Michael Cunningham – The Hours
It’s not often a book leaves me completely speechless. Wowed. Awestruck. Absolutely blown away. But then again, it’s not often that I come across a book like Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. Both, Claire and Rachel, recommended the book to me, saying I should read it once I finish Mrs. Dalloway. And then, I saw this fantastic review over at deucekindred’s blog, and I felt compelled to read the book sooner rather than later – specially as I’d just finished the Virginia Woolf classic as part of Woolf In Winter.
In the first chapter, Clarissa, a fifty-something year old woman, steps out to buy some flowers for a party she’s having that evening. She loves the city she’s in, enjoys the hustle-bustle of life, bumps into an old friend, and contemplates the perfect party that evening.
However, unlike Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa isn’t in London this time, but in New York. It’s not the 1920s anymore, but we’ve fast-forwarded to 1999. And, Clarissa isn’t Mrs. Dalloway, but, she’s Clarissa Vaughn. Her best friend, Richard (a poet suffering from AIDS), does call her Mrs. Dalloway after the famous fictional character though…
While the book chronicles a day in her life, as she plans the perfect party (in honour of Richard), much like Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, the book also chronicles one day in the life of two other women in different times and places: Virginia Woolf in the 1920s and Laura Brown in Los Angeles in the 1940s. All three stories are interspersed with one another, resulting in a heartbreaking emotional masterpiece, that illustrates that despite the barriers of time and space, lives do interlock.
The second chapter is when we’re introduced to the legendary author in the 1920s. Virginia Woolf’s account is semi-fictional. She’s ill, refers to herself as an eccentric genius, and lives in Richmond with her supportive loving husband, trying to recuperate, but missing London dreadfully. Cunningham imagines Woolf in the initial stages of writing Mrs. Dalloway – her thoughts, her inspirations and her character development – as well as her illness, and her fragile state of mind.
She despises Richmond. She is starved for London; she dreams sometimes about the hearts of cities. Here, where she been taken to live for the last eight years precisely because it is neither strange now marvellous, she is largely free of headaches and voices, the fits of rage. Here all she desires is a return to the dangers of city life.
And the third chapter introduces us to Laura Brown in the 1940s. Mrs. Brown is the wife of a World War II veteran, and she has a three year old child. She’s a recluse, an obsessive reader, who is working her way through all of Woolf’s fiction, and has just started Mrs. Dalloway. And, she has suicidal tendencies.
Right now she is reading Virginia Woolf, all of Virginia Woolf, book by book – she is fascinated by the idea of a woman like that, a woman of such brilliance, such strangeness, such immeasurable sorrow; a woman who had genius but still filled her pocket with a stone and waded out into a river.
The prologue is set in 1941: a new War has just begun, and Woolf is walking purposefully toward the river, certain of what she’ll do. The prologue ends with her husband discovering her suicide note… and me feeling incredibly overwhelmed, just eight pages in. Cunningham doesn’t mince words, doesn’t beat around the bush, but the language is wonderfully concise, while being eloquent and metaphoric.
Cunningham also makes subtle changes to the story of Mrs. Dalloway, to illustrate its timelessness and universality. Moving from one big city to the city that never sleeps, making Clarissa lovers with Sally, and Richard taking on Septimus’ role (I think), are just some of the quirks that makes the story read almost completely differently. However, if you read this book prior to reading Mrs. Dalloway, I strongly suggest reading the classic.
And then, we get into the intricacies. According to this work, Woolf intended Clarissa to be the suicidal character in her novel – that despite her love for life, some small domestic failure could potentially push her over the edge. Say, her party being a failure? From what we know of Clarissa Dalloway, would that be so impossible? Was Clarissa Dalloway merely a reflection of Woolf herself? Or, was fiction and reality still two completely different threads for Woolf in the 1920s?
Someone else will die. It should be a greater mind than Clarissa’s; it should be someone with sorrow and genius enough to turn away from the seductions of the world, its cups and its coats.
This is a multi-layered story, with enough allusions to merit a thesis of sorts. I’m still left flabbergasted as to how much I loved this book, and how little justice (if any) I’ve done to its genius with my extremely trite review. What leaves me really puzzled is, how on earth did the author pack in so much in just 226 pages? Details, amazing descriptions, incredible characterisations and an enthralling storyline of three complex women, while simultaneously reworking one of the greatest classics of the last century, Cunningham’s book is pure gold.
Filed under: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Books 2010, General Fiction, Michael Cunningham, National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, Pulitzer Prize Winners, Review | 31 Comments
Tags: London, Los Angeles, Michael Cunningham, New York, Suicide, Virginia Woolf