Monday, 1 June 2009

Mrs Dalloway - Virginia Woolf

The following review was first published on Vulpes Libris, a
very fine book blog run by a great community of interested and interesting readers. I am particularly proud of it as it marks a rare occurrence where I have managed to fuse style, pace, and structure together to capture exactly what I wanted to say about a multifarious book.

I will return later this week with a companion review, again appearing on Vulpes Libris, this time looking at The Hours by Michael Cunningham. Until then, adieu.

“In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.”

There is a passage in Dave Eggers A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius in which Dave and his thirteen year old brother drive a convertible through the hills around San Francisco; young, alive, and spectacularly free. It captures something of those fleeting moments when, regardless of anything else going on, the beauty of life is impossible to ignore.

But nowhere is this achieved more expertly than in Mrs Dalloway. Clarissa Dalloway steps out of her house on an ordinary sunny morning in June 1923 and feels her senses attuned to the world around her, as though time has slowed down to make this wondrous morning last forever. She is hosting a party this evening, and needs to buy flowers. Throughout that single day her life, and those of the people she passes, are brought alive by the exact, dreamlike, and sensuous prose of Virginia Woolf.

It is not only Clarissa who is enamoured with the fleeting beauty of life. Across town Clarissa’s husband Richard Dalloway, is suddenly struck by the strength of love he feels for his wife and rushes home with a bouquet of roses to tell her so. In another part of London Peter Walsh has just arrived back in England from India and having visited with Clarissa, takes an afternoon walk through Regents Park. And then there is Septimus Warren Smith, shell-shocked and on the verge of madness, spending the day in the park with his wife, overcome with the beauty in the world, but fearful that people, without honesty or kindness in them, cannot perceive it as he does. He has been numbed by the war, and now lives inside his head, hearing his dead friend call to him from behind screens in his room. The doctors are about to put him in an institution and so he makes one last, desperate, bid for freedom.

For it is not simply the beauty of moments in life which Mrs Dalloway seeks to portray, but the loneliness of these moments, for they can so rarely be shared with others. This is a novel of insular delights, of the joys shared with ones self alone, when all around the world is rushed off its feet. And, perhaps most powerful of all, it is about the irrevocable march of time; for these moments never last. Woolf’s working title was The Hours and it is a sense that nothing is set in stone, that everything in life will fade, which underpins all the beauty. There is a wonderful phrase which characterises this relentless march of time. So powerful is it that Woolf uses it twice, once from Clarissa’s point of view, later through Richard. “Big Ben was beginning to strike, first the warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable.”

This steady ticking away of time is the subtext for everything which takes place. Each of the characters struggles, at some point, with the terror of ageing and death. It is on Peter Walsh’s mind as he walks through Regents Park, and Clarissa muses upon it repeatedly, staring into the chamber of an old woman next door. She cannot believe that these wonderful moments of life will end, and that when they do “no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all; how, every instant…”

When the party arrives, after she has seen her rambunctious old friend Sally Seton for the first time in many years, transformed now into a happy old housewife with five children, after she has feared that the party will be a huge failure, it is actually the news that Septimus has committed suicide which resurrects her mood, for she sees it as a powerful effort to preserve the purity of his own happiness.

“She felt somehow very like him—the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun.”

Mrs Dalloway is a work of interlocking stream of consciousness internal monologues, of the hopes and dreams and fears of more than twenty characters whose minds we pass through during the course of that one day in June 1923. Virginia Woolf possesses a startling ability to find strength and originality in each of her characters, to cut right to the heart of their being and enunciate their thoughts and feelings as if you were sitting inside their head listening to them directly. Put together, these lives build a patchwork of society and experience, each in their own way troublesome, and yet filled with these moments of rare beauty.

So key are these brief snippets of beauty to Mrs Dalloway that they not only constitute its major theme, but also, somehow also reflect the experience of reading it. There are passages, frequent and profound, which leave one breathless. But these are sandwiched within dense and complex prose. It is over-punctuated to the point of truncation. Never have my eyes seen such a feast of semicolons and commas; or my mind reeled when faced with so many extended sentences, sub-clauses, and tangent thoughts. This creates a style so unlike anything else that it took me almost seventy pages before I was able to find the rhythm and flow of its cadence. That it took me two weeks to read a book which is only 213 pages also perhaps reflects its density. It is not a book to lose ones self in. Not for me, anyway. It is one of those books which might be better to listen on audiobook first, to sit back in a field in the middle of the afternoon, or else put on in a darkened room and let the words wash over you in that rhythm and pace which is all their own. For the prose is beautiful, often startling so. It is just that the density, page after page after page, is not easy to read. If you want a book to read once and enjoy throughout then this is probably not it.

However, if you enjoy books which gains with every reading, which can be studied and considered and delved into repeatedly, then Mrs Dalloway is one of the most rewarding novels you could find. From the way in which the women’s clothing is coloured in earthy tones of green and described as though it is a living thing growing from their bodies, to the subtlety of the title which creates the impression that Clarissa is defined by her marriage rather than the experiences and thoughts which make her individual, Mrs Dalloway is a veritable melting pot of ideas, structural invention, and stylistic originality. The more I think about it, the more I read and reread passages from it, the more I fall in love with it. Woolf possesses supreme linguistic ability and the power of her observation is second to none.

There will be a time while reading Mrs Dalloway when you draw in a breath and read on, spellbound, scared to release it lest the magic be broken and the beauty disappear like a droplet of dew brushed from a single stem of grass. Few books are so ripe with fantastic passages, few authors so talented as to capture such depth of feeling so consistently. It is one thing to recreate sadness, desperation, paranoia, hundreds of books have done so. But to capture fleeting moments of happiness so magnificently is something I have never seen done so well before. Mrs Dalloway is a book to make aspiring writers weep at the futility of ever possessing the skill to compete with a writer as skilled as Virginia Woolf. For those who do persist, however, it offers inspiration of what can be achieved in a novel. I will leave you now with one final phrase which sums it all up, though it would be a joy to share so many, many more.

“To watch a leaf quivering in the rush of air was an exquisite joy. Up in the sky swallows swooping, swerving, flinging themselves in and out, round and round, yet always with perfect control as if elastics held them and the flies rising and falling; and the sun spotting now this leaf, now that, in mockery, dazzling it with soft gold in pure good temper; and now and again some chime (it might be a motor horn) tingling divinely on the grass stalks – all of this, calm and reasonable as it was, made out of ordinary things as it was, was the truth now; beauty, that was the truth now. Beauty was everywhere.”

8.5 out of 10

No comments: