am 1. Oktober 1999
A few sentences into Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Hours, one is aware that the reading of this book will be an altogether different experience. It will be trance-like, a dreamed interlude with a beautifully tragic story. A relatively short novel at 226 pages, it is somewhat astonishing what the author achieves. Intricately woven story lines, together with an impressive lyrical and poetic language, Cunningham has written a novel that transcends itself.
Named after Virginia Woolf's temporary title for her acclaimed novel, Mrs. Dalloway, this novel treads on rather cautious ground. Woolf is not only a major character in the book, but is an ever-present voive almost reading the words to us. Cunningham has talked of the enormous amount of research that went into the writing of the book--the reading of Woolf's entire literary canon, as well as letters, biographies, critical essays on the eccentric author. He also made a trip to London to Woolf's old residence and to the river where she took her own life. (See Poets & Writers, July/August 1999 issue for an interview with Cunningham) I say "cautious ground" in that Cunningham takes great literary freedom with Woolf's persona and psychological being. The prologue begins the novel with Woolf's last moments alive, of her chilling walk down to the river. It is a tragically moving opening, tense and intimate--a walk toward what we know will be an end of life. Here, in the first paragraphs of The Hours, we become aware that Woolf is guiding Cunningham who is guiding us: "She herself has failed. She is not a writer at all, really, she is merely a gifted eccentric[...] She has failed, and now the voices are back, muttering indistinctly just beyond the range of her vision, behind her, here, no turn and they've gone somewhere else."
Many voices are heard in the novel, which follow one day in the life of three women at three different eras of the twentieth century. We find Virginia Woolf in Richmond, a suburb of London, in 1923, as she begins to write and formulate what would become her novel, Mrs. Dalloway. We also follow Laura Brown, a disenchanted housewife in 1950s California, on the day of her war hero husband's birthday. And thirdly, we discover Clarissa Vaughn in modern day Greenwich Village, as she prepares a party for her good friend, an AIDS-stricken poet who has just won a major literary award.
The chapters weave in and out of each other, paralleled in many ways. In the end, Cunningham brings the stories together in a well-crafted manner that the reader can almost sense before the final chapters. These are the stories of dissatisfied women, human beings finding themselves at the center questions of life. There is, in each character, a pulling away from what they think is real, the identity, the living. They undergo the act of finding a new perspective of things, of the understanding of not understanding, the momentariness of things, feelings, and perceptions. The reader gets a sense that he or she is at the heart of it all. Woolf is caught at the center of mortality and creativity--she must endure the droll suburbs of Richmond for her health's sake, though she is spiritually pulled toward her London sanctuary of art and culture. Laura Brown is imprisoned in the ideology of family and womanly duty--her only escape is in the reading of Woolf's, Mrs. Dalloway, in a hotel room she rents for the afternoon. And for Clarissa Vaughn, we find a stuggle to reconcile the past, present, and future of a life's ongoing experience. Each character wants one thing: freedom. Freedom from the hours of restraint, when one is held by the responsibilty to oneself or to others. Freedom from decision, from anything that interrupts the will, the dream, the soul's breath. Whether or not any of these characters achieve this freedom is no doubt the reader's own decision to make.
The Hours marks the fourth novel of Cunningham's career. And it is clear that this is a novel just as much about him as it is by him. One can sense that the work is about creation, about the labor of making. For the characters in the novel, they seek to create comfort--comfort in a life that clearly does not offer it, and sometimes might even deny it. The author seeks to find himself in the writing process, and thus to find his own comfort as a writer. One cannot help but to see the relationship between Woolf and Cunningham as they begin to become voices for each other. A scene of Woolf at her desk is also a scene of Cunningham at his desk, of his ideas of the process. It is not a surprise that this novel garnered such high praise as the Pulitzer. The Hours is what a novel should be: an exploration into the heart of life, and of what we create for ourselves while we live it.