Being Virginia Woolf
A Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist gets into the head of a sacred literary figure.
Thursday, June 8, 2000
Are they giving out Pulitzer Prizes these days for sheer audacity? What exactly are the criteria that put Michael Cunningham''s The Hours in the same class as, say, Toni Morrison''s Beloved (the 1988 award winner)? It must be more than mere eloquence. It must have something to do with the ways in which a book helps explain why literature continues to matter in this age of apathy and digital gratification--how certain excellent novels serve, perhaps, as the last line of defense against rampant inauthenticity, prevailing existential despair and alienated self-destruction. Against my overriding sentiments, I concede that The Hours does this poignantly. At its best, this novel is a meditation on the life-altering power of beauty, of simple pleasures, love, and the healing force of creativity. But it is also one of the most disturbingly invasive novels masquerading as a literary love song that I have ever read.
If you love the novels of Virginia Woolf, as I do, your response to The Hours may also be fraught (as mine was) with alternating moments of delight and outrage. You may delight in Cunningham''s skillful deployment of Woolf''s rhythms, cadences, inflections and pet syntactical whims as he creates a modern day Mrs. Dalloway out of an aging, beautiful lesbian in New York City. But you may also be outraged at Cunningham''s voyeuristic ventures into the sacred sanctum of the mind belonging to his character "Virginia Woolf" as she suffers from debilitating migraines, fights her body for a few hours of productivity each day, and--in the opening scenes of the book--commits suicide. I have never wanted to imagine what Cunningham forces me to see: Virginia Woolf''s body wrapped around a bridge piling at the bottom of the muddy Thames. When I think of her death by drowning, I prefer to imagine her walking off into the water with dignity; and as the waves close over her head, the image in my mind fades out respectfully.
Cunningham may have thought that he was paying the ultimate tribute to Virginia Woolf by researching all published accounts of her life, reading her diaries, studying her novels and writing a novel of his own that both preserves and revitalizes her literary and personal legacy. But what happened, I suspect, is that as he found himself on such intimate terms with her--imbibing her stylistic sensibilities so deeply that he was able to reproduce her writer''s voice uncannily and skillfully--that he also found himself faced with an insurmountable rival whose shadow loomed over his own imagination. Cunningham battles Woolf for his own voice within her world, where of course he does not belong, by appropriating her domain from within. Unfortunately, I had the feeling that in the very act of reading his book I was complicit in his voyeurism--I was no better than one of those misguided seekers in the film Being John Malkovich, who stand in line and pay their money every night to take their turn at "being" in the head of a star.
Luckily, Cunningham guides us through the minds of many other characters in The Hours, whose streams of inner radiance and uncensored truths seem much more appropriately opened up to our gaze. The novel alternates between the minds of three female characters: Virginia Woolf herself; Clarissa Vaughan (the modern-day Mrs. Dalloway); and Laura Brown, a 1940s housewife on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
The novel belongs, really, to Clarissa; and Cunningham''s miming of Woolf''s style is at its best as he projects the events of Woolf''s Mrs. Dalloway almost a century ahead of their time. Who might Clarissa Dalloway have been if her sexuality and self-expression had not been suppressed by Victorian morality? She might very well have been Clarissa Vaughan--just as the modern-day double for Woolf''s shell-shocked Septimus might very well have been Cunningham''s character Richard, a gay writer dying of AIDS.
But while the connection between these two haunting figures in Woolf''s novel is fleeting, subtle and dreamlike, Cunningham yokes them together as bluntly as possible, in direct opposition to Woolf: instead of strangers, they are lovers; instead of a passing mention of his death, Clarissa watches Richard die in Technicolor. Whereas Woolf was making the point that there is an invisible, evanescent filament of consciousness connecting even the most disparate of individuals, in Cunningham''s world the characters are too directly connected, in what turns out to be an almost incestuous (at least in literary terms) little world where everyone knows (or at least has slept with) everyone else.
While The Hours may be centrally concerned with Clarissa''s stream of consciousness and the party she is preparing in celebration of Richard''s latest novel, the most compelling figure in the book is Laura Brown. Laura is actually reading the novel Mrs. Dalloway, literally losing herself in it--or attempting to--while she struggles for sanity in her surreal post-war performance of domestic femininity. All of the episodes with Laura and her young son Richie are painful and perfect; they are the moments in the novel that feel the most true, the most connected to the larger themes Cunningham is exploring. Sadly, instead of leaving Laura in her parallel universe, preserving at least one strand of Woolfian evanescence, Cunningham reduces Laura in the end to a character in the tight little libidinal world of Clarissa and company, where she no more belongs than Cunningham belongs in Woolf''s head.
Cunningham isn''t content, however, with creating a multiple stream of consciousness narrative: he wants to get in everybody''s head, including yours and mine. I have never been a big fan of the infamous "second person" narrative point of view that was so celebrated in Jay MacInerny''s Bright Light, Big City. Whenever Cunningham slips into this form of narration--as when one character muses, "You find that you move, almost against your will, from being irritated with her to consoling her"--I often had to put the book down. Cunningham is intentionally messing with us; he even shifts into the first person plural point of view at the end, having Clarissa reflect universally as "we." He is forcing his reader as immediately as possible into the minds of these characters, in any and every way he can: to stave off our apathy, to deny us even the distance of objective sympathy. He wants us utterly engaged and experiencing first-hand empathy with the beautiful, ordinary, tortured individuals he portrays. And he does this in the hopes that we will live, think, love and feel that much more beautifully and intensely as a result. Now that''s what I call a reason to give somebody a Pulitzer Prize.
The Hours, by Michael Cunningham; paperback; 230 pages; Picador USA.