The Hours

May 31, 2007 at 5:16 pm 8 comments

The Hours, by Michael Cunningham, is one of those rare, glittery constructions which make you gasp, and sigh, and sets a ribbon of delight twisting inside you. I mean – I loved it. It’s built around Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dallaway, so you need to read this first. But when I say built, I don’t mean roughly or heavily. It is like a river, and a city made of light, and the quick-pulsing heart of a small bird. It is connected to Mrs D so lightly, so elegantly, so deeply and so gently that it made me think of all these things.

When I read the first couple of pages I had reservations. So, I thought, he’s picked up the rhythm and the sentence structure from Mrs D and transplanted it into the 1990’s. Big deal. But two more pages in, and I was lost in the beauty of the refractions, and the way he has formed something entirely new from an engagement with the older text. Incredible.

The novel, set on a single day, oscillates between three time-frames: Virginia Woolf’s 1920’s Richmond, as she begins to write Mrs Dallaway; Laura Brown’s stifling life as a housewife in 1940’s Los Angeles, as she longs to sneak away and read Mrs Dallaway; and Clarissa’s 1990’s New York, as she buys flowers and prepares a party for a dying friend. Clarissa’s name and life echo Mrs Dallaway, and there are subtle refractions which make you gasp with recognition and surprise, almost like deja vu.

I read Mrs Dallaway last year, as I was tutoring on the Reading Prose module for first year English students at the University of Leeds. It is a beautiful book, a perfect book; I enjoyed every page. I love Mrs Dallaway, I feel like I’ve met her somewhere. She is ordinary but extraordinary as well. I think my students had trouble coming to terms with this, and saw her as shallow or a victim. I wonder if, for most people, Woolf is more accessible when you are a little older. I tried Towards the Lighthouse when I was 18 and got nowhere with it.

I haven’t seen the film of The Hours, but I guess I will at some point. I didn’t see it when it first came out, because a few people told me it wasn’t very good, though I’ve since heard otherwise. It’s probably a good thing, because I hadn’t read Mrs D at that point, and it was lovely to read The Hours without knowing exactly how it was going to work.

Writing a novel always involves making choices, limiting possibilities, taking this path instead of that one. The Hours went back to Mrs Dallaway and teased out some of the threads not followed, the roads not taken. When I finished it, I thought – yes, this is the best way to respond to literature! Not writing essays or theses, but making a new story, making it live again. It made me want to run out and get hold of everything Cunningham has ever written. I’m in Norway now, so that will have to wait. But it won’t stop me thinking of rivers, and glittery cities, and the quick-beating hearts of birds.


Entry filed under: Michael Cunningham, Virginia Woolf.

Disgrace New Books

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. cipriano  |  June 1, 2007 at 4:08 am

    Terrific blog, Meli.
    I am adding you to my blogroll.
    All the best to you.
    — Cip

  • 2. Pavlov's Cat  |  June 1, 2007 at 9:10 am

    It’s not so much that the film per se isn’t very good, it’s more that Nicole Kidman is grotesquely miscast as Woolf, and Miranda Richardson almost as much so as her sister Vanessa Bell.

    Practically everyone else in the movie is better cast, and better, than these two. (Tragic, as Richardson is usually really good.) Ed Harris, Meryl Streep, Claire Danes and little jack Rovello as the young Richie are all terrific, and Julianne Moore and Toni Colette are wonderful, and Stephen Dillane as Leonard Woolf is extraordinary.

    Unfortunately they all make Kidman look even more inadequate to play Woolf than she already was, with or without the fake schnozz. The idea of using Tom Cruise’s ex-wife in a putty nose to play a woman regarded as (a) one of the great beauties of her age and (b) a genius still makes me incandescent with rage. As you can probably tell.

  • 3. Ted  |  June 1, 2007 at 4:59 pm

    Woolf is a personal favorite of mine. I read them in the opposite order and enjoyed The Hours no less – a really multi-layered experience, full and satisfying – unlike the movie which seemed too caught up in what people looked like – Kidman’s nose and Julianne’s age makeup were simply annoying. I’m not sure the movie has anything to add to his wonderful book.

    I just discovered your blog and enjoy it very much. Plan to return and to list your link!

  • 4. meli  |  June 1, 2007 at 5:15 pm

    Well, I’ve been warned – and am suitably terrified of Kidman’s nose.
    Ted – it’s interesting that it works to read them in the opposite order too – the sign of a really good book.

  • 5. Dewey  |  June 1, 2007 at 6:39 pm

    I’m in love with this book, and especially, as you say, with how it complements Mrs Dalloway. I’ve gotten frustrated when people read this without having read Mrs D, because I fear they’re missing so much. I’m glad to see Ted saying he read them in opposite order and still enjoyed the experience!

    And while I liked the movie just fine (unusual for me when I’ve loved a book) I agree that Woolf was gorgeous and there was no need to ugly up Kidman to play her.

  • 6. teabird  |  June 2, 2007 at 7:24 pm

    I didn’t mind Miranda Richardson, actually –

  • 7. Bybee  |  June 3, 2007 at 5:25 am

    I was OK with Kidman’s fake nose, but Julianne Moore’s age makeup was dreadful. The director shot her face too close-up — I suppose because the actress was pregnant — and when Moore speaks her lines, the viewer can see the makeup start to crack and flake. Otherwise, I liked the movie.

  • 8. Nymeth  |  June 5, 2007 at 11:15 pm

    I too LOVE this book, and your review is great.

    I actually liked the movie. My expectations weren’t too high (I’m always suspicious of movie adaptations of books I love), so I was pleasantly surprised.

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