Literature as River


The River: Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway," Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours,” and Virginia Woolf’s “A Writer’s Diary.”

Reviewed by Gail Vida Hamburg
Author of The Edge of the World (Mirare Press)

In Erica Jong’s Bennington lectures, she referred to literature as a river in which all writers swim. “There are writers in front of you on this river, Doestevsky and Chekov and all those who started before you, and there are others behind you who have not yet begun. We all write about the same things, love, life, death. What else is there?” she said. This romantic notion of a literary continuum, uniting past and present writers to a holy river— a Ganges—delighted me anew, as I read: Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, and Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary, back to back.

In Woolf’s diary entry of June 19th, 1923, she wrote: “The Hours or Mrs. Dalloway or whatever it’s to be called is going to be a devil of a struggle. One must write from deep feeling, said Doestevsky. Do I? Have I the power of conveying true reality? I want to give life and death, sanity and insanity; I want to criticize the social system, and show it at work, at its most intense.” By any measure, Woolf succeeded in what she set out to do, to reimagine the novel, at a time when it had been declared that the novel was at an impasse.

The book’s opening: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” pulls us briskly by the wrists, into one day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, an English woman of rare privilege married to a Member of Parliament. Mrs. Dalloway is to play hostess that very night to a large party, including no less a personage than the Prime Minister. She sets out to complete some errands that June morning, “soft with the glow of rose petals, in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead … what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.” Clarissa Dalloway’s rushed, manic thoughts and impressions as she goes about London, soar with the intensity of a spiritual high, before her mood plummets into fear and sadness. “What a lark! What a plunge! … How fresh, how calm … the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet solemn, feeling as she did … that something bad was about to happen.” Woolf, who was free from mental illness while writing the book, documents madness and consciousness in the most knowing way, as felt experiences. She wrote in her diary in 1922: “The mad part of The Hours tries me so much, makes my mind squirt so badly,” and in 1923: “I am laboriously dredging my mind for Mrs. Dalloway and bringing up light buckets and I don’t like the feeling.”

As Mrs. Dalloway’s day proceeds, marked by the chiming of Big Ben and various other clocks -- “shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing, the clocks of Harley Street nibbled at the June day,”-- characters both strangers and acquaintances to Clarissa, reveal their own impressions and memories. A singular character in Mrs. Dalloway is Septimus Warren Smith, a World War I veteran haunted by guilt and suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, who’s suicide at the end of the day is immediately echoed by his doctor’s response: “Coward!”

Woolf’s juxtaposition of acts, consequences, and memory— of choices made in the flush of youth and how those choices affect one’s life—strain with tension as the story unfolds. Moments that could foreseeably change the course of a life play out against the mundane details of an ordinary day. Clarissa’s memories of rejecting her first suitor in favor of her husband, and the possibility of love with Sally Seton [whose single kiss sears Clarissa’s heart and lingers in the shade of memory] bubble to the surface thirty years later. Clarissa feels neither regret nor joy about the choices she has made. She is aware that another life could have been hers, but she doesn’t know if that life would have been better than the one she claimed for herself. Woolf seems to suggest in Mrs. Dalloway, that a life worth living can be pieced together by settling for small delights, simple experiences, and fertile memories, and without the benefit of grand gestures.

Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway were influenced greatly by James Joyce’s Ulysses, which details the comings and goings of life during a single day in Joyce’s Dublin. This is profound, considering Woolf’s first impressions of Ulysses. On September 26th, 1922 her diary notes, “I finished Ulysses and think it a mis-fire. Genius it has I think, but of the inferior water. The book is diffuse, brackish, pretentious, it is underbred not only in the obvious sense, but in the literary sense.” She had a better opinion of Euripedes who she was also reading at the time. In Euripedes’s Bacchae, she found “the world of psychology and doubt, the world where the mind twists facts and changes them and makes the familiar aspects of life appear new and questionable. On December 7th, 1925, Woolf wrote in her diary: “Robert Bridges likes Mrs. Dalloway; says no one will read it; but that it is beautifully written.”

On March 12th 1941, Virginia Woolfe walked to the banks of the Ouse River near her home in Richmond, England; gathered some large stones which she placed in her coat pockets, and slowly walked into the water. "I thought of the Ouse in terms of something like the Mississippi,” says author, Michael Cunningham. “I thought it was something you could jump into as Anna Karenina jumped under the train. But in fact it's a puddle the length of a river. It completely changed my mind as to the act of despair and volition that her suicide really was."

Cunningham's novel, The Hours, is an echo of Mrs. Dalloway. It is a remarkable feat of virtuoso crafting, expert ventriloquism, shameless plagiarizing, and brilliant invention. It is both intra and extra textual in the way it adapts, interprets, and references Virginia Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway. It appears to be a dialogue about transcending pain, that takes place across space and time: a trans-Atlantic bridge across eight decades.

In The Hours, Clarissa Vaughn is an editor who lives in contemporary Manhattan with her lesbian lover, Sally. Clarissa is devoted to the care of Richard Brown, the lover from her heterosexual past, and now an important also homosexual writer who is dying of Aids. Richard has the same love for his Clarissa [whom he calls Mrs. Dalloway], as Peter Walsh did for his. Richard also throws himself out the window and dies like Woolf’s Septimus Warren Smith.

Laura Brown, Richard’s mother is a 1940s California hausefrau who tries to fend off depression by reading Mrs. Dalloway. Virginia Woolf appears as herself, in the chilling act of her final erasure, as well as on an ordinary afternoon in 1923, as she works on what will become Mrs. Dalloway. To read Cunningham channeling Woolf to write a second version—a remake of Mrs. Dalloway – is quite something. “What a shock! What a thrill,” Clarissa Vaughn thinks as she cuts through Washington Square Park to buy flowers for a party. And weirder still, to have Woolf as a fictional character writing Mrs. Dalloway, the first and original book. There are absurdities in the novel as well. While readers accept Woolf’s description of Septimus Warren Smith’s dark eyed wife as “foreign looking,” the description of Californian, Laura Brown as “foreign looking,” in the land of Zorro and Marx Brothers, smacks of silliness. And where Woolf was able to bring the ferocity of her intelligence to social critique in Mrs. Dalloway, viciously skewering the ruling class for their smugness, Cunningham’s quiet tweaking fails to rise above inane commentary about aging gay male bodybuilders, and bourgeois tastes in decorating. However, Cunningham is to be commended for his instincts for character. Readers should be grateful that he abandoned his first draft mischief: Clarissa Vaughn as a gay, male, party loving queen who would be called Mrs. Dalloway by all his friends.

Four days before her suicide, Woolf wrote in her diary: “A battle against depression, this trough of despair shall not, I swear engulf me. I insist on spending this time to the best advantage. I will go down with my colors flying.” Reading this triptych had it’s own logic and reward for me. Literature’s meaning at this moment may be explained by how we respond to literature of the past … paying attention to those in the river cannot be a bad thing.

Post Script: In The Edge of the World, (Mirare Press), my novel about American foreign policy and its impact on individual lives, I was inspired by Graham Greene’s novel, The Quiet American. Alden Pyle and Phuong, Fowler and Miss Hei, and the rickshaw rider in The Quiet American make an appearance in my novel. The river as literature is a truism. Gvh

Copyright Gail Vida Hamburg


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