The Hours by Michael Cunningham opens with a moving and poignant dramatization of the final hours of author Virginia Wolf, who committed suicide in 1941 on the eve of World War II. Cunningham then introduces his principal character Clarissa Vaughn, who is preparing a party to honor her friend Richard. She is leaving her New York City home to buy flowers:
The vestibule door opens onto a June morning so fine and scrubbed Clarissa pauses at the threshold as she would at the edge of a pool, watching the turquoise water lapping at the tiles, the liquid nets of sun wavering in the blue depths.
Richard and other friends of Clarissa’s youth know her as ‘Mrs. Dalloway’, the main character of Virginia Woolf’s classic novel Mrs. Dalloway.
Woolf introduced her character, Clarissa Dalloway, with similar words to those of Cunningham. It was June in the London suburb of Westminster and Clarissa is leaving her home to go shopping for a party she is giving later in the day:
Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. […] And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning—fresh as if issued to children on a beach.
Woolf established in few words that the June day was fresh while Cunningham describes it as fine and scrubbed and added an extended metaphor. Surely, the modern author is competing with the master.
I like both author’s images for a June day, but Cunningham’s allusion to the pool makes me think of the sad poem by Federico García Lorca, Verde que te quiero verde, where a soldier returns from war to find his lover floating dead in a pool of water. (However, sadness does well describe the overall feeling of either novel; come to think of it.)
After their brilliant introductory sections, each author introduced their supporting cast and created suspense as the day progressed toward the culminating event—the party.
I reread Woolf’s classic while reading The Hours and enjoyed it doubly by noticing the similarities and differences in style and exposition of the two authors. However, for me Cunningham’s is the more engrossing novel. It was easier to read than Woolf’s, perhaps because lesbian and homosexual themes can now be written about openly whereas Woolf clearly had to resort to very careful wording because of the strict English laws of her day.
I followed up the reading by watching a Netflix DVD of the oscar winning movie, The Hours (starring Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf and Meryl Streep as Clarissa Vaughn). The movie has a powerhouse cast playing a powerhouse adaptation of a powerhouse novel. Terrific movie that is quite faithful to the novel.
Day 23: The Hours (Michael Cunningham) (1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 1999 PEN/Faulkner prize).