Saturday, March 17, 2012

Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf

This is a well beloved book, and one where I feel I have to confront the harsh truth that Virginia Woolf is not for me. Don't get me wrong--I admire her writing, and what she set out to do she did accomplish. I am fascinated by her as a person, and by her status as an artist who bridges the Victorian Age and the modern one. She comes from a world that no longer exists, and she was struggling to make her mark on the new order, writing at the same time as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Edith Wharton. She made a huge contribution to the literature of modernism through her own books, her criticism and the Hogarth Press she ran with her husband Leonard. She is entirely absorbing and a major artist.

I want to love her books, and I just don't.

There is a lot of psychology, a great deal of symbolic import, some truly brilliant insights and memorable moments in this book, but for me they are so lost in the flood of words, and the artifice of the internal dialogue. The writing fails to hold my attention, and I'm not sure why. The sentences are long--Henry James-type long, with lots of dependent clauses. She also is committed to staying in the subjective experience of her characters, and so trying to sort out what is "true" and what is "misapprehended" and even what is merely evanescent is such a chore.

The plot, such as it is, is negligible. Clarissa Dalloway is going to have a party, and at the beginning of the book she goes out to buy flowers. She walks across town to the florist and then walks home. She repairs the dress she intends to wear, and an old flame visits her briefly. She invites him to her party.

Meanwhile, Septimus Warren Smith waits with his Italian war bride to visit a Harley Street doctor. Septimus suffers from shell-shock, and he veers from delusion to clarity and back again. His wife is quite unhappy and worried, and she doesn't understand what is wrong--the family physician has told her there is nothing wrong with her husband. The Harley Street specialist recognizes the problem, and insists that the only treatment is to take Septimus away for a very long rest cure. Septimus jumps out his window to escape being taken away, and ends up impaled on a fence.

Richard Dalloway has lunch with a Lady Bruton and another old acquaintance, and buys Clarissa some roses. He goes to visit her while she is resting during the afternoon--she has recently been very ill, and has been sleeping in a separate room in the attic. He wants to tell her "I love you," but can't actually bring himself to say it. Clarissa seems to understand him entirely.

The old flame, Peter, walks around Regent's Park, arguing himself back into and out of love with Clarissa. He had asked her to marry him some twenty years before, or maybe he meant to, but she realized they were ill suited. But now, looking back, she too wonders what might have been. Not that it would change anything.

The Dalloways' daughter Elizabeth is in the emotional clutches of a very odd woman named Miss Kilman, who has political and religious objections to everything about the Dalloways. This is about the only character I have any emotional reaction to: she is so frustrated, so unhappy, so desperately disconnected from other people that I while I did not enjoy her company, she made an impression on me in a way the other characters mostly didn't. The two pompous doctors are also extremely unpleasant, and they too engender a spark of passion in the writing, as if Virginia Woolf was so angry about the behavior of their real life counterparts that that anger came through.

In the end, Septimus kills himself, but he has all along been so harrowed by his own mind that it feels like rather a relief, since it frees his poor wife from having to put up with his misery. Someone mentions this death at Mrs. Dalloway's party, and Clarissa takes the news rather personally for someone she has never met. The message that we are all connected seems implied by her reaction, but it feels rather more like ghoulish fascination with morbidity than a recognition of their common humanity. Especially since the two of them never met, never overlapped, and there is no reason she should respond to this gossipy tid-bit any differently than she responded to the news of men killed in WWI.

I understand that Woolf was trying to invent a new type of writing, which captures the flow of thoughts and feelings while also smoothly moving between the minds of different characters in a manner that is downright cinematic. Many of the transitions between characters happens without any particular break in the narrative. In many cases, it is nearly cinematic, where the camera (the eye of the narrator, perhaps) follows one character until he crosses paths with another, and then picks up the story of the new person. I found it somewhat like watching Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, which was filmed in a series of long takes, where the camera moves sinuously around the set, never really blinking, never compressing time.

