by Michael Cunningham
Published by Picador USA
226 pages, 2002
Read an excerpt of The Hours.
Better than Film
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
I always do things backwards. Generally speaking, if there's a major motion picture out based on a novel, I'll go see the film first. If it's intriguing and absorbing enough, I feel compelled to read the book. In this case, the gripping and exquisitely sensitive movie version of The Hours is the best thing that ever happened to Michael Cunningham (next to the Pulitzer Prize), for I know I'm not alone in my subsequent lust to read the original.
The cover bears a striking photo of three of the biggest female film stars of our time: Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman. Though Streep seems to dominate, it's the Kidman story (one day in the tortured life of legendary novelist Virginia Woolf) that forms the nucleus for three intertwined narratives of women on a deep search for authenticity and meaning.
You may say: yes, but isn't all literary fiction about the search for meaning? Maybe so, but Cunningham goes so deep here, to the very core of the self with all its mystery and mutable fragility, that it scared me half to death. It was a good kind of scared, a sense of hair-raising awe (and in my copious notes, one of my underlined observations was, "I'll never write again!").
But I will write again, for I simply have to tell you about this book, which made me groan and weep with the happy chagrin of finding a literary treasure. As powerful as the film was in revealing the great paradox of identity (the fragility and strength that can coexist in one being), the novel goes so much deeper, unveiling some raw and shocking revelations about human relationship and manipulation, and the searing truths that burn through the thick fog of subterfuge.
In its bare essence, the novel (at a mere 226 pages) is three books in one: a triptych of parallel stories in different eras, each with a central conflict. In the London suburb of Richmond in 1923, Virginia Woolf struggles to cope with a sense of exile while she writes her classic novel Mrs. Dalloway. In 1949 Los Angeles, Laura Brown strains for an impossible domestic bliss as wife and mother while her soul rages for expression. And Clarissa Vaughan, a middle-aged publisher living in New York at the turn of the millennium, nurses her best friend and sometime lover Richard through the last horrific stages of AIDS.
Shockingly, it opens with a suicide. On a particularly grim day in 1941, Virginia Woolf weights the pockets of her coat with heavy stones and wades into the river. The mental illness she has battled for decades has begun to press into her mind again, crushing her sense of self:
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.
It's a stunning way to begin a novel about the meaning of life, for it seems Woolf has already lost the battle. It starts at the end, in seeming defeat. Why read on? And if someone as brilliant and accomplished as Woolf so doubts her own authenticity, her sense of professional authority, what hope is there for the rest of us? But against all odds, the novel glows with an elusive, heartbreaking hope; illuminating those fugitive moments of joy that gleam like pearls on the string of an ordinary day.
Like Mrs. Dalloway in Woolf's novel, Clarissa Vaughan is buying flowers. "Tonight she will give her party. She will fill the rooms of her apartment with food and flowers, with people of wit and influence. She will shepherd Richard through it, see that he doesn't overtire, and then she will escort him uptown to receive his prize." Richard has always been "Clarissa's most rigorous, infuriating companion, her best friend," and years ago they experienced a brief burst of passion. Today she lives happily with Sally, her companion of 18 years, but in her deepest self she is Richard's, held to him by forces she can barely understand. As he receives a coveted poetry prize which seems to mean little or nothing to him, Clarissa tries to pull him back into the dance, but in vain: "I got a prize for having AIDS and going nuts and being brave about it, it had nothing to do with my work," he insists.
This story alone is compelling enough for a whole novel, but Cunningham presents us with threefold riches as Woolf's ongoing struggle to create vies with Mrs. Brown's sense of suffocation in the glittering hell of a Los Angeles suburb: "She felt the dank sensation around her, the nowhere feeling, and knew it was going to be a difficult day."
Laura escapes mainly through reading, marveling at how an artist like Woolf can turn a phrase:
How, Laura wonders, could someone who was able to write a sentence like that -- who was able to feel everything contained in a sentence like that -- come to kill herself?
Ironically unaware of Woolf's own feelings of fraud at her death, the deeply depressed Laura feels "as if she is standing in the wings, about to go onstage and perform in a play for which she is not appropriately dressed, and for which she has not adequately rehearsed."
Performance, the strain to live up to other people's expectations, haunts this book and the women in it. Artistry and even genius offer no special protection. Both Clarissa and Laura are preparing for a celebration about which they have mixed feelings; Laura bakes a cake for her husband's birthday as her young son looks on, but feels so disappointed with the results that she throws it in the garbage and starts all over again.
A cake, a novel, the perfect party -- these things are all presented as a kind of artifice, an illusion. Is there sufficient meaning in creating occasions to sustain a life? Clarissa (whom Richard has nicknamed Mrs. Dalloway) truly enjoys the incandescent little moments of the day, but secretly agonizes that her life is trivial. Is this why she has attached herself so fiercely to Richard the poet, who surely must realize what truth is?
But there are dynamics in this relationship which are truly shocking. Richard is a master manipulator who rewrites everyone in his life for his own purposes: "It is only after knowing him for some time that you begin to realize you are, to him, an essentially fictional character, one he has invested with nearly limitless capacities for tragedy and comedy not because that is your true nature but because he, Richard, needs to live in a world peopled by extreme and commanding figures." He even writes a novel with Clarissa at its core; she is so dependent on him for a sense of identity that she is practically a figment of his writerly imagination.
This is the arrogance of the author, the Godlike reinventor of reality, but it hardly leads to happiness or fulfillment for the two writers portrayed here, who both battle mental deterioration and a terrible sense of fraud. In fact, the women serving humbler causes -- Clarissa, Laura, Sally -- are the real survivors. Does this mean that art is hollow; the ultimate subterfuge? Why write, if writing does not speak important truths or fulfill the soul?
Ah, but paradox reigns here, for if I could write a single sentence to compare with one of Cunningham's, I think I would die happy. Mrs. Brown faces the void of her day: "Everything she sees feels as if it's pinned to the day the way etherized butterflies are pinned to a board." (That sentence made my eyes prick with tears.) She envies her neighbor Kitty: "She desires her force, her brisk and cheerful disappointment, the shifting pink-gold lights of her secret self and the crisp, shampooed depths of her hair."
Even his smallest phrases stab with poignant beauty: "desire, sharp as a bone chip"; "the penetrating, constant fear that is joy's other half"; "the sly dark glitter of madness." But through it all shines joy, the simple joy Clarissa feels in buying her flowers: "What a thrill, what a shock, to be alive on a morning in June, prosperous, almost scandalously privileged, with a simple errand to run." There is the delicious anticipation Woolf experiences on starting another day of writing: "At this moment there are infinite possibilities, whole hours ahead. Her mind hums. This morning she may penetrate the obfuscation, the clogged pipes, to reach the gold."
The great psychoanalyst Carl Jung once observed, "The gold is in the dark." That statement was never more true than in The Hours, in which hope insists on gleaming in the midst of the soul's blackness. In its study of poses and subterfuge, truth is revealed in all its maddeningly complex glory. The film version, superb as it is, is like a jar of preserves compared to the luscious fruit of the novel. Bite into it, experience and savor it, for it tastes most voluptuously of the truth. | February 2003
Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. Her novel, Better Than Life, will be published in 2003. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.