In my first graduate fiction writing workshop, I submitted a story called “Landscaping.” It was about a woman who lives largely inside her head and her stream-of-conscious voice narrates the day that a landscaper comes to her house to plant a garden.
The professor asked the class, “Who’s writing does this remind you of?” Immediately someone responded, Virginia Woolf.
I said, “Who’s she?”
I was young still. I hadn’t discovered Woolf yet. Forgive me.
But even after I did read Woolf—I vaguely remember “To the Lighthouse,” “Mrs. Dalloway,” and “A Room of One’s Own”—I never fully embraced her. I found her style to be dense and inscrutable. She was, perhaps, too literary for me.
Years later, along came Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours,” which I first read when it came out in 1997 (later saw the quality film adaptation). “The Hours” made my list of the The Most Important Novels in My Life, from which I’ve been re-reading during the time of COVID-19.
Not only does The Hours still belong in my top 25, it likely belongs in the top ten. As with the other novels that have remained dear to me, it’s the writing—the mesmerizing voice, the impeccable language, the virtuoso style—that delivers.
This risky novel of three parallel stories linked thematically by the Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” could have been a pretentious dud. But the line between pretension and brilliance is thin, and Cunningham lands clearly in the land of brilliance with the hours.
The novel opens with a devastating prologue detailing Virginia Woolf’s suicidal step into a river, then alternates its three storylines: a single day with Virginia at home in the company of her husband with her sister Vanessa visiting; New Yorker Clarissa planning a party for her dying friend Richard, a minor poet and novelist who years ago during a brief love affair dubbed Clarissa Mrs. Dalloway; and the most harrowing (for me) of the three: Laura Brown, a housewife in LA in 1949, who reads “Mrs. Dalloway” while suffering from alienation and self-doubt about her life and her husband and son.
The way the storylines progress and tie together is mesmerizing. The writing never less than exceptional.
Here’s a passage about Richard:
He is not one of those egoists who miniaturize others. He is the opposite kind of egoist, driven by grandiosity rather than need, and if he insists on a version of you that is funnier, stranger, more eccentric and profound than you suspect yourself to be—capable of doing more harm and more good in the world than you’ve ever imagined—it all but impossible not to believe, at least in his presence and for a while after you’ve left him, that he alone sees through to your essence . . .
Laura Brown, after she tells her five-year-old son she loves him:
. . . although she’s said the words thousands of times, she can hear the flanneled nervousness lodged now in her throat, the effort she must make to sound natural . . . He will watch her forever. He will always know when something is wrong. He will always know precisely when and how much she has failed.
Richard, when he can’t take it anymore:
“But there are still the hours, aren’t there? One and then another, and you get through that one and then, my god, there’s another . . .”
For Richard, the unbearable hours. For Clarissa:
There’s just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more.