However, Mrs. Dalloway is just too distant for my taste, too clinical or reportorial. It believably documents the characters' thoughts as they shift and dance, but I never really found myself caring about them at all. Perhaps I cared a bit for poor Septimus, in the moments where he could see the hell that the Harley Street doctor's plan for a rest cure would be, so he jumped out the window and died rather than submit.

I continue to wonder what impact Virginia Woolf has had on literature. Is she beloved, or respected? Is her technique something that outlived her use of it, or is she best viewed as an early pioneer of subject matter (feminism) and technique (stream of consciousness) that has evolved to something entirely different? I find her life fascinating, I have great respect for her writing. I just don't enjoy reading her the way I enjoy some other writers. I am willing to assume that the fault is entirely my own--and so I disappoint myself.

The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver

This is an intellectually interesting book that never quite engages the emotions. While it is unfair to ask for a second We Need To Talk About Kevin, this book needed a little of that novel's passion.

Irina McGovern is a children's book illustrator living in London with her long-term partner Lawrence Trainer, who himself works in a think tank specializing in terrorism. They have a fugal, predictable, comfortable life that isn't bad, exactly, but lacks any crackle of passion. They are not-quite-friends with a more volatile couple, Jude (a children's book author who works with Irina) and her husband Ramsey, a professional snooker player. Lawrence is fascinated by Ramsey's fame, and Jude is desperate to avoid spending Ramsey's birthday alone with him. Out of such dismal circumstances grows a tradition of dinner with Ramsey on his birthday, even after Jude divorces him.

One fateful year, Lawrence is out of the country but he pushes Irina to invite Ramsey to dinner anyway. Initially she is reluctant, having firmly considered him to be Lawrence's friend, and uncertain they would have anything to say to each other. Too much wine, too much weed, and Irina finds herself making a move on Ramsey.

This set up takes too long, because it is only the set up. At this point, Irina's live splits into the world where she kisses Ramsey, and the world where she stays faithful in deed to Lawrence. The book proceeds through parallel chapters, as Irina's life follows the different tracks. As demanded by the nature of a novel, the two different lives are not entirely unrecognizable, and the alternating chapters mirror each other rather than take off entirely.

Which sort of undermines the effectiveness of the conceit. Two different life paths spring from a single decision--but they aren't really all that different. In the life she leads with Lawrence, she remains mostly safe, mostly undramatic. Even when she finally catches Lawrence cheating on her, and learns the affair has been going on for five years, she never really rages. Her emotional life mostly stays within a small range.

The life she lives with Ramsey is more exciting, and she has more experiences, more passion, higher highs and lower lows--but it isn't fundamentally different in its incidents from the life with Lawrence. At the end of five years, in one life she loses Lawrence to his affair, and learns that the "safe" life was never really safe. At the end of five years, she learns Ramsey has spent all his money, and he dies of cancer, leaving her a widow with debts. The last chapter of the book is written so that it applies to either life--again, negating the idea that her life changed based on the decision she made. It didn't, really, make any difference in the not-so-long-run. So did it matter which she chose?

Maybe that's reassuring--that no matter what decisions we make, our lives are going to be roughly the same. Maybe it's an argument that Irina's personality was the same, so her life shaped itself similarly. Like the popcorn that is a daily routine of her life with Lawrence--always the same bowl before dinner, although she changes the spices.

To be completely candid, I didn't read every word of every page of this book. It was a very very long book, and once you caught on to the structure, the process got a bit wearying. In this case, I blame it on the character of Irina, who never really blazes to life. She remains essentially the same, measured and unimpassioned person through both timelines. Other than making that one decision, her life seemed to happen to her, and so she never really grabbed the reins of the book either. Things happened to her, and they happened in slightly different order, or with slightly different emphasis, but they never really seemed very different in either life.

It might make an interesting book to discuss, but I think I would have enjoyed it better if it were shorter and much punchier.