecedented and exciting, and exhortating ther audience of women to take up the baton bequeathed to them and to pass to their own daughters.

Footnotes

About the Book: A Room of One’s Own is an extended essay by Virginia Woolf. First published in 1929, the essay was based on lectures she delivered at Newnham College and Girton College,  Cambridge the previous year. The title of the essay comes from Woolf’s conception that, “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”.

Why I read this book: Partly from a sense of guilt that I claim to be keenly interested in literature yet have not read this essay. Hence why I added it to my #20boksofsummer reading project.

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and her unfulfilled dreams

mrsdallowayChances lost; dreams unfulfilled; expectations diminished: virtually all the characters in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway seemed to me to be failures in many ways.

It’s evident in even the minor characters. Rebellious natures like those of Sally Seton have been suppressed by  marriage to a bald manufacturer with £10,000 a year and “myriad of servants, miles of conservatories”. Intellect has turned into a form of religious fanaticism and resentment for all the things that Doris Kilman, a tutor employed by the Dalloway family, could not have or could not be. And Hugh Whitbread, a friend of the Dalloways has opted for a life of little consequence as a minor court official, merely touching the surface of life and attracting sniggers from acquaintances.

He did not go deeply. He brushed surfaces; the dead languages, the living, life in Constantinople, Paris, Rome; riding, shooting, tennis, it had been once. The malicious asserted that he now kept guard at Buckingham Palace, over what nobody knew. But he did it extremely efficiency… And if it were true that he had not taken part in any of the great movements of the time or held important office, one or two humble reforms stood this credit…

Of course Woolf reserves her deepest analysis of a life unfulfilled for the woman whose search for her true self lies at the heart of the novel, Mrs Clarissa Dalloway. This is the portrait of a woman uncertain  about her life and her identity. Walking in London early in the novel, she experiences a feeling that her life is defined by her marital status; that she herself has disappeared.

She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen, unknown; …. this being Mrs Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs.Richard Dalloway.

The outside world sees her very differently. To them she is a successful hostess and wife of an important man. Chic and financially secure she moves in a world of fine fashion, parties and high society. But it’s a world Clarissa herself has come to realise is frivolous and her life superficial and passionless. Years previously she’d been offered a different life with Peter Walsh, one with lower social status and comfort levels but full of emotion and excitement. She turned down his offer of marriage, settling for the safer option of life with Richard Dalloway, a man who seemed destined for high political office. Richard never fulfilled that early promise however. Though a good man, capable of thoughtfulness and good deeds, he never did become a Cabinet member or Minister of State.

On the day in 1923 on which Mrs Dalloway takes place,  Clarissa discovers that Peter Walsh has returned from India after many years. Throughout the day as she prepares for the party she will give that evening, she thinks about the past, about what might have been and whether life is now all over for her. Woolf apparently intended Mrs Dalloway to end with Clarissa’s death, potentially at her own hand. In the event it’s another death that Clarissa hears about during the party. Although she has no knowledge of the dead man, nor even his name she identifies strongly with him and his dramatic action. By the end of the novel she has come, if only for a fleeting moment, to accept the past is past and to prepare for the next stage of her life.

There is no such moment of peace for her former adorer. Peter has his own reasons to regret the passing years. All his ambitions for a glittering literary career came to nothing. Neither has he found happiness in love. Having married simply to fill the void left by Clarissa’s rejection of his proposal he is now a widower planning to marry the woman half his age with whom he’s been having an affair. He doesn’t recognise his own failings but is quick to see them in others, including the Dalloways whose English bourgeois lifestyle he detests.While Clarissa comes to terms with her own mortality, Peter becomes frantic at the thought of death, following a young woman through the London streets to smother his thoughts of death with a fantasy of life and adventure.

