Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Not Wasted, But Wanting

The Hours, by Michael Cunningham, Read by The Author, Audio Renaissance, 2003

I managed to go about listening to this audiobook in a backwards fashion that may have helped my reactions to it or may have hurt it. Actually, it’s still hard to say if I really liked the book all that much or not. Some parts of the novel I liked immensely while there were keen stretches of the book that filled me with a ho-hum tedium you can experience when it is all too apparent someone is patently grappling with Big Issues. What did strike me in the listening was just how entirely dependent the novel is on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, though dependent is a less nice way of saying The Hours is a sort of exploration of the novel and an homage to it at the same time.

The very quantity of this novel’s debt to Mrs. Dalloway was what made me want to track down and listen to the audio version of that first novel. The Hours touches on the novel Mrs. Dalloway through telling of the last days of Virginia Woolf’s life as well as her life while she wrote the book, then a young housewife who just wants some time alone to read Mrs. Dalloway, and finally a lesbian publisher nicknamed Mrs. D. by a friend. The exact connection between the two latter threads isn’t made more explicit until the book’s last few chapters, but there is a rather obvious deference to Woolf’s novel in the publisher’s story. She is a middle-aged woman running errands before her planned big party that evening (buying flowers, no less); she catches a glimpse of an indistinct though famous celebrity; her partner is having lunch with someone glamorous and she wasn’t invited; an old friend from abroad unexpectedly turns up; and her name is actually Clarissa, if that isn’t too much more to ask of you. Cunningham actually piled it on pretty thick here, and it shows in the rather uninspired writing of this character, who he even names in the chapter headings “Mrs. Dalloway.” And like her namesake, this new Mrs. D. is a bit frosty, a bit sexless, and her story is thrown into high relief by the throbbing, bloody heart of her Septimus stand-in, Richard, the prize winning gay poet and her lifelong friend for who she is throwing the evening’s festivities. Once you recognize who he’s supposed to be, it’s no spoiler to guess he meets Septimus’ fate as well.

Of all the story lines threaded through The Hours, Mrs. Laura Brown’s, the young 1950s housewife who wishes to read Woolf’s novel but can’t quite work up the concentration, engages us least of all, though becomes considerably more important when the book’s climax occurs. In the course of one afternoon, she bakes two cakes, then leaves her son with a babysitter to rent a hotel room to read the novel undisturbed, undistracted. Little elements of Mrs. Dalloway show up and echo here as well, such as the unexpected lingering kiss she plants on another suburban homemaker like herself. But the best moment in her story comes with the realization that literature, even literature more exalted than genre mysteries or romances, can just as much be a desire to escape the world around you. Indeed, it is an even more seductive escapism than its pulp cousins because it comes packaged with the notion of enlightening reading, work that exercises your mind and improves you.

Fiction writers, however, even ones who write improving literary works, are both the best and the worst possible documentors of the lives of other writers. They are perhaps too sympathetic to their subjects as well as too prone to project upon those authors their own psychological and ideological baggage. For this reason, I have always found biographies tedious affairs, hero worshipping in an age needing heroes, replete with recitations of facts, facts, facts, entire volumes breaking the cardinal rule of writing, telling not showing. At the same time, who else could quite entirely grasp the mindset of the author trapping herself in a room of her own in order to imagine other people’s lives? When Cunningham describes Virginia Woolf sitting down and just about preparing to write, just moments before she actually begins, when she has approached the desk with a fragile enthusiasm, he nails that exact evanescent feeling of transcendence. When she considers how she feels forcing the writing when this miracle doesn't happen, he likewise captures that element precisely.

This is one of the most singular experiences, waking on what feels like a good day, preparing to work but not yet actually embarked. At this moment there are infinite possibilities, whole hours ahead. Her mind hums. This morning she may penetrate the obfuscation, the clogged pipes, to reach the gold. She can feel it inside her, an all but indescribable second self, or rather a parallel, purer self. If she were religious, she would call it the soul. It is more than the sum of her intellect and her emotions, more than the sum of her experiences, though it runs like veins of brilliant metal through all three. It is an inner faculty that recognizes the animating mysteries of the world because it is made of the same substance, and when she is very fortunate she is able to write directly through that faculty. Writing in that state is the most profound satisfaction she knows, but access to it comes and goes without warning. She may pick up her pen and follow it with her hand as it moves across the paper; she may pick up her pen and find that she’s merely herself, an old woman in a housecoat, holding a pen, afraid and uncertain, only mildly competent, with no idea about where to begin or what to write.

This is a fine depiction of that moment, and perhaps a biographer, with a subject and a story already told in front of one, feels it less keenly than those who throw themselves wholly into that void called Making Stuff Up. This is the sympathy a fiction writer has with another fiction writer and it can add the zing and zest of real sensation to what biographers merely can allude to and show by selected diary and letter excerpts. The chapters that follow Virginia herself are some of the finest in the novel and it almost, at times, makes you wish Cunningham had simply jettisoned the idea of showing how powerful novels echo throughout our culture and our lives and just stuck with the trail starting in 1923.

The author himself decided to tackle the audio narration, a gambit of which I provisionally disapprove. Someone once said that many an author is merely a frustrated bad actor and there’s no sense in letting that preening take place. Cunningham doesn't read with any particular gift for dramatizing, but he does a serviceable job, better than many another author, never lingering overly on the pregnant pause, never reading With Emphasis the Important Parts. Audio Renaissance went for my pet peeve and scored the CD with larger than necessary tracks (all in the ten minute plus category) yet without the divisions correlating to the architecture of the novel. That in itself didn’t hurt my opinion of the work in question, but it does leave me wondering.

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