Monday, September 19, 2005

Classic of Isolation

Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf, Read by Virginia Leishman, Recorded Books, 2002

Like many readers, I was turned on to Virginia Woolf in my college years. At the time of discovery, it was one of those perfect meetings of author and reader, the kind one has with a greater intensity and frequency in those budding years than at nearly any other time in one’s life. A fan of Joyce’s, I thought, before reading Woolf, that no one had quite managed to catch the exact tempo and pulse of the human mind in action, and it struck me just how differently both writers approached consciousness. At the time, I made the rather simplistic but fundamentally sound observation that their distinctly varying approaches stemmed from male and female perspectives, his mind jagged, discursive, referential, hers oceanic, encompassing, moved by more gentle rhythms.

Those are certainly rather traditional and stereotypical depictions of male/female differences, and, though at a real and important level for these two, generally true, it slights both authors to be so reductive into Joyce as Male and Woolf as Female, no less than if you were to paint them merely as differing based on the class they were born into, Irish versus British, Catholic versus agnostic. They were all of these things, but very few authors or their work can be so neatly pigeonholed upon a single, specific criterion.

Having, as I’ve mentioned, first read Woolf in college at the ripe young age of 20, I felt at the time, though never admitted, that Septimus was the hero of Mrs. Dalloway, his tormented nihilism a dramatic mirror to my own overly self-dramatizing sensibility. If I never admitted aloud this sense of identification, this wishing that he was the hero so as to elevate my own struggle with personal demons to some level of literary luminescence, it stated itself plainly in the back of my mind. In a sense quite different from what Thackeray meant in calling Vanity Fair “a Novel without a Hero.” Mrs. Dalloway, indeed all of Woolf’s work, lacks anything even approaching heroic in the more common sense or even heroic in the literary fashion. They are the observations, reflections, memories, dreams, hopes, and psychological flotsam of those who find themselves somehow adrift and disconnected from the world. Shell-shocked, mentally unbalanced veteran of the war, Septimus is perhaps Woolf’s rawest, bloodiest, most obvious portrayal of this severing from the rest of humanity and the world, but this does not then lift him up into something like authorial admiration.

Even the titular Mrs. Dalloway, while the primary focus and protagonist of the book, can hardly be designated a hero, wool-gathering as she dithers and bustles about making ready for her evening’s party. The perfect hostess and society wife in a way Woolf herself could never successfully manage, Clarissa Dalloway is everything she and her acquaintances think negatively about her, but she is also loving, giving, generous, and sensitive to most of her own flaws. While Woolf creates thoroughgoing and deeply wrought characters, there is also a kind of hollowness to them, an empty spot right next to their soul that can, at times, overshadow the rest of their lives, but more importantly demonstrates that there remains, for all of the finely engraved psychological currents running through them, a kind of artifice to her characters, a sort of constructed quality that belies naturalism. Like the travelers of the Yellow Brick Road, each of Woolf’s characters is lacking some specific human element, some fleshy pulsing organ of sensation that would allow them to break through their isolation.

Part of this, no doubt, is because Woolf’s characters, most especially her females ones, are rather sexless types, devoid of passion, though there is often a reminisce, as in this novel’s memory of the sapphic garden kiss between a much younger Clarissa and her shocking young friend, Sally Seton, of a time where ardor was not so repressed. Even the dramatic upheavals of Septimus’s life comes simply as a reaction to his inability to feel any other emotion, to experience anything save horror. While her characters may deny themselves, it is a mistake to think of Woolf’s novel in the same fashion, little ripples of libido and enthusiasm rippling through the text expressing themselves in sensual admiration of flowers, for food, for clothing fabric, for the sun on one’s skin. Though a part of the world on this level, their enjoyments always feel tempered by a thin membrane of solitude, and even when among others, such as when Clarissa moves through the town shopping for her evening’s festivities, there is a disconnected quality.

A lovely element of the novel is how everyone exists both in the world around them and in their own private mental world that reinterprets others into strange and foreign figures. Motives are mistaken, words are misunderstood, and, when one leaves the presence of another, both parties take apart, modify, and refashion their exchanges to fit their pre-existing beliefs. And as Woolf jumps from the interior monologue of one character to another, we are given an overlapping series of fictions of which not one character ever believes their perspective is mistaken or fraudulent, not one character ever doubts that the impression they made is precisely the same one that they think they made. This is one of the stronger, more moving and crushing elements of Woolf’s novels, the individuation of perspective that dare not admit others or only rarely. If that were the sole human vanity Woolf pinned down to the page, in itself it would be a major literary accomplishment in its breathtaking accuracy of portrayal.

Virginia Leishman does an excellent job, a very sensitive reading, though I wonder if this isn’t the kind of book that might deliciously benefit from the multiple reader mode of narration becoming more common. The book’s intricately threaded narration would be greatly illuminated by such a method of telling, as well as it would clear up a great deal of the confusion one can experience if not listening to the novel as intently as one could. As I listened, I recalled how my first read of the novel was one of those pleasantly painstaking experiences in which slower, more thoughtful attention was of the necessity; hearing a second or third voice would be the most obvious, and most gentle, means of righting a drift in assumed perspective.

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