I know I’m making it sound as if Mrs Dalloway is a linear narrative but of course that’s far from being the case. It’s a novel that doesn’t have a plot in the traditional sense; it’s a collection of scenes which reveal information about the characters, how they relate to each other and how they think and feel. It jumps without warning from one character to another, and from outside to inside the character’s head. At times the narrative seems to use a cinematic technique, pinpointing a character the midst of a crowd, tracking them as they progressed along a street and then zooming in on them for a close up. This is how she introduces us to Septimus Warren Smith, the war veteran suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome whose death will so affect Clarissa. We spot him outside the florist’s where Clarissa buys her flowers for the party, watch him and his wife begin to walk arm and arm to St James Park and then to settled on a park bench watching the trail of a plane through the sky. And at that moment Woolf delivers an example of what she once described as “moments of being” a time where just for a moment the individual isn’t only aware of himself but gets a glimpse of his connection to a larger pattern hidden behind the opaque surface of daily life. For Septimus the moment begins with the leaves in the trees.

…leaves were alive; trees were alive. And the leaves being connected by millions of fibres with his own body, there on the seat fanned it up and down; when the branch stretched he, too, made that statement. The sparrows fluttering, rising, and falling in jagged fountains were part of the pattern; … All taken together meant the birth of a new religion…

Woolf isn’t someone whose writing can be skimmed or read at speed. It requires full concentration and an alertness to the fact that even in one sentence, we can encounter multiple ideas, multiple voices, multiple tones. Complex indeed but so rich and incredibly rewarding even if you only feel you’re understanding a tenth of it.

This or that tag

Ayunda @ Tea and Paperbacks tagged me for the new idea she dreamed up. Not sure I can do the questions justice but here goes.

One: Reading on the couch or on the bed?

Most of my reading is done in bed. Ever since I was a child I’ve had to have some quiet reading time to myself before falling asleep. I have to be absolutely zonked not to read (I have been known to fall asleep with book in hand).

Two: Male main character or female main character?

I know sitting on the fence is not part of the rules but I absolutely have no preference either way on this point.

Three: Sweet snacks or salty snacks when reading?

If I’m reading in bed then I’m not eating full stop. But when I read during the daytime – if I’m on holiday or on a flight somewhere, then my snack of choice has to involve chocolate. The more chocolate the better….

Four: Trilogies or quartets?

Since I can remember reading only one quartet and no trilogies then its going to have to be quartet. My one and only venture here is Paul Scott’s the Raj Quartet which I love. He then went on to write a fifth novel Staying On which set in the same hill station in India as the quartet and featuring some of the lesser known characters and is superb.

Five: First person point of view or third person point of view?

Sitting on the fence time again. The best novels for me are the ones where ostensibly its a first person narrator but then they refer to themselves as if they are a different person so you get the benefit of both first and third person narrative. Take a look at Jane Eyre if you want an example

Six: Reading at night or in the morning?

Mornings? What are they?

Seriously, I am either not awake enough in the mornings to do more than scan the newspaper and peruse a few emails OR I am running late for work so don’t have time.

Seven: Libraries or bookstores?

I’m biased here. I love public libraries so much I’ve been campaigning for the last year to save the one in my village from closure. From June it looks like I will be helping to run it as a volunteer service.

Eight: Books that make you laugh or make you cry?

Oh cry for sure. Books which are meant to be funny often leave me frustrated because it seems the author is having all the fun rather than me. Or they are trying to hard.

Nine: Black book covers or white book covers?MadameBovaryJPG

I love the black covers of the Penguin Classics – not so much because of the colour but because they always feature an original work of art. Reading these editions makes the experience even more delightful.

 

 


Ten: Character driven or plot driven stories?

Probably character driven. I do read the occasional crime novel which by its nature is focused on the plot but I tend to forget them easily whereas the character based stories I can recall more easily (especially if I enjoyed it). I’m reading one of the ultimate character-driven novels right now – Mrs Dalloway. Fascinating to see how she spins a whole novel out of one day in which not that much really happens.

Now its your turn

I don’t pass along tags but if these questions interest you, feel free to join in.

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