A triumph. A triumph, a triumph, a triumph. I just want to keep saying it over and over again. If you’re not in the mood for a rapture, go no further. Michael Cunningham’s 1998 novel is, once again, a triumph.
I feel as though the fact that it was written the year before I was born, and that I read it shortly after my 18th birthday whilst knee-deep in the illuminating study of Mrs Dalloway for A Level gives me some profound connection with this book which strengthens its impact, as if I’m hyper-sensitive to its brilliance. Resonate isn’t quite the right word, because I felt that I had more of an emotional connection with the text itself, its creative genius, its revival and celebration of a stupefyingly magnificent study of women’s inner life, than with any of the characters themselves.
The sheer genius of this book I didn’t fully grasp until the final pages, but I’m going to be very careful not to give spoilers, because my explosion of realisation felt like discovering chocolate for the first time and being supplied with an infinite stock of it all at once, and I’d really hate to rob anyone of such an experience.
But even sharing the general premise, which reveals even less than the blurb, will begin to hint at its cleverness. Cunningham takes the concept (all the action takes place in one day) and narrative technique (stream of consciousness) of Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway, and uses it to tell the stories of three women: Virginia Woolf beginning Mrs Dalloway in 1923, Laura Brown reading Mrs Dalloway in 1940s Los Angeles, and Clarissa Vaughan following the story of the day of the eponymous heroine of Woolf’s novel in New York in the 1990s.
The Hours was Woolf’s working title for Mrs Dalloway, and it echoes the central issue of the passage and value of time and life which both authors tackle.
Through this dense and all-pervasive allusion, Cunningham explores similar existential issues to those which Woolf deals with in Mrs Dalloway, as well as the social expectations and roles of women, their complexities, contradictions, and impacts. He does so, though, with a freshness and relevance which makes bold the strong remains of the patriarchy of Woolf’s era in our more modern world.
My immediate, head-over-heels tumble into loving what I was reading was also the reason for a certain ambivalence, a reserved admiration: Woolf’s style and concerns were brilliantly imitated and captured but I couldn’t decide whether this spot-on rendering of that narrative voice could be praised as anything more than a regurgitation of Woolf’s breakthrough three quarters of a century before.
Don’t worry, the answer is that there is far more to it than that. Cunningham’s tone, like Woolf’s, is remarkable in its boldness and the fluency with which it can pose existential questions without feeling self-conscious. Though its stream of consciousness style places us heavily in the minds of the characters, it blurs the line between free indirect style and omniscient narrator, because it’s as if this narrator is an interpretative voice for the character’s subconscious questions, concerns, anxieties, hopes. So it manages simultaneously to feel natural and have the ease of characters’ thought, and to be removed enough to give it a dazzling profundity and brilliant insight into human nature. Cunningham brings his own answers to these questions through this imitative voice, and explodes its scope when he uses it for and moves seamlessly between three women living at points which punctuate the passage of a century.
Thus he keeps the core elements of Woolf’s style but adapts it with his own flair, making it work for his re-imagining of Clarissa Dalloway, his conception of the author herself, and his entirely new creation, Laura Brown. Not only does he take her split narrative (with the character of Septimus Warren-Smith) to the next level with his three even more tightly connected narratives, the way each interacts differently with Woolf’s original, whilst the three still maintain a coherence and unity of concern, is simply ingenious.
Once I realised that my doubt was only occasioned by how well he hides this effort, I continued to revel in every millisecond of this read. More than anything this is a tribute to, a grand celebration of Woolf and Mrs Dalloway, a trumpet song to its impact, its inspirational power, its brilliance. But if I had any lingering uncertainty as to whether this is enough to give the high praise which I instinctively felt it deserves, Cunningham’s finale, his final weaving of the narratives and profound reflections, tears away from any consciousness of its influence and it emerges – I’m not sure whether I mentioned this – as a sheer triumph in its own right.