Sunday, October 24, 2010

Michael Cunningham’s The Hours is a beautifully crafted meditation on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.

I was about to read Michael Cunningham’s new novel, but I decided I would like to reread his earlier novel, The Hours, first. Rereading that novel has been a pleasure.

The Hours

Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Hours (240 pages, Picador $14), builds on Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway in a number of ways. The novel follows three different strands. In the first, the earliest historically, Cunningham imagines Virginia Woolf in her study in Richmond, a suburb of London, as she works on her famous novel. As she imagines details of what will happen or not happen to her heroine, Clarissa Dalloway, she also deals with her husband, Leonard Woolf, their servants, and the young assistants Leonard has to help him with work on the press that they run. Cunningham does an astonishingly effective job of creating this world and giving it persuasive depth and texture. Anyone who has read Virginia Woolf with pleasure or has read either her letters or her diaries can be forgiven for feeling that she or he knows this extraordinary writer intimately. But only someone like Michael Cunningham can take us into Woolf’s interior thoughts and do so persuasively. This section of the novel is truly remarkable.

Equally remarkable is the world of Pasadena, California, in the late 1940s that Cunningham creates for a young mother and her darling young son. Mrs. Brown, as she is known, is a nervous mother who is not at all sure that she is up to the demands of mothering and being a wife to her loving but clueless husband. In a fit of almost reckless bravado, she leaves her son, the young Richard, with a neighbor, and takes off to downtown Los Angeles for a few hours of solitude and the peace to read. It happens that she is reading Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, marveling at the creation of the character and wondering about her own abilities. When she returns home, in plenty of time for her husband’s return from the office, she finds that her little boy was desperate for her return. This is a simple tale very beautifully told.

The third narrative is set in the late twentieth century. It concerns a woman called Clarissa Vaughn, who is trying to organize a party for her dear friend Richard, a writer and poet who is terribly sick with AIDS. Richard is about to receive a prestigious literary award, and Clarissa wants to celebrate his success. He has been her best friend for years, and being the witty gay man that he is, he has long ago christened her Clarissa Dalloway, which she bears only because she loves him as much as she does. As she pulls her own party together, with more than a little resonances of Woolf’s heroine, she finds herself caught up in the details of the street life of Greenwich Village.

The three narratives intertwine in various ways, and in the last few pages many loose stands are pulled together. Each narrative on its own would make a great story, but together they are simply breathtaking in their power.

Cunningham writes beautifully, as everyone says, but he also creates characters who are so deftly drawn as to be deeply moving just for being themselves. That is what happens here: we can hardly bear coming to the end of this amazing work.

Michael Cunningham

Pick up a copy of The Hours at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

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